Finding Theory in Practice: Collaborative Networks for Professional Learning

Mary Lamon, The CSILE Project, Centre for Applied Cognitive Science
Richard Reeve and Bev Caswell, Institute of Child Study Laboratory School
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Session 49.44 Knowledge Building in Diverse Contexts: Challenges for Teaching, Design and Teacher Education, Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, April 1999, Montreal


This paper describes an attempt to create a learning environment where all participants (teachers, researchers, elementary students and pre-service education students) pursued individual learning goals in science; and at the same time participated in a learning community with a shared goal of understanding central concepts. Specifically, we describe a preservice education course co-taught by Lamon, Reeve and Caswell on a knowledge building approach to teaching junior level science. The study represents a third iteration on a knowledge building approach involving overlapping communities of inquiry. As previously, collaboration across sectors was afforded by Knowledge Forumª, a problem-centered collaborative knowledge medium that operates over a computer network. Following Bereiter's call for a new hybrid culture between research and practice cultures, our hypothesis was that dialogue across these sectors would allow all of us to see how a culture of practice contributes to advancing theory and conversely, how theoretical knowledge contributes to classroom practice. Our theoretical perspective derives from Popper's (1962) argument that progress in science grows through conjecture and refutation (World 3) and on Schon's (1987) idea that classroom practice relies on the reflective wisdom of individual teachers (World 2). In our view, advances in understanding what it means to teach for understanding will rely on a continuing dialectic between World 2 and World 3. Results from a portfolio assessment and from database notes suggest that students gained in their understanding of physical science, in their ability to teach science and in their understanding of how to use research to inform their practice.

There are very few issues where scholars, pundits and politicians meet. The belief that the increasing pace of technological change is accelerating social change is one of those issues (TL-NCE, 1995). Clearly, education has a central role to play. We need educational systems that support development of a citizenry able to engage in self directed inquiry in collaboration with others to advance knowledge in the face of continual change.

The kind of school needed is one which functions as a knowledge building community. For the past two decades, Bereiter and Scardamalia and their colleagues have been researching and developing how to create knowledge-building classroom environments (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993; Scardamalia, Bereiter & Lamon, 1994). In the best of these classrooms, we see students taking off with an idea or project that carries them into intellectual realms that even adults find exciting. We see teachers who do not necessarily know all the answers in advance but who do know where to look and who routinely collaborate with their students and with other teachers. The students in these schools approach problems from multiple perspectives, work collaboratively to advance their knowledge and are proud of being in charge of their own learning. They have mastered the key principles that underlie important content areas such as literature, history, science, mathematics and social studies and so are able to go well beyond a mere recitation of facts.

Bereiter and Scardamalia's work builds on advances in cognitive research (Bruer, 1993; McGilly, 1994) and in sociocultural theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) as well as the development of new learning technologies (Scardamalia et al, 1994). Taken together, they offer approaches to learning and instruction that are both practical and effective for creating schools where collaborative knowledge building is the natural and adaptive thing to do (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993; Brown, 1992; Lamon, Secules, Petrosino, Hackett, Bransford, & Goldman, 1996). Despite the need for substantive school improvement and the availability of solid research-based methods, successes are rare and failures are common (Elmore, 1995; Hatch, 1998). Two distinct lines of inquiry suggest that limited opportunities for teachers to engage in sustained learning are a primary reason why schools are failing to meet the challenges of the knowledge age (Bereiter, 1999; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1996; Darling Hammond, 1997) and this is a more critical issue than structural reforms (Elmore, 1997).

Teacher Learning

It has been three decades since Cremin (1965) observed that each era of educational reform has failed because of, "... unwillingness and inability to prepare and retain sufficient numbers of highly skilled teachers who could teach in the manner such reforms demand" (as cited in Darling-Hammond, 1997, p.155).

