Teachers’ perspective on knowledge building
—How do you begin a KB inquiry? —How do you assess collective understanding? How do you pinpoint the improvement of the understanding in the community? —How do you assess the ideas in Knowledge Forum? —How can you stimulate a powerful knowledge building discourse with young students? —What were the barriers that you had to overcome to become a knowledge building teacher? What are the challenges that you still face now? —What are the main aspects of knowledge building pedagogy that need to be grasp in order to become a knowledge building teacher? —How can teachers support idea generation, idea diversity & idea improvement?—How can we help students to operate as a knowledge-creating community? —What was your most powerful insight as a knowledge building teacher and how did it come to you?
These are all questions that Maria Chuy, Post-doc working at IKIT, asked Zoe Donoahue and Carol Stephenson, teachers at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study (ICS) laboratory school. We’ve broken the interview so that every question is a different video. We hope you find this helpful.
“How do you begin a knowledge building inquiry?” Link to video.
Carol: I start with an idea, and idea that I think is going to grasp the kids’ interest, that’s going to have some way to connect to their life experience so far, which by age 5 is actually a lot bigger than you might imagine, and those ideas can come from anywhere, they come from what’s in the news, they can come from what’s just happening outside, outdoors, it often comes from a group of children that I am working with.
Zoe: I think it would be the same process with Grade One. We really make a point to start with a children’s question, because it help us to see what they are interested in, and what direction we might go in, and as well we start to see what their misconceptions might be. So, once we hear their questions, we ask them: what’s your theory about that? What do you think? What do you know? And by seeing what the children know already, and what they think they know, that help us determine the direction that we are going to go.
Carol: So, and example for that would be, when we started with growing things last year, we started-I was asking the kids what they knew about it and then what they were interested in, and the direction that it really took, was about leaves, was about how, how leaves grow, what their job is, how do they stay attached with trees, how they detach from trees, what difference does it make to the life of a tree, if it has leaves or doesn’t have leaves…
Zoe: And sometimes to I think what really works is trying to find a really big idea, and this would be something I would think of, definitely, so the past couple of years I focus on the big idea cycles and the year before that was communities, so a big idea that can carry us to the whole year, and then starting out this year, we started out with the trees cycle, we also started looking at day and night, and the seasons, so that our whole year has come out of that.
How do you assess collective understanding and how you pinpoint the improvement of the understanding in the community? Link to video.
Carol: I am listening to who is talking, how many of the children are participating, are they participating by just listening, are they participating by only giving information, what they feel is information that they know, have they started to ask questions, what is the quality of the questions, and I think that the discourse itself, elevates as the year goes on, and more and more, every time you have a discussion, you feel it building in this early years, you see the children begin to listed to each other, so at the beginning, I am this fulcrum and every time a child speaks, they are speaking to me, and then I throw it back to the kids, I often will just reiterated, actually literally repeat what the child just said, often without even rephrasing it, I just literally repeat what they said and then another child speaks and it just keeps bouncing back and forth, and then as we go thru the year, their ability to have a discourse with less and less mediation from an adult, I think is one of the things that we can really see happening, their ability to hear, and respond and reflect upon what the other children are saying, and then to really build on what the other children are saying, so, partly is about assessing their ability to have that kind of conversation, and part of it is about assessing their understanding. And that I think really comes thru, in simply, what they are saying and what they are asking.
Zoe: I think in grade 1, after all this work in kindergarten, what I noticed with the children is they –I don’t need to be the person they are going back and forth as much, that we sit in a circle and they are really expected to listen to each other, and they start, just naturally use the language of knowledge building that we might want to teach them, but you don’t need to because they automatically start saying “I’d like to add on to what so and so is saying” and “I like to build on to so and so” and I find that in grade one they are really starting to listen and sometimes is even just saying the same idea again and again, and that’s just fine, and it happens a lot in the database too, they need to say the same idea in their own way. So, it’s not enough to say “Oh, we already have that”, they need to do it themselves, they need to say it, but I feel the same, that the quality of our discourse, the kinds of questions they ask, they way they are able to express a theory, and then how those theories change and improve, because, we are reading, we are doing experiments, we are going on a field trip, we are observing, we are working in our labs, all those things, help the children to improve their theories, so we are hoping that discourse is not looking the same just day after day, that they are starting the weave in the threads of all the things we do with them, and often because it’s collective, the best ideas are accessible to everybody, so everybody gets to hear the child who’s had that spark.
How do you assess the ideas in Knowledge Forum? Link to video.
