Scardamalia and Bereiter: Knowledge of and about

“[T]he fundamental task of education is to enculturate youth into this knowledge-creating civilization and to help them find a place in it,” insist Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter in the 2006 article, “Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology.”

Scardamalia and Bereiter, founders of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, have been experimenting with computer networks for collaborative learning since 1986 (see Wikipedia on Knowledge Forum).

In the 2006 article they describe six themes that “underlie a shift from treating students as learners and inquirers to treating them as members of a knowledge building community.”

One theme: Knowledge of versus knowledge about.

Knowledge about sky-diving, for instance, would consist of all the declarative knowledge you can retrieve when prompted to state what you know about sky-diving. Such knowledge could be conveniently and adequately represented in a concept net.

Knowledge of sky-diving, however, implies an ability to do or to participate in the activity of sky-diving. It consists of both procedural knowledge (e.g, knowing how to open a parachute and guide its descent) and declarative knowledge that would be drawn on when engaged in the activity of sky-diving (e.g., knowledge of equipment characteristics and maintenance requirements, rules of particular events). It entails not only knowledge that can be explicitly stated or demonstrated, but also implicit or intuitive knowledge that is not manifested directly but must be inferred (see Bransford et al., this volume). Knowledge of is activated when a need for it is encountered in action. Whereas knowledge about is approximately equivalent to declarative knowledge, knowledge of is a much richer concept than procedural knowledge.

Knowledge about dominates traditional educational practice. It is the stuff of textbooks, curriculum guidelines, subject-matter tests, and typical school “projects” and “research” papers. Knowledge of, by contrast, suffers massive neglect. There is instruction in skills (procedural knowledge), but it is not integrated with understanding in a way that would justify saying “Alexa has a deep knowledge of arithmetic”—or chemistry or the stock market or anything else. Knowledge about is not entirely useless, but its usefulness is limited to situations in which knowledge about something has value independently of skill and understanding. Such situations are largely limited to social small talk, trivia games, quiz shows, and — the one biggy — test taking.

To be useful outside the limited areas in which knowledge about is sufficient, knowledge needs to be organized around problems rather than topics (Bereiter, 1992).

H/t George Siemens’s talk on “Responding to the fragmentation of higher education.”

Leave a Comment