The past decade has seen many educational reformers continue to point to well developed teachers as the key component if reform efforts are to be effective (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Lieberman, 1995; Goodlad, 1994; Cochran-Smith, 1991; Shulman, 1987). In a recent article Darling Hammond wrote the following, "Those who have worked to improve schools over the past decade have found that every aspect of school reform - the creation of more challenging curriculum, the use of more performance-based assessments, the implementation of decentralized management, the invention of new model schools and programs - depends on highly skilled teachers." (Darling-Hammond, 1997, p. 153). However, as Darling-Hammond goes on to say, "... (teachers) cannot provide the kind of teaching for all students that new reforms demand, not because they do not want to but because they do now know how" (Darling-Hammond, 1997, p. 153). A 1994 review for the Ontario Ministry of Education on innovations in teacher education from 1987 to 1993 affirmed that, "Teacher Education (is) at the core of a broader reform agenda whose mission is to restructure the education system" (Thiessen & Kilcher, 1994, p.1).

Traditional forms of professional development activities often consist of one-shot workshops, distribution of shrink-wrapped curricular materials to use "as is", or lists of objectives and practices to be implemented. All of these activities seem to assume that teachers learn best when they are passive recipients of received wisdom from "experts". This transmission model directly conflicts with the idea that people learn by actively constructing their own knowledge through participation in a learning community. Teachers don't participate in learning communities during most professional development activities or elsewhere and so don't appropriate its practices. Not surprisingly, the research shows that professional development activities produce little lasting change in and across classrooms (Fullan, 1991). In response to the inadequacy of conventional forms of teacher professional development, reformers have begun to look at other approaches. One is the idea of teacher Action Research.

Although there are many definitions of Action Research, this model of teacher development typically engages teachers as reflective researchers of their own practice, usually through the use of reflective journals (Wells, 1994). This approach is opportunistic in that the teacher is the one who identifies the research topic and proceeds with the inquiry. However, as Wells has stated, as an approach to professional development there are three important factors that need to be considered: (1) the larger context of the inquiry is often not fully considered or described, (2) relevant literature, both theoretical and practical, is not read or considered nor is the research written about for a larger audience, and (3) discussion about the research with interested others is not valued by the teacher-researcher (Wells, 1994, p. 27). Without these additional factors Action Research tends to perpetuate the problem of teachers working in isolation.

Theories of Knowledge

In another line of research on beliefs about knowledge in education, Bereiter locates a more systemic reason for the failure of school reform. He argues that instead of advancing our understanding of learning and teaching we are mired between didactic and child-centred theories of schooling because "there are . . . two cultures within the education profession. One is a traditional craft culture and the other is a research culture. There is commerce between them, but each is stultified by the division, a division that does not exist in the more progressive professions." (Bereiter, 1999). Bereiter suggests we need a hybrid culture where the cultures of theory and practice come together to solve common problems that require the knowledge and talents of both (Bereiter, 1999).

At the outset, it may help to clarify what we mean by a hybrid culture by stating what we don't mean. We are not claiming that the solution is to put teachers into the role of researcher nor are we saying that researchers should be co-opted into serving as teacher assistants. Teacher action research is an example of the first. To us, teacher action research is primarily a matter of studying and trying to change specific classroom practices. Although individual teachers may benefit from taking a reflective stance (Schon, 1987) their findings don't contribute to advancing the knowledge of the field and so achievements reside in the culture of practice. On the other hand, it is the proper role of the researcher to try to understand systems (Wong, 1995); helping teachers research their own practice puts the research into the domain of a craft culture and so again doesn't advance knowledge. In our view, a hybrid culture is one where teachers and students pursue their primary goal of learning about the world and where educational researchers pursue their primary goal of understanding cognitive and social processes operating in classrooms. Through dialogue, knowledge advancements made by the classroom community serve to advance the knowledge of the research community and vice versa. Scardamalia has identified this process as one of symmetric knowledge advancement or creating win-win situations (Scardamalia, 1999).

