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Where the Learning and Pedagogical

Sciences Need Philosophers

Carl Bereiter

Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology

University of Toronto

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One way philosophers could be of value to those of us engaged in learning
innovation is by helping clarify ubiquitous but fuzzy concepts. O
PA research and
ample. In popular educational usage the plural form of C
L Take literacies, for ex-

C Yliteracy mean anything special

the term embraces things like

economic literacy and geographical literacy. Does
here or is it just a pretentious synonym for/E
.h r knowledge?
And then there is skill, as in
higher-order thinking skills and 21
t Century skills. Is this term also used mainly for
s as claiming that critical thinking, problem
rhetorical effect or is it to be funderstood
solving, creative thinking, .f and the like are actual teachable skills that can be widely
/wtransfer, but there are also issues of what people mean, or think they
applied, much like arithmetic skills? There are empirical issues here about learnability,

mean,t torpfail to think about what they mean when they use these and many other trendy
terms that fill the literature of teaching and learning.

In this article I will try to identify conceptual problems that actually matter in terms of
educational design decisions and research directions. Beyond conceptual problems, how-
ever, are more substantive problems that need collaborative, interdisciplinary work. The
question here is what role philosophers could play in such collaborations. This article
makes no effort to present a coherent framework for philosophical contributions to the
learning and pedagogical sciences. Instead, it touches on an assortment of possibilities,
mainly in the hope of arousing philosophers of education to take the kind of active role in
the learning and pedagogical sciences that philosophers already take in cognitive science
and in the many disciplines and professions that have a branch called philosophy of . . .

M. Peters, P. Ghiraldelli, B. Zarnic, A. Gibbons (eds.)

Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Education
The Learning Sciences: A Brief Introduction

The learning sciences were officially christened in 1991, soon followed by the launch of
a journal of that name, and then by formation of the International Society for the Learn-
ing Sciences. The learning sciences sit at the intersection of cognitive science, computer
science, and educational research. From the beginning, they have emphasized research
carried out in real learning settings as distinct from laboratory experiments, simulations,
and test and interview studies. They have also emphasized experimental intervention
rather than limiting research to observation or assessment of results. The term peda-
gogical science, as currently used mainly in Europe, refers to much the same enterprise,
although it is important to note that a sizeable body of learning science research deals
with learning in informal settings, where the term pedagogy does not really apply.

Research methods in the learning sciences are quite diverse, but there has been gradual
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convergence on design research as the methodology of choice (Barab, 2004). This is
experimental research in which educational designs are tested under real conditions of use
and results are fed back into iterations of the design process. Although learning scientists
sometimes express theoretical ambitions, it seems fair to state that learning science is
a design science, not a theoretical science. Design science is preferable to applied
science, because the latter implies a theory-into-practice sequence that most learning
scientists would reject. These rather superficial characterizations of the field could well

be overridden by a philosophy of the learning sciences; however, defining the field is

not a major concern of this article. The concern of this article is with conceptual obstacles
to progress, where deeper analysis might clear a path forward.
:/ /w
htt Conceptions of Knowledge and Their Different

The traditional epistemological conception of knowledge as true and justified belief is

far too restrictive for use in the behavioral sciences. For one thing it denies knowledge
to animals and babies, which would eliminate two very productive areas of cognitive
research. And no cognitive or neurological model could get very far by assigning true
beliefs to one subsystem and false beliefs to another. From a cognitive point of view,
whatever functions as knowledge is knowledge. This shifts the conceptual issue from one
of definition to one of identifying the functions knowledge can play.

In educational discourse, different conceptions of knowledge appear in different contexts,

with little recognition of the differences or of the reasons why one conception is used
instead of another. A state conception of knowledge prevails in the field of educational
measurement. Knowledge is conceived of as a mental or psychological state of knowing.

This was evident in the attempt by Nickerson (1985, p. 222) to define understanding:

One understands a concept (principle, process, or whatever) to the degree

that what is in ones head regarding that concept corresponds to what is in the
head of an expert in the relevant field.

Individual knowledge states are what educational tests are intended to assess. But, as
in the widely recognized distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge, much of a
persons knowledge is implicit in actions, skills, attitudes, and feelings. A full description
of a persons knowledge state is impossible, but inferences about it may be drawn from
various sources.

