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Strategies for Engagement

Knowledge building and intellectual engagement in participatory learning environments

Intellectual engagement is an absorbing, creatively energized focus resulting in a deep personal commitment to exploration, investigation, problem-solving and inquiry over a sustained period of time. In this article, the authors argue that participatory learning environments with a focus on knowledge building offer clear learning benefits to students and teachers. They describe three inquiry projects that were designed to promote intellectual engagement through knowledge building in participatory learning environments. In each of these projects, socially and digitally connected learners sought out complex issues and problems, worked hard to understand and solve them while collaborating with peers, and engaged with audiences and expertise beyond the classroom. Finally, the authors observe that strong task design and ongoing, continual assessment of the learning taking place were essential to ensuring a rich learner experience.

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Research on how, where, and when people learn has expanded greatly in the past 15 years. Learning is a cultural, social, and ongoing process of inquiry, engagement, and participation in the world around us. People learn best when trying to do things that are challenging and of deep interest to them – activities that reflect a close interplay of emotion and cognition in the development of capacity. Willms, Friesen and Milton have termed this interplay “intellectual engagement.”[1]

In contrast to academic engagement, which describes on-task behaviours such as attentiveness, enthusiasm and questioning, intellectual engagement is an absorbing, creatively energized focus resulting in a deep personal commitment to exploration, investigation, problem-solving, and inquiry, maintained over a sustained period of time.

In this article, we argue that participatory learning environments with a focus on knowledge building offer clear learning benefits to students and teachers. We describe three inquiry projects that were designed to promote intellectual engagement through knowledge building in participatory learning environments. In each of these projects, socially and digitally connected learners sought out complex issues and problems, worked hard to understand and solve them while collaborating with peers, and engaged with audiences and expertise beyond the classroom. Finally, we observe that strong task design and ongoing, continual assessment of the learning taking place were essential to ensuring a rich learner experience.

Why is knowledge building a killer app?

In marketing terms, a killer app is a new game or application that is so desirable or necessary that people will buy the entire hardware system or device just to run it. In education, knowledge building is the killer app for idea improvement and knowledge in community. Knowledge building emphasizes a continual process of building, and extending upon, what is known in the social creation, sharing and improvement of new knowledge.[2] Elsewhere, Friesen has argued that 21st century learning “is better conceived of as ensuring students have the competencies required to fully participate in and make meaningful contributions locally, provincially, nationally, and/or globally, not for someday in the future, but now.”[3] A focus on building and sharing knowledge globally represents a major shift in how we approach teaching and learning.

A focus on knowledge building means that teachers design or co-design tasks that require students to intentionally build upon existing knowledge and to contribute their ideas and original findings to the community. Intentionality means that students who are engaged in knowledge building know they are doing it and that advances in knowledge are purposeful. The idea of community knowledge asserts that while learning is a personal matter, knowledge building is a socially mediated process that is done to improve knowledge itself and to benefit the community. Learners need to work together to build their own and their peers’ knowledge, rather than just mining and memorizing existing information and ideas by themselves.

When learners are given opportunities to build knowledge, the teacher’s role changes from a conveyor of information to a designer who is intentional about the work he or she asks students to do. Teaching changes from preparing one message for a whole class to being mobile and responsive to individual and group learning needs, and to providing ongoing feedback to help all learners continually improve their work.

World as One: knowledge building in action

In the World As One inquiry project, Grade 7 learners worked collaboratively to build knowledge of ecosystems. Learners actively explored whether local light, soil and temperature conditions would support the propagation of fruit seeds harvested from their lunch kits. Collaborative design of science experiments involved identifying growing conditions, manipulating variables, collecting data over time, organizing and analyzing data in spreadsheets, discussing and evaluating findings, documenting results and publishing the outcomes of their research to the community.

Short, teacher-led whole-class lessons were followed by long periods of group work. In 11 small groups, learners carried out experiments, discussed findings, added photos, measurements and observations to an online science journal, and shared strategies, results, and ideas with other classmates. The teacher moved from group to group to provide feedback on the work, to answer questions, to observe and interact with students and to push their thinking further. From time to time, the teacher did mini-lessons based on questions about how to best document plant growth, how to write observations and measure outcomes, or how to form conclusions based on data. Google Docs was the collaborative learning space students used to document and share outcomes of their plant experiments and build upon each other’s ideas.

Each day, the teacher gathered students together as a class to review and discuss outcomes and achievements. During this time, the teacher shared resources, asked groups to share a problem to get feedback and advice, invited student observations, explored next steps, polled the group for ideas, or provided overall feedback on the learning thus far. All instructional materials were posted online so that each group could access the other groups’ work. Each student built knowledge from their own group’s experiment, gained knowledge from the other groups’ experiments, helped to improve and strengthen ideas through peer review and discussion, and contributed to community knowledge by making their learning visible.

 What are participatory learning environments?

