Lecture presented at the Conference on Reform Initiatives in Teaching and Learning, University of Macau, 28 November 2003

Bringing Classrooms Into the Knowledge Age

Carl Bereiter

The Ontario Institute of the University of Toronto


The world is changing so rapidly that education must start adapting to a new situation even before it has fully adapted to the previous change. To a large extent, education is still designed to fit the needs of a stable, slowly evolving society. Over the course of the 20th century, however, the rate of change speeded up, so that keeping up with social and technological changes became a new challenge for education. Now we are entering a new phase, coming to be known as the “Knowledge Age,” in which the challenge is not only to keep up with changes but to produce them. The differences are sketched in Table 1.


Social Condition


Curriculum Challenge

Long-Term Challenge

Stable society, traditional crafts and professions


Transmitting cultural heritage and foundational skills

Enduring love of learning

Industrial age—accelerating advance of knowledge and technology


Keeping abreast of advances in knowledge and technology

Lifelong readiness to learn and unlearn

Knowledge age—knowledge creation the main productive work


Immersion in a culture of knowledge creation and innovation

Lifelong innovativeness


Table 1. Educational adaptations to different social conditions.


Much of the current talk about educational reform addresses the second row of the table. At the curriculum level there are concerns about computer literacy. The long-term problem of promoting lifelong learning receives wide recognition but remains largely unsolved. However, these are concerns of the late industrial age. Computer and media skills and a readiness to learn new skills are important, but they are far from enough to ensure a nation’s place in a global, knowledge-based economy. That requires a whole different level of competence. It is competence in creative work with ideas, or what we prefer to call “knowledge building.”

In considering the implications of Table 1, it is important to appreciate that the new does not eliminate the old but instead encompasses it. This conception is represented graphically in Figure 1. As learning research has shown (e.g., Ausubel, 1968; Spiro, 1980) the ability to absorb new knowledge depends on prior knowledge. Knowledge building, in turn, requires access to current knowledge. This does not mean, however, that the processes must occur in sequence—cultural transmission first, followed by absorbing new knowledge, and later moving on to knowledge building. That is the traditional approach, but in the most successful knowledge building classrooms, all three go on at the same time and they reinforce each other (Scardamalia, 2002).



Fig. 1. The new does not replace the old but encompasses it.


Preparing students for the Knowledge Age is indeed a new challenge. No one knows for certain what it entails. Educators and researchers need to collaborate and invent together. We need to build the knowledge of how to educate for knowledge building. This is a difficult problem, but the stakes for solving it are high. Nations able to solve the problem will gain a significant economic advantage over those that are still struggling with how to solve the older problems.

Given the uncertainties, it is natural for educators to take a conservative approach, to preserve as much as possible of what has already been accomplished. There are three general strategies for doing this:

1. The Add-On Strategy. Keep the existing curriculum but add to it activities or contents that are believed to be relevant to Knowledge Age needs. Some popular add-ons are project-based learning and training in higher-order thinking skills.

2. Up-Grading. Keep the same subject matter, but enrich it to gain greater depth, collaboration, autonomy, and constructive activity. Many curriculum reform projects, especially in science and mathematics, are of this kind.

3. Changing the Focus. Keep the curriculum intact but shift the focus from tasks and activities to ideas and from learning as the goal to knowledge building as the goal. Learning thus becomes a by-product of the effort to advance the frontiers of knowledge in a community.

All three of these approaches have value, but only the third makes a fundamental change in the classroom culture, turning it into one that truly reflects the nature of a Knowledge Society.

The Nature of Knowledge Building

Knowledge building may be defined as “the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to a community” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2002). To understand how this is different from constructivist learning, collaborative learning, and other concepts that give the appearance of being similar, we first look at knowledge building as it occurs in the out-of-school world of professional knowledge work. This is the kind of work carried on in knowledge-based businesses, in research laboratories, and in the more progresssive professions. Three of its distinctive emphases are the following:

1. Community knowledge—knowledge that is available and useful to others, not just something in one’s own head. It can be knowledge of practical value, such as designs and plans. Or it can be knowledge of epistemic value—knowledge that enables the further advance of knowledge: theories, histories, interpretations, criticisms, proofs and disproofs, problem forumulations and reformulations.

2. Epistemic agency—shared responsibility for success of the whole knowledge building effort. In industrial work, the workers often carry out specific tasks with little idea of or responsibility for the eventual product. I once worked in an automobile plant where my work consisted mainly of moving things from one place to another. I never understood why they needed to be moved or what my job had to do with manufacturing the automobiles, but I trusted that my shop supervisor understood it and that my work was of some value. Successful knowledge building, however, requires that the knowledge builders have a clear sense of overall purpose and that they plan and take personal and collective responsibility for achieving it.