A different state conception of knowledge is implied in the expression state of the art.

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The state of the art or state of knowledge in a domain is obviously not a mental or psy-
chological state, and it is not helpful to treat it as the average or summation of individual
mental states. But inability to define it has not prevented the professions and disciplines
from sponsoring state-of-the-art reviews and handbooks that many people find valuable.
A good textbook should represent the state of knowledge in a form accessible to students.
Of course, the state of the art is only one among a number of factors that determine what
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goes into school textbooks; but if the concept were less vague, advocates for state-of-

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the-art content might be better able to hold their own against the various political and
religious pressure groups that influence textbook adoptions. This collective state con-
ception is closely related to the idea of knowledge as a resource that may be drawn on
in problem solving. Homer-Dixons concept of ingenuity (2001) is a version of this
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resource conception. He has defined it broadly as ideas that can be applied to solve
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practical technical and social problems (p. 21).
h t t
There is also a semiotic conception, according to which knowledge is constituted in its
various expressions and inscriptions and has no existence separate from these expressions
and inscriptions. The same denial of a separate existence for knowledge is to be found in
the situated conception of knowledge, according to which knowledge is constituted in the
practices of communities (Lave, 1988). What the semiotic and the situated conceptions re-
ject is what Sir Karl Popper explicitly maintained: that knowledge, once created, develops
its own domain of autonomy (1972, p. 118). Popper called this objective knowledge,
but that term has caused considerable misunderstanding. Popper meant simply treatable
as an object (Keuth, 2004, p.6) but some have construed him to be saying objectively
true. Contrary to some who would label him a Platonist, Popper was clear that objective
knowledge is wholly a human construction. His more controversial tenet is that, once
constructed, knowledge takes on a life of its own and can turn out to have implications
and applications beyond those imagined by its creators. For that reason, I have suggested
relabeling objective knowledge as conceptual artifacts (Bereiter, 2002). Accordingly,
the Popperian conception of knowledge may be called the artifactual conception. This

conception only becomes controversial when it is elevated to an epistemology. In ordi-
nary discourse, whenever we talk about the validity or usefulness of an idea or suggest
revisions of it we are implicitly treating it as an artifact.

Finally, there is a process conception, according to which knowledge representations are

processes rather than things: they are patterns of activity in groups of neurons that fire as
the result of inputs from other neurons (Thagard, in press). Although sometimes recom-
mended as the most valid way of talking about knowledge (e.g., Nonaka and Takeuchi,
1995, p.58), it is not clear, outside of neuroscientific contexts, what a process conception
of knowledge has to offer that sets it apart from others already identified.

Perhaps a unified framework can be produced that ties all the various conceptions of
knowledge together, or perhaps what educationists need is a way to move between con-
ceptions as the situation requires without getting into tangles about what knowledge really
is or is not. In any case, philosophers could help fend off the anti-knowledge forces that

impinge on education from several directions. Most prominent among these at present are
the technology enthusiasts who parade the notion of just-in-time knowledge and whose
line of argument is that schools should not be filling students heads with knowledge
(which they believe becomes obsolete very rapidly) and should instead teach information
search skills (as if the mechanics of Internet search do not also become rapidly obsolete).
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, evidence accumulated that the main determinant of read-
ing comprehension is what the reader already knows (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). Those
findings have not suddenly become irrelevant. Added to them is increasing recognition
fs t
of the importance of knowledge in creative thinking (Weisberg, 1999). Yet it is under-
standable that knowledge should be downgraded, if knowledge is understood to be the
contents of a mental filing cabinet. That is a notion traceable back to the hugely influ-
ential Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, 1956), which treated knowledge as
inert stuff that is acted upon by mental skills (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1998). Even to
this day, movements such as the 21st Century Skills movement (Johnson, 2009) treat
knowledge and mental skills as unrelated categories, ignoring knowledge domains such
as systems theory and probability and statistics, which are demonstrably relevant to ef-
fective thinking. Yet anyone who has done web searches seeking answers to questions of
any complexity must surely have found that success in this very 21st Century activity
depends crucially on the domain knowledge one can bring to the search.

