4 Collective Cognitive Responsibility for the Advancement of Knowledge Marlene Scardamalia

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Collective Cognitive
Responsibility for the Advancement
of Knowledge

Marlene Scardamalia

If there is any consensus about what education in a knowledge society should be like, it is to be found in a cluster of terms that pervade the oral and printed discourse on this issue—including especially the ‘futuristic business literature’ that Bereiter cites in his target article: lifelong learning, flexibility, creativity, higher-order thinking skills, collaboration, distributed expertise, learning organizations, innovation, technological literacy. At times these appear to be empty buzzwords, but they may also be thought of as attempts to give expression to a central intuition that has yet to be formulated in terms that are clear enough to be very useful in generating designs and policies. In this chapter I attempt to extract a main idea from these vague terms and show how it can be applied to generate a kind of education that really does address new challenges in a new way.

A central idea is collective cognitive responsibility. Although this concept does not capture everything suggested in the foregoing list of terms, it captures much that they have in common and something more. Let us first expand upon the idea in the context of adult work and then apply it in the context of education.

Collective Cognitive Responsibility in
the Workplace

Expert medical teams, flight crews, and sports teams have begun to serve as models for the kinds of groups that are expected to carry on much of the higher-level work in knowledge-based enterprises. Expert teams exhibit continual learning, flexibility, good thinking, and collaboration; but they also exhibit other characteristics of a more distinctive nature. Although each member of the team may have particular expertise and particular duties, the team members are also able to take over for one another on a moment-to-moment basis. This provides a flexibility that enables the group effort to succeed despite unexpected complications. Along with the capability is a commitment on the part of each member to do whatever is necessary to make the team effort succeed. Expert teams have been around for a long time. The whaling crews that Melville described in Moby Dick exemplify what I have been describing. And, of course, expert sports teams exhibit just the combination of distinctive roles and skills on one hand and resourceful cooperation on the other that go to make up collective responsibility. What is new is that expert teams are becoming the paradigms for working groups of all kinds, replacing the bureaucratic and assembly line paradigms, in which roles are fixed and the way to handle the unexpected is to refer it to a higher level in the organization.

Collective responsibility, then, refers to the condition in which responsibility for the success of a group effort is distributed across all the members rather than being concentrated in the leader. Collective cognitive responsibility involves an added dimension. In modern enterprises there is usually a cognitive dimension in addition to the more tangible and practical aspects. This is obviously the case in research groups and other groups directly concerned with knowledge production, but it is also the case in enterprises where knowledge is subordinate to other goals. The members of an expert surgical team, for example, will ideally share responsibility not only for carrying out the surgical procedure; they also take collective responsibility for understanding what is happening, for staying cognitively on top of events as they unfold. In a well-functioning office, the staff will not only keep records and appointments in order and get required work out on time; they will also take responsibility for knowing what needs to be known and for insuring that others know what needs to be known. This is what is meant by collective cognitive responsibility.

In discussions with business people, I find that they instantly recognize cognitive responsibility as a problem, even though they have not previously thought of it in those terms. They recognize that their employees may be carrying out overt tasks with a high level of responsibility, but that things keep going wrong or projects deteriorate because problems are either not being recognized or are thought to be someone else’s responsibility. The calendars, to-do lists, and project management software designed to keep people organized and on task provide little help in this regard. They may include cognitive items—“Decide...,” “Look into...,” “Plan...”—but these have the effect of limiting cognitive responsibility to particular people and of obscuring the continual living with problems and ideas that is part of the work life of an expert team. The irony is that in our so-called knowledge society, many people who are ostensibly doing knowledge work remain primarily engaged with material things, while the kind of knowledge processing that should be constantly going on in the background is slighted or left to management. Cognitive responsibility, it appears, is harder to maintain than responsibility for tangible outcomes.

The Withholding of Cognitive Responsibility
in Schools

Schools present an especially interesting case with regard to cognitive responsibility. Cognitive objectives figure prominently in the reasons why schools exist. However it was the absence of collective cognitive responsibility as a goal for the teaching enterprise that led us to identify what we have elsewhere called the Teacher A model (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987).