The Role of Discourse

Our focus on the importance of dialogue is deliberate for two reasons. First, our work occurs in the context of a larger community of researchers, teachers and students who are developing and researching classroom environments where the focus is on advancing the community's knowledge. Discourse is central in these classrooms. In support of collaborative knowledge building, Bereiter and Scardamalia and their team created software, Knowledge Forumª, a problem-centered collaborative knowledge medium that operates over a computer network. In the database, students and their teachers can create text and graphic notes, read and build onto each others' notes, and create views to represent different aspects of their collaborative work. It provides the organization for any number of small groups to carry on discussions and debates among themselves and with each other, for students to join in the discussions of whatever group theyÕre interested in, and to realign themselves with other groups as the need arises, and it allows the teacher as well as other students to monitor and contribute to the developing lines of inquiry of each group. The computer system thus provides the organization and support for the complex array of individual and group discussions and development of ideas that constitutes a working knowledge-building community. Assessments of individual students show gains in standardized tests, reading comprehension, and several other measures compared to control classrooms (Scardamalia et al, 1994) even though the classroom goal is to advance the community's understanding. Our work is situated within this broader project and relies on the discourse affordances of the software.

A second reason for focusing on dialogue is that although discourse is not the only way to build knowledge (research, experiments, and reflection are only a few of many other ways to advance understanding) as Popper has argued, discourse is the medium through which knowledge is formed, criticized, and amended. Popper's distinction between Worlds 1, 2 and 3 may make this clearer (1962). World 1 is the world of objects and phenomena including what happens in real classrooms. Individual and even collective efforts to understand objects and phenomena is the work of World 2. "Karl Popper drew a sharp distinction between knowledge as it exists in individual minds ("World 2") and knowledge as an abstraction that (like the economy of a nation or the climate of a classroom) exists above the individual level ("World 3"). He saw the business of science as improving and advancing World 3" (Scardamalia et al, 1994, p. ). Empirical research, although essential, does not directly yield new knowledge; rather, it makes its contribution through being brought as evidence into theoretical or problem-solving discourses. To create a hybrid culture between craft and research cultures requires dialogue between researchers and teachers about all three dimensions: the empirical, the personal and the abstract.

This paper reports a design experiment researching how to create a hybrid culture between craft and research cultures on several levels: between teachers and researchers, between classroom teachers and teacher candidates and between teacher candidates and elementary students. It is a design experiment in that this work represents a third iteration on a knowledge building approach to teacher education (Lamon, Scardamlia, Reeve & Heide, 1997; Reeve & Lamon, 1998).

Our previous work with pre-service teachers (Lamon et al, 1997; Reeve & Lamon, 1998) showed that improvements in both pedagogy and content knowledge can result from teachers' inquiries into their understanding of the curriculum. Critical to this improvement were the various interactions afforded by Knowledge Forumª. Participants in this community of inquiry included pre-service teachers, in-service teachers, educational researchers and domain (physics) experts. As the dialogue progressed, the differing perspectives that each member of the community brought to our discourse shifted us from World 2 goals such as how do I teach the science of flight to World 3 goals such as trying to construct the relation between BernoulliÕs principle and Newton's third law in explaining flight, and finally, how to teach for understanding.

A Common Problem Domain

As Bereiter (1999) has argued, in progressive domains such as medicine, research and practice constantly inform each other. Even though day to day each involves very different work, both the medical researcher and the family physician are working on how to cure cancer or decrease heart attacks. For us, as teachers and researcher, our shared problem domain was how to create a classroom environment where students, children and teacher candidates, could pursue individual learning goals in science and at the same time participate in a learning community with a shared goal of understanding central concepts. In other words, how do you create an environment where students and teachers move between Worlds 1, 2 and 3? Our question for the current research was how to create this kind of environment in a pre-service education course -- a daunting task given the constraints of a 13 week course.