3. Idea improvement. In most “real world” circumstances, isolated ideas are of little value. Value comes from developing an idea into a full-fledged product, process, or theory. That requires sustained improvement both at the level of big ideas and at the level of small details.

Knowledge Building in Education

When knowledge building is carried on in education it has all the same characteristics discussed above. Importantly, it must genuinely possess those characteristics, not some imitation or pretended version of them.

1. Community knowledge. In education the emphasis, naturally, is on knowledge of epistemic value, knowledge that helps the community progress in further knowledge building. That means real theories, arguments, and the like, and real knowledge problems—not puzzle problems or toy tasks. The main goal of knowledge building in schools is building a coherent understanding of the world. This is different from knowledge building as pursued in businesses, where the goal is usually an economic one. It is also different from most scientific and scholarly research, in that it is very wide in scope rather than being restricted to a particular domain. But its essential character is still the same as knowledge building pursued in other environments and for other purposes. Building a coherent understanding of the world means much more than collecting information on topics. It means formulating and solving authentic problems of understanding and seeking information that contributes to solving those problems.

2. Epistemic agency. School work is often more like the factory work I described than like creative knowledge work. Students have specific tasks or products for which they are responsible (solve set problems, write an essay) but they may be unaware of the larger purpose these actions are intended to serve. The teacher plays the same role as the shop supervisor, handling the higher-level responsibilities. Epistemic agency, however, requires that the students take on the higher-level responsibilities for goals, strategy, evaluation, and so on. The teacher is responsible for helping them develop the abilities to exercise epistemic agency effectively. Because education needs to afford all students the opportunity to become competent knowledge builders, it is important to avoid divisions of labor that assign some students ancillary roles that do not actually engage them in work with ideas. That is one of the dangers of project learning, where some members of a team may take on the intellectual work while others are occupied with fetching things, building displays, and so on.

3. Idea improvement. Students are usually good at generating ideas, but working deliberately to improve ideas does not come naturally to them. (Thus, thinking skills training frequently misses the point, concentrating on generating novel ideas and neglecting work on sustained idea improvement.) Probably one of the most valuable kinds of preparation for Knowledge Age life and work is developing strategies and habits of mind conductive to sustained idea improvement. A strategy that is applicable to idea improvement of all sorts is one we call “rise above” (Scardamalia, 2002). Often tinkering with a single idea is not enough. There are different ideas, each of which has strengths and limitations. Instead of opting for one or seeking a compromise, the “rise above” strategy seeks a new idea that combines the strengths of the disparate ideas. Much of the progress in science can be described in terms of “rising above.” Figure 2 is a simplified representation of progress in evolutionary theory.



Fig. 2. A simplified schema of progress in evolutionary theory through “rising above.” The arrows indicate “explains.” Lamark explored adaptation as an explanation of species characteristics, but failed to identify a mechanism of transmission to offspring. Livestock breeders developed ways of modifying species characteristics by selecting breeding stock. Darwin’s theory of natural selection explained both natural adaptation and livestock breeding, but did not identify a mechanism that would explain both natural variations and the transmission of traits. Mendel’s genetic model did this. Present-day evolutionary theory coherently accounts for both of these and thus provides a more unified theory of the evolution of species characteristics. But there continue to be unsolved problems calling for further “rising above.”

An Example of Knowledge Building in an Elementary School Class

In one grade 4 classroom (students about 10 years of age), the students were investigating  light and vision, a required topic for this grade. However, the questions were ones the students raised themselves—things that genuinely puzzled them. For instance, they wondered why you can see through some things and not others. Part of the required learning had to do with color and the fact that the color of an object is due to the light reflected off it. For the students, however, this question raised a number of  deeper questions. One question was “How does the light know which colour to bounce off?” Although the question is expressed in a childish way, it gets to the deep question of what makes different objects have different colors. This led to the further question of whether an object has a color or whether the color is entirely a function of the light shining on it. Is a cherry still red if it is in a perfectly dark room where no light shines on it? One child then came up with an idea that led to an experiment. If plants are green because they reflect green light and absorb all the other colors, then if you kept a plant in a room where only green light shone on it it should not absorb any light at all and so it would wither and die. Having learned that black objects absorb all colors, the question arose of how we can see black things at all if they do not reflect any light. This led further to the question of whether you can see anything in a perfectly dark room. Will your eyes eventually adjust to the darkness so that you can see? And what about cats? Some students thought that cats must emit light because you can see their eyes shining in the dark, while others thought this was impossible. Ultimately this led to the issue of how we are able to see at all. Is it only because light bouncing off objects enters our eyes, or do we have vision separate from that?

