Knowledge construction in networked communities

  • How is knowledge relevant to math or science constructed? How is it possibly generated in these networked communities? Provide examples to illustrate your points.

In the past few weeks, much of the discussion regarding knowledge and STEM education has focused on the construction of knowledge in practical, hands-on environments.  In these cases, the relevant knowledge that the learner constructs is knowledge that helps bridge the user’s understanding of the world and their ability to function and interact with it.  Carraher, Carraher, & Schliemann’s (1985) study of working youngsters in Brazil seemed to corroborate this, with findings that point to the street youth excelling in math problems that had real-life context and using strategies different from the traditional ones they would have learned had they stayed in school.

While this certainly bodes well for the ideas of constructivism, I do feel that this type of or learning is limited to practical knowledge and not to more abstract, higher level concepts.  In Carraher et al.’s study, the youth were able to calculate using strategies they had developed selling fruit on the streets of Brazil including repeated addition (in place of multiplication).  However, further examination showed an inability for the children to solve problems using more tradition school-taught strategies.  This certainly supports the idea that knowledge construction that occurs in the real-world can provide a stronger functional ability with the necessary concepts, despite not building a stronger theoretical ability that lays the groundwork for more abstract and higher level concepts.

Networked communities provide a method of bridging this gap by connecting students with people and places that allow them to ground their knowledge in practical, real-world contexts.  Spicer & Stratford (2001) found that the link between students, experts, and real-world context is something that students saw as necessary for their own learning.  In their study, they set up a “virtual field trip” by using a program called Tidepools that simulated intertidal marine life and their responses to low oxygen environments.  While a survey of the undergraduate students that took part showed a general amicability to the simulation, all the students acknowledged that it could not nor should not replace real-life field trips, not can it replace interactions between students and experts.  Instead, the simulations would be ideal in a supporting role to either pre- or post-field trip as a way to introduce or review the topics.

However, despite knowledge coming from a variety of sources and the learning being spread across all participants, the construction of knowledge needs to be carefully monitored and guided by the teacher.  Moss (2003) noted concerns regarding the difference in knowledge and ability level between students and scientists in global communities.  This difference manifests in the activities that the students participate in which often resembles that which would normally be given to technicians, such as data collecting, and do not experience the full spectrum of scientific research.  His study into students using the JASON project supported this concern, showing that while students did benefit in the short term, their knowledge gains were not maintained at the end of the year.

From one perspective, the results from all three studies suggests that the constructed knowledge is that of functional, working knowledge required for students to be proficient at the tasks required in that environment.  However, care must be taken to ensure that the constructed knowledge is not constricting due to the limited foundational knowledge the students bring to the community.  Ideally, the activities and the community should foster the development of knowledge while still allowing students to take part as peers; a balance is easier said than done.

References

Carraher, T. N., Carraher, D. W., & Schliemann, A. D. (1985). Mathematics in the streets and in schools. British journal of developmental psychology, 3(1), 21-29

Moss, D.M. (2003). A window on science: Exploring the JASON Project and student conceptions of science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 12(1), 21-30

Spicer, J., & Stratford, J. (2001). Student perceptions of a virtual field trip to replace a real field trip. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 17, 345-354

3 comments

  1. Hi Lawrence,

    Indeed, there needs to be a balance between “functional, working knowledge” and “foundational knowledge.” As an educator, I often find it difficult to establish and keep the balance in my classes. To further complicate matters, certain units within a course excel with a specific approach; whereas, others are less inclined. For example, the physics and chemistry units in Science 10 can easily favour practical knowledge, while the earth science and biology units less so. I wonder what the implications are for balance in a course as a whole versus balance within each unit of a course.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Hi Lawrence,

    Thank you for analyses of Brazil street youth and their mathematics skills alongside Jason. Do you see similarities or differences between this finding on contributing to scientific databases: “This difference manifests in the activities that the students participate in which often resembles that which would normally be given to technicians, such as data collecting, and do not experience the full spectrum of scientific research,” and this finding on the different types of problems encountered in the study on street youth: “The youth were able to calculate using strategies they had developed selling fruit on the streets of Brazil including repeated addition (in place of multiplication). However, further examination showed an inability for the children to solve problems using more tradition school-taught strategies?” How can teachers ameloriate this with their activities and assessments from your perspective?

    Thank you for pointing out these aspects of the research on tele and learning math,
    Samia

    1. Hi Samia,

      I see the work that technicians do and the practical abilities of the street youth to be similar, in that they both are apply more foundational levels abilities to completing everyday tasks. At the same time, neither of these tasks extend beyond into the more abstract and conceptual levels of thinking.

      I suppose some would argue that not all students will or want to reach the higher levels of knowledge, and thus would be satisfied to be competent at only the “functional” level. But as a teacher, we also strive to have all of our students challenge their thinking which involves pushing their thinking.

      As you suggest, finding the balance between these is the challenge. I envision a unit plan that progresses from foundational to abstract concepts, starting with practical knowledge and activities and proceeding with guiding questions that helps students dive deeper into conceptual areas of the topic. The balance would not be something that can be tackled in a single lesson or activity.

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