Principles, Not Procedures


Dr. Marlene Scardamalia

Dr. Marlene Scardamalia

Scardamalia, M. (2002). Collective cognitive responsibility for the advancement of knowledge. In B. Smith (Ed.), Liberal education in a knowledge society (pp. 67-98). Chicago, IL: Open Court. Get it!


Writing about classroom implementations of reciprocal teaching, an educational approach designed to foster reading for understanding, Ann Brown and Joseph Campione (1996, p. 291) commented:

Too often something called reciprocal teaching is practiced in a way that the principles of learning it was meant to foster are lost, or at best are relegated to a minor position. The surface rituals of questioning, summarizing, and so forth are engaged in rituals divorced from their goal of reading for understanding that they were designed to serve. These “strategies” are sometimes practiced out of context.

Brown and Campione referred to “lethal mutations” and argued that they were very widespread in implementations of innovative approaches in education. They argued that adherence to first principles is necessary for specifying an approach in sufficient detail to:

  • the developers of the approach, so they can refine its design
  • their colleagues, so they can help to clarify and critique the views of the designers
  • teachers and administrators, so they can put the approach into practice

The use of design principles has become an important feature of research and development in the learning sciences.

Knowledge-Building Principles

Scardamalia developed 12 principles of knowledge building. They are based on both theory and the best practices that collaborating teachers have created. Each principle includes two aspects: sociocognitive dynamics and technologocal dynamics. Scardamalia related the technological dynamics to features of Knowledge Forum, but some clearly are present in other technical environments. Knowledge Forum is prototypical of the kind of environment thought necessary for knowledge building.

The following descriptions of the principles are abridged from Scardamalia’s. Readers are referred to the original paper for further details (Scardamalia, 2002, pp. 78-82).

1) Real Ideas, Authentic Problems

Students inquire into problems that arise from efforts to understand the world. Ideas are “as real as things touched and felt.” Use of Knowledge Forum can create a culture for creative work with ideas.

2) Improvable Ideas

All ideas are treated as improvable. Students work to improve the “quality, coherence, and utility of ideas. … Knowledge Forum supports recursion: There is always a higher level, there always is an opportunity to revise.”

3) Idea Diversity

“To understand an idea is to understand the ideas that surround it, including those that stand in contrast to it.” Students who use Knowledge Forum often say that “two heads is better than one.” Idea diversity comes into play when students link notes, bringing different ideas in contact with each other.

4) Rise Above

Knowledge building involves working toward more inclusive principles and higher-level conceptualisation of problems. In Knowledge Forum, rise-above notes and views support “unlimited embedding of ideas in increasingly advanced structures” and “emergent rather than fixed goals”.

5) Epistemic agency

Students set forth their own ideas. They set goals, deal with motivational problems, assessment, and long-range planning. These things are normally left to teachers. Scaffolds in Knowledge Forum help students focus on high-level knowledge processes (e,g, the use of epistemic terms such as “theory” and “fact”).

6) Community Knowledge, Collective Responsibility

Individual students work toward the advancement of knowledge in the community. Contributions to shared goals in the community are valued as much as individual accomplishments. Community membership is defined as “reading and building on the notes of others, ensuring that views are informative and helpful for the community, linking views in ways that demonstrate interrelationships.”

7) Democratising Knowledge

All students contribute to the goals of the community. Diversity does not lead to separations along “knowledge have/have-not lines.” There are multiple ways for students to contribute to Knowledge Forum (e.g., writing notes, linking notes, creating rise-above notes, organising views).

8) Symmetric Knowledge Advancement

Expertise is distributed within and between communities. Symmetric knowledge advancement results from knowledge exchange and from “the fact that to give knowledge is to get knowledge”. Knowledge forum supports virtual visits and the co-construction of views across teams. Symmetry in knowledge work is evident in in the flow and reworking of ideas across views and databases.

9) Pervasive Knowledge Building

Knowledge building is not limited to a class but becomes a disposition through students’ intellectual lives–in school and beyond it. Knowledge Forum is designed to make knowledge building the “guiding force of the community’s mission, not as an add-on.”

10) Constructive Uses of Authoritative Sources

“To know a discipline is to be in touch with the present state and growing edge of knowledge in a field.” This requires knowledge of authoritative sources–and a critical stance toward them. In Knowledge Forum, students are encouraged to contribute information, and reference and build-onto sources. Bibliographies are generated automatically from referenced resources.

11) Knowledge-Building Discourse

The discourse results in more than knowledge sharing. The knowledge itself is refined and transformed in the process. Knowledge Forum supports intertextual and inter-team notes and views and emergent rather than fixed work spaces. Revision, referencing, and annotations encourage students to identify shared problems and gaps in knowledge to advance knowledge beyond what a individual is able to accomplish.

12) Embedded and Transformative Assessment

Assessment is part of the effort to advance knowledge. It is used to evaluate progress and identify problems, and occurs on a day-to-day basis–not a the end of knowledge building. Knowledge Forum and add-on assessment tools can be used be students to assess the nature and quality of their discourse.

Explanation and Implications

These principles provide a set of concepts and vocabulary for thinking about knowledge building. They are used to compare and contrast knowledge building with related approaches, to judge attempts at knowledge building, and to inform the work of students and teachers.

In one sense they are a large set of concepts to keep in focus; in another the set is small and lacks the specificity of the design principles used by some other research communities. For example, a database of design principles includes “features,” which are ways in which higher-level principles can be implemented (similar to procedures). The IKIT community has resisted this approach.

Although most teachers do not teach the knowledge-building principles at the outset, students do over time appropriate them and use them to discuss their knowledge-building efforts. The principles are used as a set–not one at a time. Early in the development of a community we may see evidence of a few principles (e.g., idea diversity, epistemic agency, collective responsibility/community knowledge), but over time the evidence can become stronger and involve more principles (e.g., rise-above).