New Metaphors of Learning: Going Beyond "Constructivism "  

In current educational discourse, there is much talk about constructivism.   It is a general slogan that is used to separate "modern" and "advanced" practices of learning and instruction from old-fashioned and "obsolete" practices.  The problem is that this kind of labeling does not help to understand what is going on when people are or are not learning something.  Practically all processes or structures associated with learning may be said to be constructed; this kind of declaration does not get teachers and researchers very far. In practical pedagogical situations, putative  "constructivist" assumptions may also be dangerous and counter-productive if they guide teachers or students to belief that sophisticated knowledge and skills can be attained by relying only on a student's own constructive efforts without teachers’ systematic and deliberate efforts to help all students to adopt cultural knowledge.

We do not think that constructivism would provide a very sophisticated theory of learning. Practically all researchers agree that they represent some sort of constructivism and almost any process associated with learning may, in some sense, be considered as 'constructed'. People who have followed constructivism discussion across the last 20 years know that constructive "theory" of learning, generally, has not at all become more specific or articulated or gained any increased explanatory power or unification. There has not been any progressive problem shift after the 80s but a continuation of a very general and ideologically colored discussion.

It is our impression that approaches that declare themselves to represent constructivism are frequently not only suffering lack of specific theoretical ideas but also rely on methodologies that fail to facilitate investigation of actual processes of creating knowledge. More serious approaches have always something more substantial to say about specific processes of individual or communal processes of learning rather than associate themselves with this kind of theoretically unspecific and fuzzy notion. The problem also is that this kind of general approach does not help teachers to solve serious problems encountered when some students are achieving the level of desired conceptual understanding, or some of them are actively avoiding learning. 

We are trying to go beyond the naive constructivism discussion by engaging in a concrete analysis of processes and activities that are in the background of knowledge construction. If you take your task to be to transform educational practices, it is not sufficient to label phenomena, but provide some new ideas how students' active engagement, meaningful learning and knowledge advancement could be facilitated.  One approach that we are taking is to examine metaphors of learning and their mutual relations; the acquisition metaphor, participation metaphor, and knowledge-creation metaphor. 

Learning as Knowledge Acquisition

The acquisition metaphor represents a view according to which learning is mainly based on a process of developing well-organized structures of knowledge that allow one to selectively attend the relevant aspects of problem situations. By adopting scientific knowledge, an individual goes through conceptual change and replaces structures that emerged in everyday experience, although this process is very difficult and a lot of misconceptions, reported by science educators, may remain.  These knowledge structures incorporate a large body of routines that allow an agent to overcome limitations of his or her cognitive capacities.  

In this view, learning is a matter of individual construction, acquisition, and such outcomes, which are realized in the process of transfer consist in a person's capability to use and apply knowledge in new situations. The acquisition metaphor appears to rely on a 'folk theory' of mind according to which the mind is a container of knowledge, and learning is a process that fills the container, implanting knowledge there (for a recent criticism of the mind-as-a-container metaphor from the point of view of education, see Bereiter (2002).


Learning as Participation

The participation metaphor of learning examines learning as a process of participating in various cultural practices and shared learning activities, a process that structures and shapes cognitive activity in many ways (Anna Sfard, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger). Accordingly, learning is seen as a process of becoming a member of community, learning to communicate and function according to its social norms, and developing a corresponding identity. Cognition and knowing are distributed over both individuals and their environments, and learning is "located" in these relations and networks of distributed activities of participation.  Peripheral participation is a process during which novices gradually adopt experts' silent knowledge, culture of activity, and grow up to be members of that expert culture through participating in experts' practices.

The notion of learning through participation was, however, originally used to characterize educational practices in certain traditional and stable "craft" cultures. Typical for traditional processes of participation is that knowledge is transmitted from one generation to another without substantial and deliberate changes or cultural transformations. Even is participatory processes provide a very important resource of learning, it appears that the fundamental aspects of modern knowledge society, such as emergence of work focused on deliberate knowledge advancement, cannot be described as of process of gradually mastering experts' (traditional) knowledge and skills.

Learning as Knowledge Creation

In order to develop a framework that would help one to understand innovative knowledge communities that are emerging in the knowledge society, it appears to be necessary to go beyond the acquisition and participation dichotomy.  There are several models that posit learning as a process of creating or articulating knowledge rather than just assimilating existing knowledge or participating in existing practices.  Knowledge-creation is a deliberate aspect of Carl Bereiter's knowledge-building approach that conceptualizes processes of deliberately working for advancing shared ideas, i.e., conceptual artifacts.  Knowledge creation may also take place through reflecting on tensions and disturbances embedded in a community's prevailing activity system. This is an approach of the cultural-historical activity theory developed by Yrjo Engestrom and his colleagues.  New collective knowledge emerges when individuals and communities reflect on and expand their learning and/or working activities.