In the Teacher A model, learning is a byproduct of doing schoolwork. The students’ job is to do assigned work, in the case of a traditional classroom, or to carry out self-directed projects and activities, in the case of the more modern classroom. The teachers’ job is to plan and supervise the schoolwork, and they often do this well enough that the classroom presents a picture of happy, busy, hard-working students. Students are evaluated on the quality of their work and judged as working up to, below, or (among those labeled over-achievers) beyond their capacity. There may be evaluations of learning, often externally imposed. But for students falling short in such evaluations, the remedy is additional schoolwork. One diagnostic sign pointing to a Teacher A is an insatiable demand for exercise sheets. In the most extreme examples of Teacher A behavior, there is no such thing as cognitive responsibility, either on the part of the teacher or of the students. All the focus is on tasks and activities.

In the Teacher B model, the teacher assumes cognitive responsibility, but the students are not expected to do so. Most of instructional theory and design are aimed at some version of this model, and there are many variations, ranging from direct instruction to guided discovery. In a model B classroom, the teacher has cognitive objectives, both long-range and immediate, judges where the students are with respect to them, and gears actions to the attainment of those objectives. The students may be made aware of the objectives and encouraged to pursue them as well, but their actual responsibility is limited to overt tasks and activities, much like the students in a Teacher A classroom.

It should not be surprising, therefore, if the students themselves have a Teacher A, task-centered conception of learning, regardless of whether their teachers adhere to Model A or B. In studies of students’ implicit theories of learning, this appears to be overwhelmingly the case, at least among elementary school students (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989). Participants were asked to suppose that they had an extra hour a week in which to learn anything they wished. The focus of the interview was on what they would do in order to learn, how long they thought it would take, how they would know if they had learned, what difficulties they anticipated, and how they would deal with them. Even young students indicated appropriate things they would do in order to learn—reading and asking questions if the purpose was to acquire factual knowledge, observing and practicing if the purpose was to acquire a skill. But with few exceptions they had no realistic idea of how long learning would take, and had no idea of how to cope with difficulties except by doing more of what they proposed to do. Their implicit theory, as we made it out, was that learning follows naturally from carrying out learning activities and completing tasks, one after another, and that is all there is to it—exactly the model we attribute to Teacher A. In only a few elementary school students did we see even a glimmer of what is common in the educated adults we interviewed, an awareness that learning can be problematic and may require strategic moves to bring it about.

Students have little idea of the strategic activity involved in learning if all such strategic activity has been carried out by their teachers and without their knowledge. There are indications that even among university students, many of them only have explicit strategies for memorization, lacking strategies for learning with understanding (Biggs, 1979). The Teacher C model, as we defined it, is distinguished by an effort to turn strategic cognitive activity over to the students. Many teachers would avow that this is what they are trying to do—to make students responsible for their own learning. However, in parallel interviews with teachers, we found that this often means performing tasks in a responsible manner—a Teacher A view of responsibility. For teachers to move from endorsing the Teacher C model to the point where they actually practice it is evidently a significant learning accomplishment in its own right, requiring a good deal of coaching, reflective practice, and mutual support (Anderson & Roit, 1993). It represents overcoming a career-long habituation to being the sole engineer of the learning process, however that is conceived.

I must emphasize that these remarks are not limited to teachers who pursue a didactic approach. The Teacher A and B models may be readily observed in classrooms conducted according to principles of informal, hands-on, child-centered, open education. The controls exercised by teachers in such classrooms may be less obvious, but they even more closely fit the term ‘engineer.’ Lillian Weber, in her influential book, The English Infant School and Informal Education (1971), quoted approvingly from a National Froebel Foundation handbook, which asserted that in an informal classroom
the teacher actually has a more active directing part to play than on any planned instructional programme through which pupils are processed in an almost routine way. But the part to be played is of course a very different kind. It is based on not imposing anything on children, but on so closely co-operating with their native interests and drives that whatever they are led to do is felt as something that comes out of themselves. (quoted in Weber, 1971, p. 109)
Weber called this ‘implementing’ rather than ‘directing’; but it is clearly not a matter of turning responsibility over to the children. If it is successful, the children are only aware of doing what they want, even though they have been subtly led to it by the teacher.
Collective Cognitive Responsibility in
the Classroom

