QUESTION: How can we determine what students understand in knowledge building?

"My answer in answering the question: "What does the red spectrum tell us about quasars?" Write bigger. There are various words that need to be defined: what is a spectrum, what is a red one, why is it red, and why is it so frequently linked with quasars? What the hell is a quasar?" Rimmer

Start capturing your thinking about determining what students understand when they learn in knowledge building environments ... [scroll down to the bottom if you want a squizz at what others think, or if you want to add a note about the page edit for the page history log]

The telling question

Do students who experience knowledge building learning environments have an understanding that is deeper, more integrated, more coherent and at a higher level of abstraction than students who learn in “one size fits all” environments?

SOLO Taxonomy

SOLO provides a simple systematic way of describing how a learner's performance grows in complexity when mastering any academic task, (Biggs 1999, p37). It can also be used by educators and students to define curriculum objectives that describe different levels of cognitive stretch and, for evaluating individual and collective student learning outcomes. So with SOLO it is possible to determine the cognitive complexity of individual student understanding and, where to target the differentiation of new learning experiences and interventions that may or may not integrate ICT. (Pam)
I like what you are saying here Pam but how does a teacher who works in a one size fit all environment learn to use SOLO so students can experience knowledge building.(Glenis) [7/09/06]
Suspect that you have been talking to the Magnet, Glenis. She is always claiming "That's all very well Arti', but what is the practical face of all this blithering?" Luckily I have answer - the teacher should plan learning experiences against SOLO - Input experiences [unistructural and multistuctural ] that get students to define, decribe, list, label, identify, follow algorithms and name. Followed by Process experiences [Relational] that get students to sequence, compare contrast, analyse, part whole, causal, formulate questions. Followed by Output learning experiences [Extended abstract] that get students to generalise, evaluate, hypothesise, reflect, create.Kids who show by your pretesting that they don't need a lot of input can fire straight into the process/relational or output/extended abstract activities. We have whole schools working on this planning approach to learning experiences in NZ - and it is totally brill' (Pam) [7/9/06]
This does seem brilliant Pam - if it is, an you assure me it is, why aren't more schools looking at this as a form of differentiating their programmes instead of always talking/using Bloom's - is it that many schools/teachers are unfamiliar with this "Brill" SOLO? (Glenis) (12/09/06).
You must learn to read shameless self promotion Glenis - actually I do like how it helps kids and teachers understand the learning process or at the very least what surface and deep understanding might be. And I don't know why more people aren't looking at it - specially given that it drives AssTLe data in schools (Pam12/9/06)

On heavenly idealistic views

Annelise from the UAE. (6/09/06) Reflecting on my understanding of student understanding and growth of their performance I must admit that I had an heavenly idealistic view. I work in an environment now where students at university level has to battle with a second language as the instruction language. Their mother tongue is Arabic and i can see daily how these girls stretch not only in their understanding of the language but also the understanding content they are working with. Once the language and content connect, you can see sparks, from the eyes and the laughter!
Coming back to the telling question: I would say yes: The majority of my students come from a rote learning environment and those who had schooling in a knowledge building learning environment, tend to be more relaxed when knowledge building activities are expected.
Think this is an important identifier for knowledge building - SPARKS FLY - knowledge building is an exhilarating process and we should sense that exhilaration when we work with kids. The July 22 New Scientist p56 talks about some reseearch by neuroscientists "about why we get a kick out of learning something new" Apparently we are infovores - and the information that triggers the most memories causes the greatet pleasure. Only the basic urges of hunger, harm avoidance, and the need to find a mate can distract us from this info-craving (Bierderman and Vessel American Scientist vol94 p247) Ha - hunger, harm avoidance, and the need to find a mate - explains exactly why we have so much disengagement in secondary schools then Arti' (Pam) [5/9/06]

Please Miss, what's an infovore? (cj 12.9.06)

Apparently humans have an innate hunger for information - hence the tag "infovores" - term "introduced into the scientific lexicon recently by neuroscientists trying to work out why we get a kick out of learning something new - why we have an appetite for knowledge." New Scientist 22 July 2006 p 56 (Pam 11/9/06)