Zoe: Well just reading, I got one each night after the children work, and I read, I read what they’ve written and that helps me to see what I might do the next day, whether it might be I need to read something to them because they seem very interested in that, or this misconception is persisting, maybe we should look into that, or an experiment might be good, so, what they do in our discourse in knowledge building talks and on the database, it helps us to plan the next day, because it’s that kind of leading from behind because are always pushing along, from what the children do, and I think it’s a really exciting way to teach because you don’t know what you are doing tomorrow until today has happened, and I think it’s very authentic for the children because they are not thinking, and it’s true, we don’t know what’s going to happen, so it doesn’t feel to them like it is unfolding the way
Carol: we have already planned to do…
Zoe: it’s more authentic learning, and it’s just so amazing where you go, places you never thought you would, as Carol saying, even when you have different classes, and you do something similar, it never ends up the same
Carol: it goes in a different direction
Zoe: which makes teaching so rewarding
How can you stimulate a powerful knowledge building discourse with young students? Link to video.
Carol: I think we need to model genuine curiosity, which is easy, because it is new every time we do it, but when we come with the question, I am so fascinating with what the children are going to say. I’m not acting, I’m not pretending that I am interested in what they have to say, I really wanna hear that, and that’s always our role, I think in the classroom, is to be modeling respect for the other children, modeling interest in what they have to say, and when we show them that their ideas are valued, then they get that “ideas” are valued. So, they feel like they themselves, mean something to us, but also beyond that, in a different, more intellectual round, we are interested in what they are thinking and what they have to say, and just that energy that comes from that, really listening, starts, starts the conversation going. Because kids want to give you that. They want to tell you.
So, when we were studying bees, for example in my class a few years ago, and I was doing one of this drawings, draw me what you know about bees now, and this child was doing this extraordinary drawing and as he was putting in the stripes, he said: “Why do bees have stripes?”, and what a great question to bring back to the class. It was an amazing discussion that came from that… about camouflage, and about pretend you are poisonous, or being poisonous, it was fascinating.
Zoe: And I think also the kids learn that we really, we do want to know what they are thinking, but also that we are not looking for a certain answer, or the right answer. It’s so important, so the children, even when they come to me, they have that already, that idea that I can say what my theory is, and it’s ok, whatever it is, and that cultural respect that nobody would say, “oh, that’s wrong”, or even body language, rolling your eyes, or smirking because someone says something that isn’t correct. And we find, certainly in grade one, I don’t get that at all, because of what they had before, so, the children are really comfortable putting forth their theories, and I think it’s just so important that they know they are heard, because I think that what Carol is saying is that so often, like how many times in your day do you really have a time when you feel you are really being heard? That the world is stopping for you, to say what you think, and everybody is listening? That’s a pretty amazing thing and when children know that this class values thinking and ideas, and the day isn’t just a series of jobs, or activities, to be done, so that you can do the next, I think that’s a huge thing to tell children about what school is,
Carol: and it’s inspiring!
Zoe: It is inspiring and it’s exciting and I think that the collective part to that again, when the kids are learning together, and improving their knowledge together, they just feel so empowered, and I see it all the time, when they come to me, they talked about what they’ve learned before. Like that’s still part of their collectivism, “Oh in kindergarten we learned that”, it’s amazing, to see a group of children posses collective knowledge and to be able to build on that.
Carol: and what you were saying about feeling safe in that environment, I think that, and inquiry without that culture of risk taking, doesn’t really work. So, we are taking risks all the time as teachers, because we don’t know what’s going to come next, we don’t know what the end of that conversation is going to be like, so we don’t know what the next step is going to be for us, and the kids have to feel that risk taking is safe, and welcome, and it’s encouraged, so, that’s the other part of the discourse that I think it’s absolutely right.
What were the barriers that you had to overcome to become a knowledge building teacher? What are the challenges that you still face now? Link to video.
Carol: I think for me, and I think for a lot of young teachers who are trying inquiry, I think that one of the first things you have to let go of, is being the authority. I mean obviously, we have a position in the classroom, and we have a role in the class, that means that the children have to feel safe, knowing that we are in charge, but in an inquiry, we are not the person who has all the answers, and that, I think for a lot of people is a big step to get over. No, you don’t have to have the answers, in fact is so much more interesting when you don’t have the answers, and been able to say, “I don’t know”. “I don’t know – what do you think?” and have to be genuine, and just embrace it, because I mean, kids are in this situation all the time. They need to know that we are in that situation too, but I think it’s very difficult, particularly when you are a new teacher perhaps, and when you are inexperienced, you want to feel like you are in control of everything, and you so aren’t in control of everything when you are really in an inquiry environment. You are stepping back and letting things happen. And it’s exciting, I mean that’s where so much of the energy comes from is that not knowing, and the curiosity that then drives you forward.