Knowledge Creation

It seems that until recent decades, scientists and other scholars referred to their creative
achievements as discoveries rather than products or creations. Recall Newtons likening
his accomplishments to finding pretty stones on a beach and to his seeing farther than oth-
ers by standing on the shoulders of giants. My conjecture, mainly inspired by Whitehead

(1925/1948), is that the idea of knowledge creation arose naturally from the profession-
alization of invention in the 19th century and after. Airplanes and electric light bulbs are
obviously invented, not discovered, and so why should a theory not also be recognized as
an invention?

The idea of corporate knowledge creation took hold readily when Nonaka and Takeuchi
published The Knowledge-Creating Company (1995). Some universities also began ad-
vertising themselves as creators of knowledge in the same sensethat is, as producers
of new technology, new theories, new strategies in health care, and so forth. They were
referring, however, to their research programs, not their educational functions. In edu-
cation, the idea of knowledge creation has had a much harder time gaining a foothold.
Since the 1980s, Marlene Scardamalia and I have been researching and promoting the
idea that the mainstay of formal education should be knowledge building (Scardamalia,
Bereiter, & Lamon, 1994; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2006; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).

Knowledge building is synonymous with knowledge creation, just a somewhat more
modest term, and hence more appropriate to the more modest but nevertheless impressive
capabilities of children to produce knowledge that is new and of value to their commu-
nities (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2005). Although education through knowledge building
is gaining ground in many nations, the concept is in continual danger of being absorbed
into such more diffuse concepts as constructivism and active learning. Knowledge build-
ing is obviously constructivist, but there are constructivist approaches to education that do
not involve knowledge building. Constructivist educational approaches may differ along a
number of dimensions. Knowledge building will be found to differ from other approaches
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on dimensions such as the level of agency granted to the learners, emphasis on abstract
as distinct from concrete representations of knowledge, and emphasis on idea improve-

ment as distinct from idea generation (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2007); but it still falls well
within the constructivist space and may even be claimed to be more purely constructivist
than most other approaches that claim that label.

Belief Mode and Design Mode

Argumentation is one topic in education that holds interest for both philosophers and
learning scientists. For several decades, the dominant model for classroom activities in-
volving argumentation or persuasive writing has been that of philosopher Stephen Toul-
min (1958). Far more than a way of dealing with controversial issues, argumentation has
been treated as an all-purpose instructional tool; see, for instance, Arguing to Learn (An-
driessen, Baker, & Suthers, 2003), which includes discussion of both argument pedagogy
and supportive technology. Argumentation is the focus of much work in science education
(Kuhn, 1993), with some people going so far as to claim that science is argumentation
(Bell, 2002). In order to accommodate the creative nature of science and the fact that

scientists at work are more inclined toward collaboration than controversy, educational
theorists have expanded the concept of argumentation to include collaborative argumen-
tation and constructive, problem-solving types of argument. Nevertheless, throughout
the contemporary literature the pro and con character of argumentation is never far in
the background.

As an alternative to stretching the meaning of argumentation to include every sort of

constructive dialogue, we have proposed distinguishing two modes of thought (Bereiter
& Scardamalia, 2003; 2006). Belief mode comprises all discourse concerned with the
fixation of belief, and so it includes argumentation as well as such other types of discourse
as indoctrination and persuasion. Design mode is the mode of creative knowledge work.
It includes invention, design, planning, and theory building. Truth and related qualities
are central to work in belief mode, whereas utility and promisingness (Bereiter, 2002,
p. 330) are predominant criteria when working with ideas in design mode. If the focal
question in belief mode is Can this belief be justified? the focal question in design mode
is Can this idea be improved?
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In the actual process of creating new public knowledge, activity in both A Eand
D design
mode will typically occur, and in close conjunction; but this doesO notPobviate the distinc-
tion. The distinction has practical relevance in education because, to the extent it is valid,
it implies that there is a serious imbalance in pedagogy.Y
N C Apart from skill training, formal
education has since ancient times been conducted
constructivist pedagogy has not changed r / Ein as much
solely in belief mode. The advent of

guided discovery mainly engage t

s .h this, as constructive activities such as

testing which variables do and ff students in testing the truth value of propositions (e.g.,
. dothenotframework
affect an observed phenomenon). The obvious way
to introduce design w modewwithin of formal education would be to engage
students in theory
is easyttopinvoke
building (Bereiter & Scardamalia, in press; Carey & Smith, 1993). It