Digital and social technologies have changed how people of all ages learn, collaborate, play, socialize, access resources and services, and connect. A participatory classroom is one in which students make choices about what they learn and negotiate how they learn. In a digitally connected environment, they seek out, choose, and play with rich online resources, build ideas, work on projects, and design solutions with local and global peers, and publish creations in local and online spaces. Knowledge sharing and knowledge building is expected, and learners know their contributions matter as they interact and connect online with experts and learners beyond the school, who comment and provide feedback as the students improve their work.

Participatory learning designs require teachers to balance both structure and openness, to offer flexible boundaries that support and guide learners as they undertake meaningful, challenging and complex collaborative inquiries into enduring ideas and complex questions, problems and issues in a discipline. Teachers communicate standards and expectations to structure the work, brainstorm questions and ideas with students, and provide ample space for student voice, creativity and self-direction in choosing, negotiating and managing their collaborative work. Teachers intentionally design and cultivate learning experiences that engage students’ creativity, imaginations and prior knowledge, and also lead students in appropriate digital citizenship practices and strategies.

Millarville Archeology Dig Preparation: amplifying participatory learning

In this student-inspired inquiry project, curious Grade 4 and 5 students wondered about the origin of the rusty nails and shards of pottery their teacher dug up in her garden every spring. How did they get there? Who left them there and why? Along with the students, the classroom teachers designed a project to study the local history of the people and the area, interview long-time residents and historians, do archival research, and map out an area of the schoolyard in which to conduct an authentic archeological dig.

Online and on-site connections were made with experts, including researchers from the University of Calgary, the Archaeological Society of Alberta, and the provincial government. Students learned that a permit is required to run an archaeology site in Alberta and that the Alberta Historical Resources Act serves to protect and preserve archaeological sites and ensure that people excavating these sites have the necessary background to make relevant interpretations of their findings. From a variety of experts, students learned how to use appropriate technologies, tools, and methods for planning the dig and for excavating, documenting, and preserving historical artifacts. Teaching and expertise was distributed so that the most experienced and knowledgeable learners mentored new learners on data collection methods, strategies for digging and screening, and cataloguing artifacts. Students mentored adults who visited to learn more about the students’ work, and received feedback on the quality and importance of their work from peers, teachers, parents, community members, and discipline experts.

Students were involved right from the start in shaping and directing the work and making it their own. Drawing upon diverse interests and skills in the class, learners took on a variety of tasks and served in different roles that moved the project forward, such as marking the site, digging, documenting and interpreting findings, interacting with experts, and taking pictures and making videos. An extensive website was created to document and share this inquiry project beyond the school (www.galileo.org/schools/millarville/archaeology/index.html).

In this Governor General’s Award-winning history project, teachers designed and facilitated intellectually engaging learning experiences in which students explored, created, represented, and re-represented their knowledge as part of a participatory learning collective. Teachers designed a learning experience that developed from the students’ need to know. Learners had a personal stake and interest in the topic and were socially connected to each other and to the world.

The power of play

Play is a critical element in a participatory learning environment. To engage cognition and emotion – two key elements of intellectual engagement – teachers need to explore what is playful about learning, and why play is important to learning. To build knowledge and to be functional in a knowledge society, students and teachers need to explore to the “edges” of ideas, instead of focusing on finding one right answer. Learners need to be able to play with diverse possibilities, play with designs and revisions, and play with different materials and media as they build and invent new ideas/artifacts. Learners need opportunities to be playful in local and global relationships, to role-play and think creatively as regular parts of school experiences. It is through participatory and playful approaches to learning that deep understanding can emerge.

 The Science, Intellectual Complexity and Collaboration Project: playful discovery

In this project, junior high students in three science classes collaboratively built, programmed, and tested a working robot that would meet given specifications.[4] The teacher gave groups a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robotics kit and the following three jobs: planning, construction and programming, and videotaping. In each group, students volunteered for one of the jobs. Students were intellectually engaged as they worked collaboratively, played with ideas, explored different plans, and constructed and tested a robot. Student videographers shared a movie to convey what had occurred with regard to construction, problems, and the current stage of development of the robot. Knowledge sharing occurred between groups by making public the building processes, achievements and goals. Videos were posted online so the next group of students who were assigned to that particular robot could review and build upon the work started by the previous group of students.

In this robotics inquiry, a number of cognitive and emotional skills were demonstrated, including creativity, innovation, critical thinking, planning, negotiation, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. Knowledge building and participatory learning was key as each class was responsible for sharing the current state of construction with the next group so they could continue the building process.

Assessment for learning

Our research demonstrates that engaged teaching and great task design, accompanied by strong assessment practices, result in engaged learning. [5] Learners need ongoing, formative feedback in order to continually improve their work as it is taking place, and they also need summative feedback on the final result.

In the design of inquiry tasks, teachers need to consider how learners will get continuous feedback on depth of understanding, the quality of their work, and the strength of their ideas. Teachers need to set clear expectations so that learners know the outcomes to aim for and what they need to do or change in order to get there. How will students share their work with peers? Online? With experts? Teachers use feedback to assess if lessons and activities are hitting the mark for each student. Feedback on learning guides both the teacher and the learner on next steps.