In order ton promote educational change through CSCL, it is important that educators and educational psychologists consider the epistemological foundations of CSCL. These involve theories or models that help to understand the role of different agents  - individuals, communities, and networks -- in knowledge creation, mechanisms of knowledge advancement (e.g., resolving epistemic contradictions or explicating implications of existing knowledge), nature of knowledge (to what extent knowledge is "in the head" or "in the world"), and processes of inquiry (the role of questions and theories) involved. Our aim is to better understand the "epistemological infrastructure" of CSCL and collaborative learning in general. It refers to individual and collective practices of working with knowledge and engaging in inquiries for advancing knowledge that are important in knowledge work.

See our conference paper about this topic ( Paavola, Lipponen & Hakkarainen, 2002: “Epistemological Foundations for CSCL: A Comparison of Three Models of Innovative Knowledge Communities” ).


Progressive Inquiry (PI-Model)

Relying on Kai Hakkarainen's doctoral thesis and other investigations, we at the Centre have developed a pedagogical model of progressive inquiry learning (PI model).  The model is designed to facilitate engagement in an in-depth process of inquiry and expert-like working with knowledge that are essential for productive participation in knowledge society. The model is being implemented, tested and developed in various schools, other educational institutions, and some workplaces.  It relies of cognitive research on educational practices and is closely associated with Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia's knowledge-building approach and Jaakko Hintikka's interrogative model of inquiry. 

Progressive inquiry relies on an idea of facilitating the same kind of good and productive practices of working with knowledge  -- progressive inquiry  -- that characterize scientific research communities in education. By imitating the practices of scientific research communities, students are encouraged to engage in extended processes of question- and explanation-driven inquiry.  Accordingly, an important aspect of progressive inquiry is to guide students in setting up their own research questions and working theories.  In practice, this means that students are making their conceptions public and working together for improving shared ideas and explanations.  It is also essential to constrain emerging ideas by searching for new information.  Participation in progressive inquiry, in the present case, is usually embedded in computer-supported collaborative learning environments that provide sophisticated tools for supporting the inquiry process as well as sharing of knowledge and expertise.

These ideas may be synthesized in a concise framework that describes essential elements of progressive inquiry.

In the following, each aspect of progressive-inquiry model is briefly discussed.

Setting up the Context

  A starting point of the process of inquiry is creating a context for a study project in order to anchor the investigated problems to central conceptual principles of the domain of knowledge in question or to authentic, rich real-world problem situations. The purpose of context-creating is to help the students to learn why the issues in question are important and worthwhile to understand and to encourage their cognitive commitment to solving the problems in question.  It is essential that the topic be sufficiently complex and multifaceted that it can be approached from several viewpoints. In creating or acknowledging the context, the students' interests and earlier questions have an important role.

Presenting Research Problems

An essential aspect of progressive inquiry is to set up questions or problems that guide the process. Without a research question there cannot be a genuine process of inquiry; yet traditional teaching often takes place without any questions whatsoever.  Cognitive goals determine what kinds of questions are generated, and, thereby, guide and regulate the process of inquiry. Questions that arise from students' own need to understand, have a special value in the process of inquiry. Explanation-seeking why and how questions are especially valuable in progressive inquiry; while fact-seeking questions that are not embedded in genuine inquiry tend to produce fragmented pieces of knowledge.  Advancement of understanding often emerges through solving conceptual problems, i.e., problems arising from gaps of knowledge, conflicting theories or unexpected phenomenon.  Although a teacher sets up the general frame of investigation, it is essential to engage students themselves in a process of question generation.

Creating Working Theories

An important aspect of inquiry and a critical condition of developing conceptual understanding is generation of one's own conjectures, hypotheses, theories or interpretations for the phenomena being investigated. Construction of their own hypothesis and conjectures guides students to systematically use their background knowledge, make inferences to extend understanding, and become aware of their intuitive conceptions. Progressive inquiry is aimed at facilitating explication and externalization of these intuitive conceptions (through guiding students, for instance, to write about their ideas) and taking them as the objects of collaborative discussion.