Why won’t teachers turn higher levels of cognitive responsibility over to students? Answers may be sought in the need to maintain a position of authority and in disbelief in the capacity of students to shoulder such responsibility. But prior to these is a concrete fact of life: the ratio of one teacher to 30 or so students. This condition not only favors a centralized management structure; it also severely constrains the kind of discourse that can go on. As analysts of classroom discourse have observed, classroom exchanges are usually both initiated and terminated by the teacher (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). A typical exchange will start with the teacher asking a question, followed by a response from a student, and terminated by a remark by the teacher, often followed immediately by the initiation of a new exchange; e.g., 'Right. And what did the British do then?' With such a discourse structure, it should not be surprising that all the higher-level control of the discourse is exercised by the teacher. The students are cast into a perpetually reactive and receptive role.

Not much can be done to turn more responsibility over to the students unless the structure of classroom discourse is changed. Small group work has been the principal way of breaking the pattern in which all communication is mediated through the teacher. It can be quite productive (Barnes, 1977; Wells, Chang, & Maher, 1990), and it involves a substantial transfer of responsibility to the students. However, it also has its drawbacks. It may prove unmanageable unless the groups have definite and limited tasks, but this reduces the cognitive responsibility exercised by the students. Without the leavening influence of the teacher, there is a tendency for small group discussion to be dominated by the more outspoken students. Knowledge generated in small groups tends to be ephemeral, there being no recording of it and no teacher to serve as the corporate memory; and what is produced in one group is not readily available to others.

It was these seemingly intractable problems of discourse structure that first led me to investigate the possibilities of technology to change it. The first prototype of CSILE (Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments) was implemented in 1983 in an undergraduate Developmental Psychology course of over 300 students at York University. In years preceding the introduction of CSILE, I regularly asked students to write summaries of my lectures, as part of course requirements. These summaries provided a fascinating landscape of ideas that students brought to, and took from my lectures. Once I recovered from the shock of reading summaries that I thought could not possibly follow from my lecture, I began to see how these diverse interpretations provided a powerful teaching tool. However, reviewing and finding points of convergence and divergence in all of these summaries was a demanding and time-consuming activity for me. CSILE was first used to shift this responsibility to the students, by having them enter their ideas into a communal space where they could read each other’s entries and engage in reflective activity. Prior to the introduction of the technology I could find no time-efficient means of turning this responsibility over to them. Experiments with CSILE led us to view cognitive responsibility as a social-cultural challenge, requiring a great deal more than individual intentional effort.

With the rapid growth of the Internet, many schools are moving to incorporate network communication into their educational activities. Most of these uses, however, make no fundamental change in the structure of classroom discourse or in the allocation of cognitive responsibility. In some cases the Internet merely provides a library of resources to be used in producing reports or other documents. In other cases joint research or design projects are organized among widely separated schools. Students may, for instance, contribute information on weather, plant life, or dialect in their respective localities, and then work to synthesize this information and draw generalizations from it. Such projects are rich in cognitive possibilities, but the higher-level cognitive work of goal-setting, planning, and monitoring will not be done by the students. Often it is not done by the teachers either, but by some central body that administers the project.1 In model projects that we have seen, the students’ activity is so highly structured for them in advance that it may amount to filling in cells in a spreadsheet, the rows and columns of which have been specified by the project organizers.

Schools also use e-mail, conferencing, or listserve applications that function as communication media, but generally not in ways that play a transformative role. Although communication with geographically distant classrooms has been enthusiastically endorsed by teachers, reports suggest that these play rather limited 'getting acquainted' roles. Discussions over the Internet show low levels of participation and a lack of continuity and moreover typically require a good deal of teacher direction (Guzdial, 1997; Hewitt & Scardamalia, 1998).

In the design of CSILE we were not directly concerned with these special-purpose applications of network technology. Instead, we aimed at altering the day-to-day discourse patterns, so that students would assume what we called in one article “higher levels of agency” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1991). We looked to networked computers as offering the possibility of a decentralized structure for the flow of information. CSILE linked students to a communal database created by the students themselves through the notes and comments that they contributed to it (Scardamalia et al. 1989).

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