Traumatised by moving from rote learning environments

One of the concerns expressed by NZ teachers about their students making the transition to high school is that their students experience in ICT rich collaborative learning environments in intermediate and primary will make it harder for them to fit the more usual "one size fits all" ict barren secondary pedagogical approach. [and before secondary teachers rush in - will acknowledge the massive generalisation made here] The "are we betraying our kids?" kind of thinking. Will they be traumatised by the immersion in a rote learning environment? Luckily/unluckily kids are fairly resilient and also have minimal expectations about what school might offer them by the time they hit adolescence.
I do think that students can and do exert massive influence to the point of control over the pedagogical style of teaching that goes on in their classrooms. If you are trying to "manage" a class of 30 disengaged adolescents it is tempting to immobilise them infront of an interactive whiteboard or get them to take notes from an OHT screen - rather than set them off on a collaborative adventure in free thinking. (Pam) [5/9/06]

"Will they be traumatised by the immersion in a rote learning environment?" wow - this sounds like University (undergrad at least). Traumatised is a good word. I shall use it from now on. (cK)
You make me laugh cK ... realise that I have made learning sound like one of those "swimming tests" immortalised in Prince Edmund to the Witchsmeller Pursuivant like moments - I've been hearing about your work in Taunton. Imagine that - every single person having an affair with the same duck. BlackAdder (Pam) [6/9/06]

Finding out about prior knowledge

Always start with a prior knowledge 'test' to see if there is a 'hook' to attach new information. Any new organ to be introduced must be compatible in some way. If prior knowledge test doesn't provide an opportunity with language or a shared understanding of some concept, then the new knowledge will not adhere. After the graft has been applied, steroids must be prescribed to ensure successful cohesion.LIN [5/9/06]

I can't resist this:

What students understand:

>>> NOTHING!!!!

All this mentalism stuff... ought to slap a ban on any comments on wot goes on inside the human head for a few decades. (cj 12.9.06)

Argument for the ears

How can we as teachers determine what our students understand?
By listening. Personally I think teachers do far too much talking to listen to their students, and I put my hand up and confess that I talk too much all the time. Teachers are always in a hurry, yet the most important thing we can do to ensure that students do build some sort of knowledge is to give them time to do it. To wait, while they fumble about with their ideas. To stop jumping in the minute there is a pause. To let them dangle over the abyss of uncertainty while they figure out exactly what they do mean.

When you do take the time to sit beside a student and listen to them explain what they are doing, and why, it is quite sobering. I teach the Year 5 and 6 students I work with to make movies, which requires of them a ferocious amount of organisational skill, and the development of a pretty thick skin, as they subject themselves regularly to critical reviews by their peers. If you are going to judge a movie’s effectiveness by the audience response to it, they need to be totally clear about what they intend to communicate, and how they will do it. And the only way they know they have done well, is if the audience says so.

I have watched the children as they tear each other’s illusions to bits, and make constructive suggestions, and make minute points about any little detail that jars, and been quite amazed at the depth of knowledge they have developed. And then in the next minute, I am blown away by a total lack of understanding of something I assumed they undersood ... so although we are building, sometimes we get leaky buildings.

I think the most profound statement on this page is the question “What the hell is a quasar?” (Its short for quasi-stellar object and is a bright thing in a far distaant galaxy - probably stuff spiralling into a big black hole. John D) Ignorance is good. We should have more of it in the teaching profession. Then maybe we’d be better listeners. (Ros)[6/9/06]

Thanks for the quasar update John -Ros will be dead chuffed - she is currently on a camel at the edge of the Gobi Desert, sizzling away in the dry heat (over 30) of Dunhuong and unable to contribite to the wiki - even getting an email out is apparently a task that requires intense communication, collaboration and cognitive stretch. She is obviously still fretting about her astronomical ignorance - her last missive is packed with astronomical musings (Pam22/9/06). For example

  • "Imagine - the sky is bright with stars, and the crescent moon hangs low in the heavens, and we are travelling on camels across the sand dunes towards the east. All you can hear is grumbling noises from the odd camel and a haunting clang and chime of bells around some of the camel's necks. The pace was slow and steady, and as we climbed up the gentle slopes of the lower dunes, their big feet were incredibly surefooted as they walked along the ridges in single file. You could easily imagine you were one of the early travellers along the Silk road, because they had to travel at night - the daytime temperatures in the desert were too hot, even for camels." (Ros email)