Generation of intuitive explanation before obtaining scientific information makes differences between one's own conceptions and scientific conceptions salient and accessible to the student.  It is essential to critically assess the relative merits of ideas as well as the progress of inquiry within a learning community.

Critical Evaluation

Critical evaluation addresses the need to assess advancement in knowledge-seeking inquiry in a constructive way. Through evaluating whether and how well the working theories explain the chosen problems, the learning community seeks to assess strengths and the weaknesses of different explanations and identify contradictory explanations, gaps of knowledge, and limitations of the power of intuitive explanation. The evaluation helps the community to direct and regulate joint cognitive efforts toward searching new information that will help advance shared understanding.

Searching Deepening Knowledge

The question-driven process of inquiry provides heuristic guidance in the search for new scientific information. Considerable advancement of inquiry cannot be made without obtaining new information either by conducting experiments, collecting data or using literature. Further, large bodies of information cannot be managed without questions that guide and constrain the knowledge-building process and help to structure the accretion of information obtained. By examining one's problem or intuitive theory with the help of new information, the student may become aware of his or her inadequate presuppositions or background assumptions.  Explanatory concepts and theories have a special role in understanding complex problems whether they relate to nature or society.

Developing Deepening Problems

In pragmatic problem-solving situations one has to start generating questions and tentative theories before all necessary information is available.  As a consequence, the process of inquiry often has to start with initially very general and  unspecified questions and preliminary working theories. In spite of weaknesses or limitations, however, these kinds of general questions and working theories often provide significant guidance for inquiry. A critical condition for progress is that a student focus on improving his or her theory by generating more specific questions and searching for new information. The process of inquiry advances through transforming the initial big and unspecified questions into subordinate and, frequently, more specific questions. The student tries to solve the big question through using his or her existing knowledge and new information that provide answers to a series of subordinate questions. The dynamic nature of inquiry is, further, based on the generation of intuitive explanations; obtaining of new scientific information makes new research questions accessible that could not have been anticipated in the beginning of inquiry. By finding answers to subordinate questions, a student approaches step by step toward answering the big initial question.

Distributed Expertise

All aspects of inquiry, such as setting up research questions, searching for new scientific information, constructing of one's own working theories or assessing the explanations generated, are to be shared with other inquirers. Advancement of inquiry can be substantially elicited by relying on socially distributed cognitive resources emerging through social interaction between the learners, and collaborative efforts to advance shared understanding. Through social interaction, contradictions, inconsistencies and limitations of a student's explanations become available because it forces him or her to perceive conceptualizations from different points of view. 

Deep conceptual understanding is also fostered through explaining a problem to other inquirers.  In order to explain one's view to his or her peers, an individual student has to commit him- or herself cognitively to specific ideas, explicate his or her beliefs, as well as organize and reorganize his or her knowledge. Through this kind of process, inadequacies of one's understanding tend to become more salient. Further, there is a growing body of evidence that cognitive diversity and distribution of expertise promote knowledge advancement and cognitive growth. Distribution of cognitive efforts allows the community to be more flexible and achieve better results than would otherwise be possible. Moreover, many studies indicate that groups which consist of members having different but partially overlapping expertise are more effective and innovative than groups with homogeneous expertise.

The progressive inquiry model is a tool that helps teachers to engage their students in expert-like working with knowledge, such as generating and transforming questions, creating working theories and working for advancing their knowledge as well as searching for, and critically processing, available scientific information.  The model is intended to provide a kind of epistemological infrastructure for learning and knowledge building. 

A central aspect of the model is to make ideas and knowledge advancement the focus of teachers’ and students' inquiry.  The progressive inquiry process may easily be integrated with classroom experimentation and practical activities at school or in various fields of inquiry.  Simultaneously, however, we would like to emphasize how important it is for participants to deliberately focus on advancing their ideas and thoughts.

An important aspect of the process is to publish results of students' inquiries so that the results not only serve only their own learning but become more widely available. Networked learning environments provide a collaborative space that allows students to share their ideas and engage in collective advancement of inquiry.  Progressive-inquiry projects may focus on creating various presentations and projects reports, such as posters, artifacts, or oral or multimedia presentations that help the participants to externalize and clarify their ideas.  It is, however, important to remember that a good-looking product does not guarantee that an inquiry process, as such, has been successful.  More important than an external, end result is that a community's ideas have progressed during the project.