What I am trying to show here is that a great deal of creative work with ideas went on just in the raising of questions. All of what the students were expected to learn was touched on in their questions, but much more. The questions, furthermore, did not come out of nowhere. They grew out of the students’ efforts to make coherent sense of one important aspect of the world. Over the ensuing weeks, the students did experiments, consulted textbooks and other information sources, developed more elaborate ideas, and of course encountered further puzzlements and problems. The teacher was active throughout, offering encouragement, occasionally asking probing questions, and especially recognizing and calling attention to good ideas coming from the students.

Of the three characteristics of knowledge building I discussed earlier, the students clearly qualified on the first two. They were constructing community knowledge, combining what they had learned or figured out into a more-or-less coherent explanation of light and vision that all of them could use and build on. Epistemic agency was evident throughout. They pushed ahead collectively, thought about what they were accomplishing and failing to accomplish, undertook experiments on their own initiative, and generally did what responsible creative knowledge workers are expected to do. But what about idea improvement? How much progress did they actually make in advancing their understanding of the subject? A physicist might conclude that their ideas had not advanced very much. Some of them still thought that light was a material substance, although they had begun to worry about it. “It’s not a liquid or solid,” one student remarked. “The closest thing it might be is a gas, but then you can’t inhale it.” “It’s energy,” another says. But then another confuses the issue by calling it “a source of energy.” Further uncertainty is added by a student who remarks that it has molecules. The first students sums up: “It’s so hard to tell what light is because there is nothing in the table of elements that says there is anything like that....  it is like the first thing that came to the universe.”

I think it is fair to call this progress, idea improvement, even though it does not result in a well-grounded conception of the nature of light, or perhaps not a coherent conception at all. But I think it is also fair to say that the students carried their theorizing about as far as it is reasonable to expect ten-year-olds to go, and that they probably ended up with a better understanding than is held by the average university graduate. From an educational standpoint, however, what is most important is that the ideas they developed about light can serve as a take-off point for further progress, which will become possible once they develop better understanding of energy and radiation. And it is also fair to argue that in the process of their knowledge building efforts they were learning how to do creative knowledge work: how to take collective responsibility for creating and improving knowledge of value to a community.`

Becoming a Knowledge Building Teacher

Because knowledge building entails a change in focus, not merely an addition to the curriculum, there needs to be a considerable change in teachers’ overall approach to their craft. Understanding the concept of knowledge building is absolutely essential. Otherwise knowledge building  is liable to degenerate into a collection of activities used in add-on fashion. Typically, teachers undergo gradual development over several years. Initially the teachers pose the problems, design experiments, collect resources, and manage various aspects of the work. But each year they turn more of this over to the students. (Note that it is not the students who undergo change—they are a different group each year—it is the teacher.) Along with these overt changes in practice, there is a deepening understanding of knowledge building and knowledge building principles as these are more fully put into practice.

We do not recommend giving teachers preplanned activities to get started, expecting that later they will move toward knowledge building. This only locks them into a focus on activities instead of ideas. Instead, teachers should be focusing attention on ideas and idea improvement from the beginning, even if they are not immediately ready to turn much epistemic agency over to the students.

The most successful schools have been those in which the principal and the teachers form a knowledge building community themselves. This means that they follow principles of knowledge building in their own professional development. They create community knowledge, knowledge that is helpful to all of them in pursuing knowledge building. They exercise individual and collective epistemic agency, taking responsibility in this case for the school’s overall effort to implement knowledge building successfully. They study together, making constructive use of published material to advance their understanding of knowledge building. And they sustain idea improvement, especially in striving for higher and higher levels of knowledge building within their respective classrooms.

Is Knowledge Building Realistic in Light of Mandated Curricula and Tests?

All strategies for bringing education into the Knowledge Age run into difficulties with existing requirements. The Add-On strategy is frustrated by the fact that required topics fill the day and there is no time for additional activities. The Upgrading strategy is almost always directed toward greater depth of learning. When too many topics must be covered and too much factual information is called for on tests, it becomes difficult to study anything in much depth. Knowledge building, focusing on problems of understanding, also aims at depth and therefore encounters the same difficulty. Idea improvement, the main dynamic of knowledge building, generally requires even more time, and allowing students to raise and try to solve their own problems of understanding makes it difficult to stay within the boundaries of a set curriculum.

Any full solution to these problems will require top-level changes. There needs to be a reduction in the number of topics to be covered, as is happening in Japan and Singapore. The scoring of tests needs to change so that they are scored for depth of understanding rather than number of facts. These changes will open opportunities for something new, but it is important to give careful consideration to what that “something new” should be. I believe that on virtually all counts, changing the focus to knowledge building is superior to merely adding on activities in the form of projects.