A curriculum of questions

Better yet - we could, with a little bit of courage, get away from our Sabre-Tooth curriculum of answers and have a curriculum of questions.... a what the hell is a ...curriculum... odd thing, folk might learn how to ask better questions (aka do research). Now that would be some pretty neat knowledge work. Don';t know if it qualifies as building though. Doncha just love the curriculum of right answers? The rest of the planet as confused as, working with complex, uncertain stuff that oddly enough does not neatly subdivide itself into "disciplines". Naughty undisciplined world!"... but in schools...we have certainty (and discipline(s))! J.A. Peddiwell (1939) The Sabre-Tooth Curriculum, McGraw-Hill, New York. (cj 12.9.06)

Woudn't it be wonderful if if our students could ask questions that didn't shortcut their learning?How often are students guilty of asking research questions that they already know the answer to or that they already know where to readily access the answer from.Lets teach them that this is for life not just for school hours!!!(By Joves)

It would be Joves, it would be. I think that this is the powerful idea in all of these conversations - I can never get away from the sense that if you get the question right and studenst learn how to ask questions then everything else we imagine we want tucks in behind. That Neil Postman thing about - Onceyou have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, youhave learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know. Is why I so like Adam Lefstein and Yoram Harpaz's work in their schools framed on a curriculum of questions in Israel. And Wiske's Teaching for Understanding - the Learning by design stuff. We have certainly seen great learning experiences and student learning develop when students develop questions in response to fertile questions that teachers have struggled to design against a pedagogical design
framework of concepts, skills, controversies and insights and then tweaked against criteria of open>undermining>rich>charged>connected>practical. Happy to connect you with some schools who are doing this in our clusters in Auckland if we catch up at Ulearn or just email me (Pam 21/9/06)

A curriculum of questions or … a curriculum as conversation?
I wonder if the questioning pedagogy goes far enough. What about a curriculum of conversations rather than questions? A knowledge building environment that sees the teacher and more knowledgeable others actively participating and creating understandings as described by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994) has some appeal. Applebee (1996, Curriculum as Conversation) talks about the job of the teacher being to establish conversational domains and fostering relevant conversations within these domains. Rather than actual questions driving the learning process, dissonance, puzzlement, and wonderings become fertile ground for refining and developing understandings and keep the conversations going. These conversations, rather than questions and answers, entail a fair bit of "dangling over the abyss of uncertainty while they figure out exactly what they do mean" - Great words those John! (Alice, 2/10/06)

I don't know how you found out about that Lauren Bacall/ Humphrey Bogart moment in Christchurch - that fabulously uncertain conversation shared teetering on the edge of the balcony on the seventh floor whilst smoking a cigarette - your private investigator is to be commended for unobtrusiveness - a curriculum of conversations would suit me but I suspect it would destroy kids who don't enjoy words spoken or written - unless of course we blow out conversation to include a sense of doing stuff/ making stuff/ moving around in response to a challenge stuff (an increasingly furtive Pam 2/10/2006)

I think maybe I can post this without wiping the whole page this time?! Can you be in a conversation (we might be presumptuous enough to call it a "knowledge building conversation") by being a listener rather than a talker? Perhaps in a precarious teetering on the edge, but nevertheless, legitimately part of the conversation? I take your point Pam about the need to blow out the conversation to include the doing stuff - the best conversations happen when kids are doing things. Often teachers don't know how to join in them and how to surreptitiously stick in a "teaching intervention". (Alice, 3/10/06)

Think listening is overrated in institutions - for obvious reasons - Adam Lefstein answers this in part in his Dialogue in Schools paper p 10 (3) Dialogue before an audience
"An obvious difference between the idealistic acconts of dialogue and actual classroom encounters is that the former are much less populated than the latter. This disparity is especially striking in scholarly articles that report on "classroom" dialogues between the teacher and 2-3 participants (Erikson 1996:31) and in instructional demonstration videos. Where are the other 30+ students? What's happening out of the frame?" As Lefstein observes - if you cannot contribute actively and meaningfully what is really going on ... "For pupils to successfully participate in this performance, they must vie for the floor" (Pam 3/10/2006)