The progressive inquiry model is introduced in a Finnish book, Progressive Inquiry: Overcoming Limitations of Human Intelligent Activity (Hakkarainen, Lonka & Lipponen, 1999) as well as in a Finnish teacher guide Information and Communication Technologies at Tools of Progressive Inquiry (Hakkarainen et al., 1999).  We are currently working to produce a more extensive teacher guide both in Finnish and in English.


Knowledge building  

An important aspect of our work is to analyze and facilitate collaborative processes of building and advancing knowledge in educational institutions and workplaces.  Our contention is that productive participation in our knowledge society requires that everyone learn to work productively with knowledge. The object of people's activity whether they are at school or workplaces is more and more symbolic in nature.  Rather than producing physical things, they are working for advancing, elaborating, transmitting or applying ideas.  On the basis of these kinds of considerations, our empirical research on educational institutions and workplaces has been guided by Carl Bereiter's theory of knowledge building.

Carl Bereiter calls a collaborative process of advancing and creating of knowledge, knowledge building. His approach is based on Popper's distinctions between physical reality (World 1), the mental world (World 2) and the cultural world (World 3). Popper's third, cultural world includes man-made thoughts and ideas that are, in a sense, carried by the culture. The world of cultural knowledge involves knowledge acquired in cultural history, such as contents and ideas in science, art and other man-made creations. The world of cultural knowledge is carrying knowledge that provides the basis of the development of human expertise; the accumulation and development of the world of cultural knowledge allows human beings to take on more and more challenging problems to solve. Experts' exceptional performance is based on internalization and adoption of knowledge embedded in the World 3 to use as tools for their own intentional or problem-solving activity. Access to this world is provided through participation in an expert community that carries both cultural knowledge, method and practices needed in applying of this knowledge. According to Bereiter, school learning currently aims only at the changing of mental structures in students, while its primary concern should be to give and supply things that will help and teach a person to use the knowledge enshrined in the knowledge-cultural world and to create new cultural-knowledge.

Bereiter proposed that knowledge work is work focused on conceptual artifacts that increases and creates value of these knowledge objects.  Expert communities produce new knowledge through working on, elaborating, criticizing, and transforming knowledge objects. He argued that expert or research communities work for advancing knowledge embedded in the world of cultural knowledge. This knowledge almost always is given an external form as written text, diagram, model or simulation. His central concept is conceptual artifact: It refers to knowledge objects that are the focus of expert communities and occupy Popper's World 3. Conceptual artifacts are, for instance, thoughts and ideas that could be discussed and shared, such as problems, hypotheses, theories or interpretations. Also various questions with wrong presuppositions and wrong theories are part of the World 3. In the business world, conceptual artifacts may include, for instance, ideas and designs of products developed collaboratively, various kinds of process models or plans for organizational development and change.

Bereiter has emphasized that conceptual artifacts are real things, understanding them is real understanding, and the work that focuses on them is real work. Conceptual artifacts are conceptual in a sense of being abstract and non-material in nature. Rather than helping to do concrete things, such as moving or lifting things, conceptual artifacts help to explain and predict phenomena. They are kinds of thinking tools that help to understand the world. Bereiter argued that conceptual artifacts can be differentiated not only from mental states but also from knowledge embedded in social practices and in concrete tools as emphasized by situated cognition approaches. Knowledge embedded in social practices is frequently called tacit knowledge, explication of which requires a great deal of effort. Through the process of explication, this knowledge may be transformed to conceptual artifacts, and only at this point can knowledge building occur.  Conceptual artifacts, such as theories or designs, have object-like properties that help to make them objects of investigation or shared discussion.

Scardamalia and Bereiter have drawn a theoretically clear distinction between knowledge building and learning. Everyone participates in various learning processes in the course of his or her life, but not all of them engage in knowledge building.  It is characteristic of learning that an agent changes only his or her own epistemic state, whereas knowledge building entails advancement of communal knowledge.  In practice, “knowledge building” refers to those processes through with people engage in coordinated efforts to solve problems and advance their ideas together.  Knowledge-building environments are specifically designed higher-order systems composed of collaborative spaces for building and advancing knowledge. 

We are well aware of complexity of issues involved in talking about knowledge and trying to create the epistemological foundations for education of the future.  Therefore, we researchers in knowledge building are actively engaged in efforts to analyze relations between semantic and practical processes as well as complex and reciprocal relations between individual and collective knowledge advancement.  In many cases, we are literally forced to surpass our frequently too individualistic and psychological presuppositions. For us, this is not a sign of weakness but an indication that we ourselves are engaged in an authentic knowledge-building process.

