Link to Institutional Objectives


van Aalst, J., & Truong, M. S. (2011). Promoting knowledge-creation discourse in an Asian Primary Five classroom: Results from an inquiry into life cycles. International Journal of Science Education, 33, 487-515. Get it!


One challenge for knowledge building is the limited space that teachers allow for it. A teacher may try it for a unit or two, but rarely allows it to define a course’s or school year’s overall approach. One reason for this is that knowledge building is rarely aligned with current institutional objectives. As a result,  it is very difficult to sustain knowledge building. Our experience working with many teachers reveals the following problems:

  • Teachers implement knowledge building but disregard some systemic requirements. This can occur in a “school within school” approach or when the teacher has an ideological disagreement with official policy. The knowledge building can be good, but students know that knowledge building is not valued in other courses and in their further education.
  • Teacher only implement Knowledge Forum to enrich usual teaching. Students may have greater opportunities to share their ideas and learn from others, but the work they do in Knowledge Forum is not important to their learning program in general, and it  does not involve the deep cognitive processes involved in problem solving and knowledge construction.
  • Teachers implement knowledge building only in one or two units. This approach can lead to promising results, but there is not enough scope to develop them. Understanding of the knowledge-building principles and the possibilities offered by Knowledge Forum remains superficial. Students also know that knowledge building is what they do in projects in a specific course, and is not important to their education in general.

These problems all point to the widely-observed fact that substantial pedagogical change based on new learning models cannot occur one classroom at a time. The nature of the new model and its pedagogical implications needs to be understood at all levels of educational systems (school district, school leadership team, other teachers in the school, parents).

Three Cases

1) Literacy development at an inner city school

Canadian teacher Karen Miller taught Grade 10 English at an inner city school, and connected her first attempt to knowledge building to three general “Prescribed Learning Outcomes” of the British Columbia Ministry of Education:

  1. Comprehend and Respond: Students will be able to develop skills andstrategies to enable them to construct knowledge and critically evaluate what they read and view. They will learn to compose questions  to guide their own learning. They will be called upon to consider more than one point of view, make rational judgments, draw conclusions and defend those conclusions.
  2. Communicate Ideas and Information: Students will understand that communication takes many different formats. Using Knowledge Forum, students will be able to employ a variety of editing strategies to enable them to communicate clearly and effectively.
  3. Self and Society: Students will have the opportunity to collaborate with others to explore a wide variety of ideas in a non-threatening atmosphere. Students “ will interact purposefully, confidently and respectfully….they will demonstrate respect for cultural differences……demonstrate an awareness of the relationship of language to group and community membership.” (p. 76)

Miller evaluated her class’s experience in terms of these prescribed outcomes. In a summary of her implementation she wrote:

Comprehend and Respond: Students were able to develop skills and strategies to enable them to construct knowledge and critically evaluate what they read and viewed. They learned to compose questions to guide their own learning. Students were called upon to consider more than one point of view, make rational judgments, draw conclusions, and defend those conclusions.

While this implementation was only a unit on poetry (i.e., the third problem in the introduction), the teacher and school principal immediately recognised the potential of the approach to improve literacy, an important mission for the school district, and an aspect of the school development plan. At the time, we did not fully grasp the potential of this mechanism for leveraging classroom work on knowledge building. A development plan involves setting improvement objectives and evaluating outcomes in terms of those objectives.

2) Primary Years Program at an international elementary school

Teacher Mya Truong implemented knowledge building in Grade 5 at an international school in Hong Kong following the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program (PYP). Her approach involved two phases:

  • 20 weeks: Exploration of knowledge building in the context of several science topics
  • 9 weeks: Extended inquiry into life cycles
plant view

Plant View

At this school students were used to inquiry-based learning, but it was more linear inquiry based on the 5E model rather than knowledge building.

Students also were used to the need to demonstrate the PYP learner profile, which includes being an inquirer, principled, open-minded, a risk-taker, and reflective.

And, in an East-Asian school, students were used to having a contract designed to keep the learner profile in focus.

One of the things the class did, therefore, is to develop a knowledge-building contract showing how the things in the Learner Profile were addressed by knowledge building. The teacher thought this was necessary because the Learner Profile was a well-established school value (and a core value of the PYP curriculum). This work was necessary to convince the school principal and parents that knowledge building was being used to achieve the school’s advertised mission.

kb contract

Knowledge-building Contract, Table 1 in reference

3) New Secondary School (NSS) curriculum

In 2009 a major curriculum reform was implemented in Hong Kong’s secondary schools. It includes a reduction of the length of secondary school by one year, the introduction of Liberal Studies as a mandatory subject, and emphasis on school-based assessment, inquiry, and use of ICT. Following the previous example, one could map the knowledge-building principles and relevant concepts onto the principles of the curriculum. This is attempted in the following table. In addition to what is shown, one also use specific curriculum features of the subject matter, which for physics education includes Nature of Science and Science-Technology-Society connections.

NSS curriculum (HK)

Rough Fit between KB Principles and NSS Curriculum Principles (HK)

In some respects the fit is good: 9 of the 12 knowledge-building principles are relevant to the curriculum, and to some extent curriculum principles such as learning how to learn and inquiry-based learning, progression, and greater coherence can be addressed by knowledge-building features such as epistemic agency, rise-above, and democratization of knowledge. In fact, focusing on authentic problems and democratization of knowledge seem important bridges to the curriculum, so it seems very important to get these aspects right. The NSS curriculum also reminds us of some boundary conditions. Deep knowledge is important, but not if it is at a significant cost to breadth of knowledge. The NSS is not just for university-bound students and should not be overly academic (smoother articulation). BUT: it is important that collaboration and collective knowledge are absent from the NSS principles.

Explanation and implications

The examples describe three ways one might think about problems with scalability. The first considered knowledge building in terms of its potential to address a school district’s mission to improve literacy. The second example showed how a class’s contract could be used to justify knowledge building as a way to work on the PYP Learner Profile attributes. The third tested knowledge building against the NSS curriculum in Hong Kong. Analyses of these kinds can help to integrate knowledge building with school development plans and larger-scale missions. At the same time, they also expose the limitations of such plans and missions. For example, it is suggested that although the NSS curriculum is stronger in its emphasis on deep learning and addressing equity problems in education, it attempts relatively little regarding collaboration and collective knowledge advancement.