noth t according to which young students efforts along these lines are
real theories. More challenging is to identify in what respect childrens explanatory
efforts are theoretical and to suggest what would constitute a next step up toward mature
theory building. Gopnik, Kuhl, and Meltzoff (1999) presented evidence that they claimed
shows even infants form theories. Whether or not that claim is accepted, it is clear that
infants show something that is more like theory-guided behavior than is shown by non-
human primates. The more fundamental point that Scardamalia and I would make is that
children can work with ideas in design mode at a young age (age six is the current demon-
strated limit, but further design research could move it lower). Demonstrating some kind
of creative working with ideas marks a starting point for a developmental continuum that
could be more helpful to educators than continued deliberation about whether something
is or is not a theory.

What Constitutes Depth of Learning?

No one argues in favor of superficiality over depth in learning, but depth falls into that
category of things people feel confident they can recognize yet find it impossible to define.
That schooling often falls short in promoting depth of learning is also widely recognized,
but critics tend to focus their attacks on a caricature of direct instruction that again has
no advocates. Good direct instruction goes well beyond rote memorization and reproduc-
tion to the point where students can explain, offer evidence, and even apply the acquired
knowledge in limited contexts. What research on students concepts (e.g., Vosniadou,
2003) suggests, however, is that learners can do all thispass tests of comprehension
and applicationwithout the new knowledge having much effect on their mental lives,
on the way they apprehend the world about them. We should all have some experience of
this kind of limited knowledge. As educated non-physicists we may know a fair amount
about quantum theory, be able to discuss its importance and explain key ideas, but this
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knowledge makes no difference to the rest of our world knowledge. Many children are in

a similar situation with respect to the shape of the earth. They know that the earth is round

like a globe, but in all their experiencing and thinking concerning the earth it remains flat;
knowledge that the earth is round plays no role in their conceptions of up and down, tides,
the changing of the seasons, and all the many understandings that depend on thinking of
the earth as a sphere. For educated adults, most everyday practical thinking may also treat

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the earth as a flat surface over which the sun passes, but, in the background, knowledge

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of the earths shape and relation to the sun will inform their thinkingin varying degrees
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depending on their depth of knowledge. Although the fact that the earth is round may rise
to consciousness only when needed, cosmology may be said to be continually present in
what Wittgenstein (1969, par. 211) called the scaffolding of our thoughts. We represent
the earth mentally as a globe, even when we are not actively thinking of it as such.
p defined deep understanding as understanding deep things about the
Ih ttpreviously
object in question(Bereiter, 2006, p. 12). Colleagues tend to regard this definition as
frivolous, although in my view it stands up very well considering that there are hardly
any competing definitions of depth. (Comparisons of understanding with absence of un-
derstanding are abundant, but I have not seen analyses of the difference between shallow
and deep understanding.) However, in line with the preceding discussion, a much more
stringent criterion of depth could be applied: You have not understood something deeply
unless it alters the way you apprehend the world. This implies, however, that you cannot
understand a principle deeply unless you believe it. That is an intriguing notion that has
been seriously explored by Gilbert (1991) and that to my mind warrants equally serious
consideration by educators committed to teaching for understanding.

Teaching People to Think

Teaching people to think is a long-standing educational mandate and one in which philoso-
phers have played a role that reaches back as far as classical times. However, treating
thinking ability as a set of general skills separate from content is an innovation that, as
noted previously, appears to have originated in the 1950s. Earlier conceptions of teach-
ing to think are better characterized by a quotation attributed to Bertrand Russell that has
appeared on homeschooling websites:

When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seri-
ously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them can-
didly, providing privacy and solitude for them, and making them readers and
thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. Thats if you want to
teach them to think.
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PA helping
Here, teaching children to think is treated as a sort of character development
children become thinking people. There is no mention of skills,O
C L but there is of content:

significant thoughts. A. N. Whitehead even more strongly emphasized the dependence
of process on content:
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s of the big ideas and of hanging on to them like
Nobody can be a good reasoner unless by constant practice he has realized
. f
wp. 91)
the importance of getting
grim death. (1929,
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htt perspective, the 21 Century skills movement may be seen as an evolution
In historical st

or a revival of the higher-order skills movement of the 1970s. Within the thinking
skills movement, Philosophy for Children, led by Matthew Lipman (1988, 2008), has
been ahead of the curve in shifting from an emphasis on skill acquisition to thoughtful
treatment of important questions. A number of other philosophy-based initiatives around
the world also bring a measure of sanity to what, despite its 21st century label, is a
movement grounded in obsolete psychology and wishful thinking. It could help greatly if
more philosophers, like Lipman, got involved not merely as commentators but as working
contributors to experiments in 21st Century pedagogical reform. This means on one hand
applying a heavy dose of critical thought to the utterances of thinking skills enthusiasts
and on the other hand moving outside the comfort zone of belief mode and doing practical
creative work in design mode. A direction this creative work might take is suggested in
the next section.

Children as Natural Philosophers

As every philosopher knows, philosophy used to encompass the entire rational pursuit of
understanding. Then natural philosophy branched off, specialization ensued and contin-
ued apace until today you may meet a neurophysiologist who specializes in research on
one nerve. But children are where philosophy used to be. Given enough opportunity and
supportive conditions they will set about trying to understand the whole world. This may
or may not imply that philosophy itself should become part of the curriculum. My own
belief is that philosophy as a discipline should not enter the curriculum until secondary
school, although a philosophical vocabulary should have begun to permeate classroom
discourse at a much earlier age. More to the point, by the time students reach secondary
school they should have become accomplished builders, critics, and improvers of theories
about the world. They should through their own enterprise have become natural philoso-
phers in the old sense. The natural world for them will encompass the subject matter
of not only the physical sciences but also the biological and behavioral sciences, with no
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sharp internal breaks or breaks between them and the humanities.
This does not imply an amorphous theory of everything nor a celebration
O PA of whatever
C L rigor is a gradual
ideas pop into childrens heads. It does, however, suggest that theoretical
development and that it should not unnecessarily impede
C Y the growth of understanding.
In science classes around the world, children are N being guided in use of the scientific

h relse./ Butthatdothetheyperiod
method (i.e., control of variables) to discover
. of a pendulum depends
s t
on the length of the cord and not much acquire any understanding of
f do they in fact pursue explanations of any of the lawful
why this should be the case?
w .f Or

/ w w
regularities revealed to them through guided discovery? If they do not, if instead they

p : /
are rushed on to the next topic, they are clearly not being encouraged to function as natural

Every child an Aristotle? Not quite. Children cannot be expected to have Aristotles fine-
ness of conceptual discrimination; but on the other hand they can be expected to have
a more modern approach to theory building. The practical problem for educational de-
signers is how students are to acquire modern competence in theory building. It cannot
be assumed they will get it from their teachers, because there is evidence that teachers
themselves have little sense of the productive role of theory in scientific progress (Wind-
schitl, 2004). And they will surely not get it from the mass media. An extensive boot-
strapping operation seems required. If school students are to become genuine creators
of enlightened and research-grounded understanding of their world, it will take sustained
cooperation among a number of parties teachers, administrators, teacher educators,
learning scientists, technology developers, and school students themselves. Philosophers
of education could play an active role in such collaborative bootstrapping. It is not neces-
sary to specify the nature of that role: It should be enough that philosophers of education
bring their distinctive knowledge and talents to the transformative effort and figure out for

themselves how best to use them.


I have suggested several concepts that would benefit from clarification by philosophers:
especially knowledge and skill, in the various ways these are construed in knowledge
work and pedagogy. I have also suggested that philosophers of education could take a
working role in educational reforms aimed at engaging students more actively in knowl-
edge production. I have said nothing about the role of philosophers of education as critics
of the learning sciences. Criticism from philosophical perspectives could be valuable, as it
is in other disciplines. However, it needs to be much better informed than the little I have
seen. Learning scientists do not, by and large, need to be reminded that human beings are
different from computers. To get up to speed with the learning sciences as they are today,

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familiarity with the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (Sawyer, 2006) is a
good start. To go beyond that I would suggest The Robots Rebellion by Stanovich (2004)
and Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Collins and Halverson (2009).
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Received: September 29 2010
Accepted: October 14 2010