The participants in this study were mentor teachers, Caswell and Reeve, students in Reeve's Grade 5 and 6 classroom at the Institute of Child Study, a researcher, Lamon, and 12 students (11 teacher candidates and one classroom teacher) enrolled in a course on cognitively based approaches to teaching junior level science.

Symmetric Knowledge Advance: Teachers, researchers and curriculum development

We focused on physical science for both the elementary and pre-service students because, as the work on misconceptions shows, most of us don't come away from school with much of an understanding of basic physical principles (Bruer, 1993). Teaching for understanding in this subject area seems to be an unsolved problem for most teachers. As well, the Ontario government recently issued a new science and technology curriculum for Grades one to eight. The document specifies year by year the topics students are to learn in each of five strands. The document tells teachers what to do but doesn't tell them how to do it. These two goals, one coming from research on scientific thinking the other coming from a practical demand for teachers and students formed the backbone of our collaborative curriculum development work.

From this initial plan, and through listening to students questions for a few weeks, Reeve, the classroom teacher, designed the 'umbrella of understanding' shown below. A paper in preparation describes the evolution of the curriculum in this classroom (Reeve, 1999). The remainder of this paper focuses on how the classroom and the curriculum informed our work with pre-service teachers. Throughout we use Knowledge Forumª views and notes taken from the course database to illustrate how participants used software functionality to foster discourse.

Figure 1
An Initial View in a Knowledge Forumª Database of a Grade 5/6 Science
Curriculum Fostering Knowledge Building

Knowledge-building in junior science: Course structure

We co-teach this course for pre-service teachers because we want students to see the interplay between theory and practice that we as classroom teachers and cognitive researchers engage in. We had three inter-related goals for the course. Understanding a subject isn't sufficient for teaching it well but may be necessary. We designed the course so that students would develop a deep understanding of some central concepts in physical science which ten of the 12 adult students felt they did not have. Beyond science learning, we wanted them to develop expertise in how they could create a learning community within their own classrooms when they began their teaching careers. Finally, we wanted to integrate educational research into the course in a way that would help our students become intelligent critics of learning theories.

Each class meeting then consisted of exploring a science dilemma, a discussion of a reading from the research, and Caswell and Reeve's insights about science learning using examples from their own classrooms. Adult students created their own Knowledge Forumª database and had access to the students' classroom Knowledge Forumª database. Early in the course, adult students visited the children's database. Their assignment was to select any views they were interested in and to write a reflection about what they had noticed. One goal was to help them apply what they had learned from the readings (World 3) to what was happening in the classroom (World 2). The following presents examples of students' reflections.

Figure 2
Examples of Teacher Candidates' Reflections on Students' Database Entries

Symmetric Knowledge Advance: Teachers and teacher candidates

As can be seen from notes quoted above, many students had misgivings about the applicability of this knowledge building approach to learning and instruction in real classrooms. We were somewhat taken aback by our adult students' perspectives as Richard's response note shows.

Figure 3
The Classroom Teacher's Response to Teacher Candidates' Interpretations of
Student Work

After some reflection about what students had noticed about the children's database, Richard came up with a classroom invention "the teaching note" as he discusses here.

Figure 4
The Teaching Note

The interaction we have just described seems to us to be one of symmetric knowledge advancement in that the adult students built upon what they had learned from the readings and in class discussions about knowledge-building and applied their understanding to a classroom database. They then had an opportunity to relate theory and practice. Their interpretations of students' notes helped us recognize that although we wanted and had established conditions where children felt free to pose questions and articulate theories, the young students were, for the most part, immersed in World 2 -- their own questions and theories -- and needed to move towards using research to advance the knowledge of the class. At this point, we referred back to Brown and Campione's work on 'jigsawable' curricula (Brown, 1992). The strategy of having students create 'teaching notes' in their database as a resource for their classmates was the result. This episode also shows the strength of our dialogue about Worlds 2 and 3, the classroom and the research literature.