Zoe: I think another barrier that’s challenging is that as you are planning day to day, you often have to come up with more than one plan, so that you have a couple of ideas of what you are going to do, and maybe when you sit down, that’s the moment you make the decision about what to do, or you start on one thing and then it doesn’t go very far, but you’ve got something else, so, it’s that idea of really being open and it’s not not having a plan, it’s actually the opposite that each day you might have several plans in mind, and you might go in these different direction.
What are the main aspects of knowledge building pedagogy that need to be grasp in order to become a knowledge building teacher? Link to video.
Carol: For me is “Idea Improvement”. And I think that that’s about the teaching as well. I think the most important thing for any teacher coming to this new is: we are going to get better at it, every time we do it, we are going to get better, at how we present things to the children, how we respond to what they are doing, and you just have to know. It’s not necessarily going to be perfect the first time, but it’s never perfect! I mean, I’ve been doing this for years, certainly over a decade any way, and do I feel like I am a great knowledge building teacher? No! do I want to be one? yes! And I think every year I get better at it, every year, I learn more about it, and I think that’s very freeing, just go with it, just try it, if it works, wonderful, if it doesn’t shuck it, try something else, you can’t, you can’t fail at it, because the trying in itself is embedded in the pedagogy, and we are showing that to the kids, so, I think for me that’s the first thing, just try it. And you’ll improve as you do with anything.
Zoe: I think a really important pedagogical consideration is just that it needs to be collective learning. And I think that’s a big difference from certainly the way that I would’ve been when I started teaching, where children would do individual research, will produce an individual project, which will be giving to me, maybe share it in some way at the end with classmates, but the difference here is that everybody is learning together, and that the best ideas are available to everybody all the time, is really important, so is not that holding your knowledge, but is rather giving it, and I think knowledge building discourse, just starting of by putting the children in a circle, sitting in the circle with the children not above them, or with everybody facing you, the circle to me is critical, and having the children talk to each other and learning the way that children need to talk, to listen, to respect each others ideas, and that takes time, but I think that if that’s, it needs to be infuse everywhere, is not just during your knowledge building time, but you need to always be having children listen and respect whether it is your math class, or you are talking about the book you just read, or just in their day to day conversation, so, it’s so much bigger, and then just the inquiry part of the day.
How can teachers support idea generation, idea diversity & idea improvement? Link to video.
Zoe: Well I think the diversity comes out in discussion where all children have a chance to say something and there is lots of time to talk, it’s not just the first children who have an idea who are able to say that, and also allowing for other ways for the children to express some understanding, like a drawing, as they are older on the database, where the child who is maybe quiet has a chance to write, whether one who doesn’t like to write so much can talk, or somebody can draw, so, you are just allowing for lots of different venues for the ideas to come out, and then, from there, as a teacher, you are looking at those ideas and thinking how can they be improve those ideas, what can we do, are we going to read books, go on a trip, do experiments, how are we going to work with those ideas to improve them, and then, I think the children need to be aware that this is the process, I think we need to be really explicit to the kids that we are trying to improve our ideas and here is what we used to think and here is what you used to think and what do you think now?
Carol:We are really allowing different ways of expressing even their ideas within that circle to come out without judgment. As if it’s being good or bad. And that allow so many different experiences to be brought forward. So what you end up hearing is the child who is really fact face who is one of those kids who collects a lot of information, they start presenting that information in a way that the other kids can hear, but somebody else might have a much more abstract way of looking at the world and at first it might be quite illogical sounding, what they are saying but in fact, they are getting to the heart of it in a different way.
Zoe: and then often I find what happens is the children go home, and because the work we are doing at school is so important and so authentic to them, they go home and they talk to their parents, and they bring things in from home, they talk about it at the dinner table, they bring a book that they got on their own library at home, and they come in and talk about, “well, my mom told me” or “my dad” or “my big brother” and it’s really amazing to see how they enrich what we do, just thru their own lives, and bring that back into the classroom. So, that also increases our idea diversity, when the knowledge building is pervasive, not just in the classroom.
Carol: and I think, finally, we don’t have tests. So, we don’t have twenty questions, that we are going to check off as correct or incorrect. And I think that as soon as you present a child with that, you are closing something down. You are saying you either know it or you don’t know it and here is the end proof. Here is the product that we are boxing and moving it away and now moving on.
