Effective learning environments are...
Knowledge-centered because the ability to think, reflect, and solve problems is strengthened by access to ideas, assumptions and conceptions of others arranged in meaningful ways. Many teachers work very hard to reach and teach their students. This means continual learning of curriculum content as well as methods of instruction. Yet teachers have little time for this form of professional engagement.
Knowledge-centered learning highlights the important role of the teacher in setting the "course" of learning. Over the past century of curriculum development, discipline-based groups have contributed many effective ways to organize essential skills and knowledge. But knowledge building is not a finished activity in any field. Textbooks reduce multiple perspectives to a simplified consensual viewpoint at a fixed moment in time. These secondary sources present knowledge as non-contested facts with less attention to the community debate, the historical discoveries or analytic reasoning that historians employ to come to their conclusions. In the past, it was not realistic to expect students to find primary sources. The Internet changes the relative value of textbooks. Students, like historians, engage in real research, interviewing people who were involved in historical events, accessing real documents, and using them to understand, draw conclusions, and debate different perspectives. Here are three examples. The first one is a ThinkQuest project and the other two result from a collaboration between South Kingstown High School and Brown University's Scholarly Technology Group. All three of them involve students becoming historians collecting and preserving historical data.
Curriculum research and development was the university's solution to poorly trained teachers. Some researchers overtly sought to design curriculum that could be "teacher proof." The knowledge, they hoped, would be learned directly from the materials. But technology has never replaced the teacher for one simple reason. Teaching is an emergent, interactive constructed activity that requires a complex blend of knowledge of the students and knowledge of the curriculum.
The Internet, like a textbook, is a valuable source of knowledge that can help in the process of making decisions about what and how to teach discipline knowledge. The Web can help provide teachers the structure of discipline knowledge to help them design cognitive roadmaps to organized learning, project ideas for developing students research and thinking skills, and assessment tools to evaluate student achievement. Gateway of Education Materials (Funded by the U.S. Department of Education), ERIC, the Academic Guide to the Internet, the Annenberg/CPB Projects Exhibits, the Math Forum, Marco Polo and the United Nations CyberschoolBus are examples of many sites that archive large databases of informational resources, partners and projects.
Our knowledge is contained not only in what we write but also in the way that we preserve and share what we learn. The Internet brings centuries of discoveries (telescopes, microscopes, transmitters, receptors, recorders, light, camera, sound and action) together in the digital context and makes them available for student and teacher use. Some examples:
The Internet has thousands of opportunities for collaborative projects. With Webcam and video, very young students can watch the behavior of hamsters throughout the day and night. As partners with scientists at the Center for Biological Timing, students' natural curiosity is extended to scientific observations and analysis. Students are invited to "view live images and actual experiment results, analyze real-time data, form hypotheses, suggest variables for new experiments, and share conclusions with other scientists from all over the world." Webcams in birdhouses make it possible for students watch real birds make their nests, lay eggs, hatch chicks, and then feed and protect them until they are ready to take flight.
Elementary students are using electromagnification to examine mouth parts of bugs to understand how animals digest food. They use these sophisticated tools from a distance to see what is invisible to the human eye. The Learn and Live Digital Toolkit describes how a video-conferencing project between a school five miles from the Mexican border and a major University miles away helped students to learn by using the technology to amplify the power of their eyes. The video details a different way of organizing learning using video-conferencing to bring to students intellectual content and tools that are beyond what is available in the classroom.
Middle school students across the nation were collectively awarded time on the Hubble Telescope in 1996 and used the Web to facilitate their project. Scientists were available on live television broadcasts to work with students in selected classrooms. With communication technology, any student or teacher watching the program could send their questions by email or fax during the broadcast. Students read, organized, and then summarized the questions as they were received for immediate feedback from the scientists. This increased the level of participation of the students and provided access to specific expert knowledge as students viewed their data from the telescope.
This is only one of hundreds of electronic field trips; opportunities which take students places they could never reach by bus. Last spring, The Jason Project provided live streaming Internet broadcasts of the JASON XI expedition, originating from NASA's Johnson Space Center and NOAA's Aquarius underwater research lab. (Past adventures can be revisited via on-demand, archived videos on the Internet). For students who cannot make the trip to Washington, D.C., they can tour the White House, visit Congress, and explore the Smithsonian Institution. They can also compare the U.S. government with that of England by a visit to #10 Downing Street in London.
PBS recently sponsored online "time" travel to Williamsburg of the 18th century where students could be part of early congressional debates and vote online. Current online activities, building on the televised program Order in the Court: Juvenile Justice in the 18th Century, deal with colonial justice . Connecting television with net forums, discussions, and online activities makes it possible to create a much richer representation of our history and its relationship to the present and future.
High school students explore the ocean floor with videotapes transmitted from remotely operated vehicles in the Monterey Bay. The Virtual Canyon Project makes it possible for them to see the same primary data that scientists use to do their work. This project links CD research tools with Web Community publishing tools.
University students are using 3-D virtual worlds combined with Web sources and moving representations of participants to create inhabited virtual learning spaces. These representations-avatars-can walk, talk, move, point, jump and teleport to new locations. Virtual universities and high schools are using these new communication and Web tools to provide for the range of experiences, both social and intellectual, that are a vital part of the learning. These virtual worlds can be seamlessly integrated with web pages extending the possibilities for interaction in many domains. Educational conferences have been held online in active worlds. The University of California, Santa Cruz team built a demo high school in Active Worlds as an example of how college preparatory courses could be offered online.
Teachers have access to materials to help augment any subject or concept they want to teach. The California Learning Exchange is one of many sites that is taking advantage of video to demonstrate quality teaching and learning. One video, shared by the Orange County Department of Education, illustrates how to teach pre-algebraic concepts to an elementary ethnically diverse class of students. Knowledge-centered learning does not, as is clear from watching the video clips, mean drill and practice of math facts. Watching a master teacher work with a group of students provides for deep discussions about teaching and learning.
When the network is viewed as curriculum resources, the issue shifts from finding enough information to understanding how to relate different sources of information. Students, as well as teachers, can compare perspectives from different groups and come to terms with intellectual authority.
- Who has the right perspective?
- Whose perspective has been or should be central?
- What are the grounds for making these decisions?
When students (as well as teachers) are building knowledge through working with peers and experts, they encounter the same problems. With multiple sources, they must face and participate in the social process of knowledge building. If one source says that killer whales are really dolphins and another lists them as whales, who is right? If one research project shows students writing test scores increasing when they are engaged in authentic projects with real audiences and another shows that grammar drills led to high scores, which program should a teacher implement? How does one find the "right" answer or know when an answer is believable? What are the ground rules of evidence, inference and theory building.
In the past, multiple sources of information were collected, analyzed and summarized in textbook treatments of issues. The arguments are settled, the central positions are displayed, and the student's (and sometimes the teacher's) role is to accept the authority of the "correct" account. All knowledge is created and it is in the process of creating knowledge that should be a major focus of our classroom learning. When students and teachers are engaged in creating the "shared" understandings, they are learning to be a part of the knowledge society.
The challenge of the knowledge-centered dimension of learning is to balance knowledge construction activities with activities that help students develop the suite of mental tools needed for this task. Basic skill development is an important dimension of knowledge building. When these skills are placed in the larger context of authentic learning tasks, they are acquired more efficiently.