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Marlene Scardamalia - Learning to Live with Complexity
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Why Knowledge Building?

Darren Sudlow —

The social, economic and political well-being of modern societies will rely on the capacity of their citizens to be able to innovate and work creatively with knowledge across all fields (OECD, 2008).

Complex, global problems (so-called “wicked problems”) such as climate change, economic downturns, and international political upheaval require a citizenry that can thrive in working with complexity and dealing with creative problem-solving. Thomas Homer-Dixon (2000) has argued that the magnitude of global problems is incongruous with society’s capacity to tackle them; he conceptualizes this discrepancy as the “ingenuity gap,” that is, “the critical gap between our need for ideas to solve complex problems and our actual supply of those ideas.” From this perspective, the greatest limitation for solving complex, global problems is society’s capacity to innovate and generate novel solutions and ideas.

Dealing with complexity is not only about solving future problems. It also reflects the here and now.  Facer (2011) conceptualises a future that is not an "inevitability", a "predetermined landscape", but one which we actively shape. Within that context dealing with complexity reflects an aptitude that is vital in building the capacity within our young people to shape their own future. And it not only reflects the needs of today's society, but also how it already functions. Experts are working with increasingly complex problems and incomplete epistemic objects within rapidly emerging and disappearing projects taking place in inter-organizational boundary zones (Engestro ̈m and Blackler 2005). Within this environment, present-day students will be expected to engage in designing, creating, sharing, and manufacturing complex cultural artifacts by capitalizing on versatile collaborative technologies. The focus on knowledge-intensive work is increasingly concerned with the systematic pursuit of novelty and innovation rather than mere transmission or mechanical application of information.

In Education, there is an urgent need to design pedagogical practices, and create new learning opportunities to develop young people’s innovative capacity (Lai, 2014a). Instead of focusing on reproducing knowledge, students must be able to “actively interact with [knowledge]: to understand, critique, manipulate, create, and transform it” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2008, p.39).

The Knowledge Building approach represents an effort to refashion education as a knowledge-creating enterprise—to make it more attuned to the knowledge age (Bereiter and Scardamalia 2006). This requires that students function as epistemic agents—setting goals, monitoring progress, recognizing dead ends, rekindling interest, planning next steps, and so forth (Scardamalia 2002). To exercise such agency, students must continually make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Under similar conditions, mature knowledge creators will assess the promisingness of different topics, directions of inquiry, data sources, hypotheses, and so on. They will judge options not only on the basis of present value but also on the basis of their potential for further development—that is, judge the likelihood that an idea will be productive, decide on next steps, and analyze successes and failures following from their decisions.

The challenge of fostering the appropriate dispositions and aptitudes are fully recognised within the New Zealand Curriculum which sets a vision for young people who “seize the opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies to secure a sustainable social, cultural, economic, and environmental future for our country”, who will develop as“...lifelong learners who are confident, and creative, connected and actively involved” (The New Zealand Curriculum 2007 p.4), to will become “competent thinkers and problem solvers...actively seek, use and create knowledge (p.12). We, therefore, have a moral imperative to explore educational approaches that will foster these dispositions and knowledge. Knowledge Building is an approach that so fully aligns with this intent, that it should become an integral part of the NZ educational context.