And then for me, I’ll just say that, I have become more and more and advocate of giving kids the opportunity to make something where they can apply their understanding, and then do it again, and do it again if you have time, and do it again so that they can see a growing body of artifacts almost, that also show that they are getting better at something, that they understand something more deeply, and when you understand something more deeply, it can really affect change in something finite.
Zoe: I think just the idea of life long learning and that an idea that they’ve been working with in class, even if move along, it can remain and interest for that child for ever, and I find that as a teacher, that once we’ve been inquiring about something, I’ll notice more of that out in the world, an article in the newspaper will catch my eye, and I am still learning, and we hope that the children will see that too. And I guess also the children see themselves as working just the way real scientist work, so that what they are doing at school, and the way they can work with ideas and improve them is what scientists actually do out in the field, and that even the most sophisticated scientists, doesn’t know everything about their field, that there is always more to learn, and the kids love it, when Pluto was declare not to be a planet anymore, “all those books are wrong now” and I’ve had so many classes who just loved the idea that “well, this book could be right, but how do they really know?”—and this is just what they understood at the time but maybe if they wrote the book again they would know even more. So, I think this is not just work we are going in school, but this is the way people work in the world with ideas, specially in sciences, it’s really powerful for children and that they can make a contribution
How can we help students to operate as a knowledge-creating community? Link to video.
Carol: I think it’s important not to, not to pretend that they are doing something that they are not. They are very young child, they come into JK, and they are 4 and 5, probably isn’t going to be creating new knowledge for the world, as Zoe says, somebody has already discover that before, but the sense that the world is available to them, that they are constantly things that they can discover for themselves through an experiment, through looking, through observing closely, through taking data, from even watching a bean plant grow, or braking something apart and see what it looks like inside, that there are so many places to gain information and that information can deepen your understanding, not just about that specific topic, but about a broad range of things, and I think giving them opportunities to really apply all of the pieces of knowledge that they are building in many different content, let’s them feel, like they are really participating in a big way, in understanding the world. It’s something that you’ll have to do anyway, but so often we put parameters around what that should look like for them, and I think that in an inquiry classroom what we are trying to do is say, actually they are very few boundaries, around you finding out about the world, look at all the different ways you can do it, you can do it through art, you can do it with math, you can do it through your writing, using your imagination, you can do it by accumulating facts and folk, some kids have done- there are so many different ways they can understand the world and we want to give you all the opportunities to do it. And as they are doing it, their skills are constantly increasing, and although this isn’t your question I am just going to say that some people think that when you take all of this time in an inquiry, whether you are experimenting or you are looking and drawing, that we might be missing on some of the academic pieces, but in reality, the kids are so much more eager to sit down and write, to get out the tape measurement.
Zoe: My grade will to me with books that really are pretty hard for them to read, not way above their reading level, but enough, but they are so interested, they’ll come and they’ll show me the page, and they are working just so hard to read it because they really want to know what the book says.
What was your most powerful insight as a knowledge building teacher and how did it come to you? Link to video.
Carol: So, one for me would be when my first year in SK and the very first day of school I was asking kids to tell me about trees and I was just drawing everything they said on the big board, accumulating all of their ideas, and I child said—you know limbs, leaves, and trunk, and I am just adding them on and then a child said: “lungs”, and I didn’t say NO, thank goodness, I just said: “Where should I put those?”, and she didn’t have an answer to that, and I kept the sheet and very, very lightly in the corner, very lightly, I wrote, lungs… I was not committed to it, deeply, I guess, but at the end of that discussion, I said to the kids: “what.. are we interested to learn more about trees?” and another child said: “well I guess we need to figure out how, if trees have lungs and how they breath?”. And that was it. That took us for over three months. And it was such an incredible learning experience for me about not letting my assumptions or my lack of understanding shut down something that can be incredible rich and important. That was huge for me.
Zoe: I think for me it was, it was allowing children to express their misconceptions, and I don’t think that I would’ve been actively encouraging that before, and don’t think I would’ve ever said, no that’s wrong, but I think just really creating the climate where children feel comfortable articulating those misconceptions and using them as a starting point and just the idea that if we ignore children’s misconceptions it’s at our peril because they won’t let them go if they hold them inside. It’s better to have more so that we can work with them, and also because they are just so interesting, and they always have great thinking behind them, even if they are totally off course, it’s a place for us to go from. So, me coming here the misconception piece was a huge one, and it’s one of the things I enjoy the most, starting hearing what do the children really think.