Symmetric Knowledge Advance: Adults and children

A second goal for having adult students visit the children's database was to let them in on what these elementary students were interested in and what they were having trouble understanding. We hoped that this would also be a way in for the adult students to identify what they themselves did and did not know. The following is an example of one student's questions.

Figure 5
A teacher candidate's questions about domain knowledge and teaching

As the example above illustrates, reading the children's questions gave rise to many questions both about concepts like gravity and about how to teach such concepts. Often when people visit Knowledge Forumª databases for the first time we are asked about whether misconceptions spread through the database. Here, our adult students used the children's misconceptions as a starting point for their own investigations. They used their questions to divide themselves into research groups: a gravity group, a forces group, a weather group and an outer space group. In initial notes, several adult students revealed that they too had misconceptions and like the children they struggled to come to a more complete understanding. In the following we present a series of notes taken from an extended discussion about the relation between gravity and mass.

Figure 6
Notes On The Relation Between Mass And Gravity

In the examples provided above, adult students began with initial theories some of which revealed misconceptions or knowledge facets (Bruer, 1993). Through extended research, experiments and dialogue, students came to a much deeper understanding than either they or we had expected, in some cases going beyond qualitative understanding to a quantitative explanation. An analysis of the vocabulary used in the adult student database showed generally that the level of scientific vocabulary in the database increased dramatically. Specifically, the word gravity for example was used more than 500 times in 200 notes all sparked by V's observations of Matthew's (a Grade 5 student) view in his class database.

Symmetric Knowledge Advance: Elementary students and teacher candidates

To build their understanding of physical concepts such as gravity and force through research and experiments each group constructed a research view in the database. This became an important medium for sharing resources and information and as the examples shown above suggest for developing shared understanding. It also became a planning space for developing a benchmark lesson to present to elementary students. Each group found and adapted an experiment illustrating a physical principle. The experiments and lesson plans developed by each group were well thought out and both teacher candidates and elementary students enjoyed and learned from the lessons. Many education courses include a classroom assignment where the teacher candidate tries out a lesson with children and so this was a fairly traditional exercise and one where both teacher candidate and elementary student are expected to learn something. Of note here was that following the classroom lesson, elementary students in the Grade 5/6 classroom were given access to the teacher candidates' database. Although this work is ongoing our preliminary impression is that elementary students are gaining a richer view of how knowledge is constructed by reading the adult students' notes. In one case, a young student read a teacher candidate's reflection about his flight view and this caused a flurry of activity with his fellow view authors to clarify the terms they were using to describe their experiments on lift and thrust using flight simulator software.

In the examples of symmetric knowledge advances we have presented here we have tried to show that cross sector dialogue affords integrating research and practice. Discussing our differing experiences and perspectives (World 2) moves individual ideas into the world of theory and conjecture (World 3) thereby affording progress. If this is the case we should expect to see conceptual change in teacher candidates' theories about teaching, learning and curriculum. In the following section, students' electronic portfolios of understanding are used to infer teacher candidates' conceptual change.

Portfolio Assessment

Recently, constructivist approaches to education have been put forward as one of the significant ideas altering both student learning and staff development (Sparks, 1997). The constructivist theory of learning leads logically to the use of electronic portfolios for both teachers and students. Both electronic and paper portfolios have begun to be used more extensively for assessing student learning (Fogarty, 1996; Lankes, 1995; Wolf, Bixby, Glenn III, & Gardner, 1991). Generally, portfolios provide a change sensitive and comprehensive assessment methodology appropriate for examining a wide range of learning outcomes, including problem-solving, cooperative learning and critical thinking. Portfolios both encourage and enhance the qualities of reflection and independent judgment necessary for students growing up in a complex technical culture. As well, the portfolio approach is a more authentic assessment procedure, tied more closely to classroom-based learning.