In each of the three inquiry projects, the teachers communicated clear expectations, made visible the curricular connections and discipline standards, and provided structure for student work. Each teacher either designed, or co-designed with students, the assessment rubrics that served as an authentic and academically rigorous basis for conversations about the quality and standards expected in the work, progress and status, individual and team responsibilities, and deadlines and deliverables.

Levels of student achievement and the quality of learning are strongly linked to the amount and type of ongoing assessment feedback that students receive while they are learning.[6] As students engage in knowledge-building inquiry, they need access to quality information and evidence that guides them to continually refine, improve and progress in their work. In participatory learning projects, both teachers and students need to decide how they will gather data throughout the learning process and how it will be used.

A passion for learning

Very little cognitive and emotional investment is required for listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration, versus designing and conducting an experiment or digging up artifacts for analysis. In our research, we analyze learning tasks on a scale from “passive” – such as those that require the recall of existing information – to more challenging “flow zone” types of personally absorbing and creatively energizing work. Intellectual investment in the flow zone requires critical and creative thinking and feeling processes, such as teamwork, planning, negotiation, decision making, diagnosis, synthesis, peer review, conjecture, reasoned judgment, creation, and innovation.

Young people learn best when engaged in worthwhile work that interests them, when they have opportunities to share ideas beyond school and when they receive regular feedback on what and how they are learning. Given the opportunity to intellectually engage in work that is personally meaningful and relevant beyond school, students show up early and stay late – they lose track of time while working, instead of watching the clock. As demonstrated in the three inquiry projects, teaching for intellectual engagement involves the design of authentic tasks that tap students’ critical thinking and their feelings, preferences and social nature.


Great Inquiry Projects: Design tips for teachers

What makes a great inquiry project or learning task that leads to intellectual engagement?

• The tasks involve active learning, choice, and expression.

• The tasks require deep thinking and result in deep understanding.

• The tasks immerse students in authentic, discipline-rich inquiry.

• The tasks connect learners socially and to the world outside the classroom.

• The tasks involve substantive conversation, collaboration, and idea creation.

• The tasks involve expertise and teaching to be distributed among the learners.

• The tasks involve the appropriate and pervasive use of educational technology.

• Formative feedback and summative assessment reflects academically rigorous discipline and industry standards.

Good task design must be accompanied by engaged teaching strategies, such as modeling, coaching, scaffolding, and providing ongoing formative feedback on the learning.


First published in Education Canada, January 2013


EN BREF - L’engagement intellectuel implique un intérêt captivant et motivant sur le plan créatif donnant lieu à un ferme engagement personnel à explorer, à approfondir, à résoudre des problèmes et à poser des questions sur une période prolongée. Les auteures de l’article soutiennent que les environnements d’apprentissage participatif mettant l’accent sur la construction de savoirs confèrent des avantages marqués sur le plan de l’apprentissage, tant par les élèves que par les enseignants. Ils décrivent trois projets de recherche élaborés pour promouvoir l’engagement intellectuel par la construction de savoirs dans des environnements d’apprentissage participatif. Dans chacun d’eux, des apprenants ayant des liens sociaux et dotés d’outils numériques ont examiné des sujets et des problèmes complexes, ont travaillé résolument pour les comprendre et les résoudre en collaboration avec leurs pairs, et ont eu recours à des publics et des experts à l’extérieur de l’école. Enfin, les auteures observent qu’une expérience riche pour l’apprenant dépend d’une solide conception des tâches et d’une évaluation continue de l’apprentissage en cours.


[1] J. Doug Willms, Sharon Friesen, and Penny Milton, “What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic and intellectual engagement,” Final National Report, (Canadian Education Association, May 2009). Retrieved from http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/otherreports/WDYDIST_National_Report_EN.pdf

[2] Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter. “Knowledge Building: Theory, Pedagogy, and Technology,” in The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, ed. Keith Sawyer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 97 – 119.

[3] Sharon Friesen, “Galileo Educational Network: Creating, research, and supporting 21st century learning,” Education Canada 49, no. 5 (2009): 7.

[4] Alberta Education, “Emerge One-to-one Laptop Learning Initiative: Final Report,” prepared by The Metiri Group and the University of Calgary for Alberta Education, School Technology Sector (2010). Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/media/6343889/emerge%20final%20report%202010...

[5] Alberta Education, “Emerge One-to-one Laptop Learning Initiative: Final Report.” and Michele Jacobsen and Sharon Friesen, “A Three-Year Design-Based Research Initiative That Influenced Educational Practices In A One-To-One Laptop School,” presented at AERA 2011: Inciting the Social Imagination: Education Research for the Public Good (Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA, Apr 8 – 12, 2011).

[6] Linda Darling-Hammond, Performance Counts: Assessment systems that support high-quality learning (Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). and John Hattie and Helen Timperely, “The power of feedback,” Review of Educational Research 77 (2007): 81-112.