An in-depth investigation of foundations of knowledge-building approach is available in Bereiter's new book, "Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age" (LEA, 2002),


Collaborative Nature of Learning and Cognitive Growth

Productive participation in the interactive and dynamic knowledge organizations of the future requires well-cultivated collaborative skills from every citizen. It is very important for practicing teachers to deeply understand the socio-cognitive meaning of collaborative learning. Social collaboration is the most important source of human development, not just one "motivating' method among others to support individual learning. Expectations and requirements of a social community create a context for individual cognitive growth and, optimally, also provide necessary socio-emotional and cognitive support.

In the fields of psychology and education, investigators have examined learning as a process of developing expertise. They have generally considered the learner as an "expert" insofar he or she has a rich body of accessible and usable domain knowledge. Abundant evidence from young people's special hobbies suggests that even quite young pupils can develop a high degree of expert knowledge and skill in some particular field. The overall know-how of, for example, young musicians, computer fans or nature-lovers is of course much more restricted than that of a genuine expert. The metaphor of student-as-expert is based on the assumption that an ordinary student can, to a significant extent, adopt some essential features of an expert role, specifically, taking on challenging knowledge-building goals and adopting practices that facilitate high educational achievement and cognitive development.

New pedagogical models as well as technology-based learning environments are emerging that are grounded on distributed expertise and which utilize cognitive diversity.  From the standpoint of collaborative learning and knowledge building, diversity of cognitive styles, heterogeneity of developing competencies, differences in experiences and knowledge, and multiplicity of interests may be strengths rather than weaknesses. Advancement of the whole learning community may be fostered by capitalizing on cognitive diversity through joint problem solving. Social interaction provides new resources for individual cognitive development. Engagement in collaborative activities allows students to imitate each other's good cognitive practices, especially if collaboration is carried out in a CSCL environment that makes some aspects of intellectual activities transparent.

Distributed Expertise, developed by Ann L. Brown and her colleagues, is a pedagogical model that is designed to take advantage of distributed expertise and cognitive diversity characteristic of communities of scientific practice. The approach is focused on adopting the goals, values, beliefs, and forms of discourse characteristic of scientific practice. Conceptual advancement is facilitated by cultivating each student's own expertise. Students engage in a self-regulated and collaborative inquiry and , as a group, are responsible for the task.  They are guided, themselves, to monitor progress of their distributed inquiry.  Social support for deepening inquiry could provide overlapping zones of proximal development in which students can operate at the edge of their competence. By collaborating with their peers and relying on powerful cognitive artifacts participants are able to go beyond their current level of cognitive accomplishment.

Learning is not just a process of knowledge-acquisition but a process of participating in and growing up to a social community, a process of adopting corresponding practices and tools as well as developing one's identity.  On the basis of these kinds of considerations, student-expert partnerships have been created for establishing social structures that enable learners to peripherally participate in expert communities from the very beginning of learning.  Information networks and networked learning environments provide one concrete method of bringing various kinds of authentic expert knowledge to schools as well as a way to build connections between schools and varied kinds of expert cultures and communities.

This kind of networking practices would help a student to adopt an expert-like role and engage in a process of progressive problem solving in a particular domain of knowledge. One of our studies indicated that a large number of the students, most of them males, mastered ICT and were able to take responsibility for many kinds of expert tasks, such as maintenance of ICT at school or coaching their fellow students or teachers. Adoption of an expert's role was closely connected with networking, being in contact with other persons interested in the domain or with professionals. Considering the pedagogical goals of the school, this expert functioning is very positive, and may also significantly facilitate development of other academic skills. The fact that many students who are not experts in ICT were reportedly ready to take on challenging problems indicates that the educational use of ICT may encourage a larger number of students to set themselves more ambitious learning goals.

Collaborative activities, social interaction, participation in social communities and appropriation of socio-culturally developed conceptual tools have a fundamental role in shaping and constituting the development of individual cognition. To meet the challenge of understanding and explaining how cognitive growth takes place, it appears to be necessary to investigate more deeply how communities function and what makes them develop and grow.  By overcoming our often, too individualistic presuppositions, we are struggling to understand that social factors not only influence individuals, but there are reciprocal interaction and co-evolution between individuals and communities. Simultaneously, however, it is important not to reduce individual cognition to social processes because a history of an agent's cognitive socialization always affects on the nature of his or her participation in social communities.

Centre for Research on Networked Learning and Knowledge Building