A previous investigation using portfolios as a method for assessing CSILE and non-CSILE students' reflections of their learning in writing, mathematics and science (Lamon, Abeyguarnadena, Cohen, Lee & Wasson, 1992) showed that students in CSILE classes were more reflective about their own work and about other students' work than were non-CSILE students. In that study portfolio assessments were based on students' reflections of already completed work and not on the learning process. Most electronic portfolios are static in nature and are used to "document" student development and not to engage and contribute to it (Fogarty, 1996; Lankes, 1995). Interest in implementing portfolios in both in-service and pre-service education has also been growing but as Tellez reports, "...there are very few noteworthy studies on their use" (Tellez, 1996, p. 716). In the course and in the elementary classroom, students constructed portfolios of their growing understanding in science and, for the teacher candidates, portfolios included their reflections on course readings and on learning, teaching and curriculum.

At the beginning of the course and as an introduction to Knowledge Forumª each student was asked to write a note defining what teaching, learning and curriculum meant to him/her personally. As the examples for curriculum shown below illustrate, initially all of the students held traditional and circumscribed views. Note that these definitions contrast with the curriculum that elementary students were engaged in and the learning environment we were trying to foster in the course.

Figure 7
Teacher Candidates' Initial Notes about Curriculum

By the end of the course 10 of the 12 students' conceptions about curriculum had changed quite dramatically. The notes quoted below provide examples.

Figure 8
Teacher Candidates' Final Reflections on Curriculum


Following Bereiter's call for a new hybrid culture between research and practice cultures, the aim of this work was to develop and research on a small scale how to create such a culture. This culture includes teachers, researchers, teacher candidates and elementary students. Our hypothesis was that dialogue across these sectors would allow all of us to see how the culture of practice (World 2) contributes to advancing theory (World 3) and conversely, how theoretical knowledge contributes to classroom practice. In our view, advances in understanding what it means to teach for understanding will rely on a continuing dialectic between World 2 and World 3.

The desire to reform teacher education through the integration of theory and practice is not a new pursuit (Dewey, 1896). Over the past 100 years these reforms have either fallen into one of two categories, changing the large structures of schooling or the specific teaching practices of individual teachers (Elmore et al, 1997; Goodlad, 1994). When arguing for large scale changes these reformers typically point to the need for a renaissance like the Flexner-inspired one that occurred in medical education in the 20's and 30's (Goodlad, 1994, p.28). On this structural level of reform, Goodlad has argued for the development of Centres of Pedagogy where the theory, practice and content learning for teaching candidates will be more aligned around the pursuits of actual teachers (Goodlad, 1994). Bereiter has recently noted, "A convincing effort to modernize teacher education ... should start ... [with] the mission of the college as a whole. It is at this level that the decision would have to be made whether the faculty was to commit itself to the transformation of education into a modern profession. If so, they would need to consider seriously what their contributions could be, where they saw potential for "disciplined progress," given their resources and limitations and what other institutions were doing. We know of few institutions currently trying to do this work.

Other reformers have suggested that the actual practices of teachers, in their respective classrooms, should be the starting point for reforms (Elmore, 1997). This notion of starting in the classroom is captured in the following quote, "Structural problems arise as teachers become aware of the demands that accompany new ways of teaching," (Elmore et al, 1997, p. 241). Elmore and his colleagues go on to state, "...we would say that attention to the problem of providing access to new knowledge and skill for teachers should supersede attention to the problem of how to restructure schools," (ibid).

We would argue that our course is a hybrid of the classroom craft culture and the theory culture that is typically manifest in university courses about curriculum practices. To an extent this course is a structure although it is more in keeping with Goodlad's hopes for the refining of teacher education structures than a reform on the school structures level. However, there is the promise of this initiative moving into the classroom. Students in our course who are now beginning their teaching careers have asked for a Knowledge Forumª database so that they and classmates beyond those enrolled in the course can begin to collaborate with researchers and mentor teachers. Thirty five of the 40 students in the graduating class have joined the new "Connections" database. We take this as a hopeful sign.


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