Knowledge building is possible within existing requirements. Teachers in different countries with demanding curricula and tests have shown this. There are no simple strategies, however. There is much need here for sharing strategies and experiences. The Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology (www.ikit.org) and its Knowledge Society Network have been created to provide a means for collective solving of these and other problems in instituting and sustaining knowledge building in education.

It is instructive to look not only at successes but also at instances in which knowledge building was attempted but failed to take hold or to survive. In these instances, it is common for the educators involved to blame circumstances—regulations, poverty, traditional cultural values, and so on. While there is no doubt that surrounding conditions can make it easier or more difficult to foster knowledge building, in every instance that we have examined failure was built into the classroom practices. It was not necessary to look farther afield to discover why things went wrong. The following are some of the most common misdirections:

1. Instead of focusing on ideas and problems, the work focuses on collecting information on topics. Even if the topic is interesting, motivation soon flags. In any case, fact-gathering is not knowledge building. Knowledge building uses facts in order to improve ideas, but fact-gathering separated from idea improvement misses the essence of knowledge building.

2. Discussions consist mainly of sharing opinions and feelings. There may occasionally be disagreements, but there is no collaborative effort to advance beyond initial opinions and feelings. Thus there is no creation of community knowledge.

3. In keeping with traditional classroom practice, everyone does the same thing at the same time. For instance, everyone is required to write a question or to propose a “theory” or to write a comment on another student’s work. Knowledge building  requires building on one another’s work. One should not pose a question that someone else has already raised. One should pose a different question or a revision or elaboration of the previous question or perhaps an explanation of why the previous question is or is not a good one to investigate.

Knowledge Forum® is software designed as a workspace for idea improvement. It provides views, scaffolds, and other supports for this process. When knowledge building is going well, a Knowledge Forum database provides an exciting record of the growth of ideas. Of course the software can be misused, but the misuses are evident. That is why we can usually diagnose what has gone wrong just by examining the database. If the notes consist of miscellaneous gathered information or if they consist of an array of ideas and opinions that lead nowhere or if there is a great deal of redundancy, then it is clear that something quite different from knowledge building is going on. Analytic tools also help to detect trouble. If many notes are unusually long, this suggest students are just copying information from other sources; if notes are unusually short, this suggests simple expressions of opinions and reactions; if there is little reading of other students’ notes and few “build-ons,” this suggests that students are not building on each others’ work, perhaps because time is not being allowed for it.

Knowledge-building can support test performance, as past evaluation research (Scardamalia, et al., 1992) and more recent research by Chan, van Aalst, and Lee (2002) has shown. Even if tests call mainly for factual knowledge and routine problem solving, problems of understanding often mean that students do poorly on these tests. Such problems of understanding will show up during knowledge building and the problems themselves can become objects of knowledge building effort.  


In a Knowledge Society, economic growth, quality of life, and growth of democracy all depend on the capacity of citizens to work creatively with knowledge and ideas. This represents a new challenge for education, and so obviously education must change in some way to meet the challenge. Most education systems around the globe have addressed this challenge through what I have called the Add-On strategy. They have added collaborative project work, individual research activities, or work on thinking and learning skills. Although there is usually some benefit in all of this, the Add-On strategy as a whole is faulty. It is inefficient in terms of time, and it tends to avoid all the difficult problems of the school’s central job, that of helping students develop a coherent understanding of the world. From the standpoint of preparation for life in a Knowledge Society, however, its principal weakness is that it does not give students the experience of living and working in a community organized around the creation of new knowledge. I have argued that in order for students to gain this experience, the focus of schooling needs to change. The same subjects may be studied as before, but the focus is different. It is more like the focus of knowledge creating organizations in the out-of-school world. School work is organized around the production of community knowledge—theories, explanations, analogies, and so on, that are available to the whole class and that are useful in making further advances in knowledge. Students assume both personal and collective epistemic agency—that is, responsibility for making the group’s knowledge building efforts successful and of benefit to all. Sustained idea improvement is a paramount value, a high standard that is the driving force in a Knowledge Society.



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Chan, C., Van Aalst, J.. & Lee, E. (2002). Developing knowledge-building inquiry through knowledge-building portfolios in a Hong Kong classroom. Paper presented at the Symposium ‘Knowledge Building Multicultural Perspectives’ at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, April 1-5, 2002

Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Eds.), Liberal education in a knowledge society (pp. 76-98). Chicago: Open Court.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2002). Knowledge building. In Encyclopedia of education,  New York: Macmillan.

Scardamalia, M., Bereiter, C., Brett, C., Burtis, P. J., Calhoun, C., & Smith Lea, N. (1992). Educational applications of a networked communal database. Interactive Learning Environments, 2(1), 45-71.

Spiro. R.J. (1980). Constructive processes in prose comprehension and recall. In R.J. Spiro, B.C. Bruce, & W.F. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical issues in reading comprehension (pp. 245-278). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.