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  • Writer's pictureLidia

Knowledge Building Circles & Knowledge Building Discourse.

When I first began teaching, I remember learning about community circles and I was told that participating in circles with your students is a very important, essential part of your classroom and that they will allow students to express their social and emotional needs. Knowledge Building Circles (KBC) function and are conducted in a similar way, but for academic purposes. They play a HUGE part in all inquiries whether they are Controlled, Guided or Free. The circle environment allows students to be face-to-face with each other, it allows them to grow as learners and to communicate their learning to the whole classroom community in a meaningful and productive way.

"A Knowledge Building Circle is a class discussion activity that is specifically reserved for working out students’ questions and ideas. The aim of the circle is to help all learners to improve their understandings as students pose questions, postulate theories, and refine ideas." (Scholastic Canada)

KBC and Knowledge Building Discourse (KBD), are especially important in an inquiry classroom because it is an opportunity for students to pose new questions and curiosities while sharing new learning and new ideas. They also give students the opportunity to hear their peer's ideas, discuss, debate and build on one another's learning.

Knowledge building discourse “serves to identify shared problems and gaps in understanding and to advance the understanding beyond the level of the most knowledgeable individual” (Scardamalia, 2002).

When an inquiry is underway, students refine, revisit and negotiate their thinking with the goal of improving their ideas through this Knowledge Building Discourse.

Engaging in KBC's with your students: The Basics

It may come as obvious, but KBCs should be happening at the very beginning of an inquiry with your students. However, that isn't the only time to participate in this type of learning circle, KBCs should be taking place whenever they are necessary. That could mean they are occurring once a day, every other day, or multiple times a day. This all depends on your classroom and student needs during the inquiry.

I feel as though most teachers know how to conduct a community circle and know the general rules, they are pretty much the same for KBC's. So rather than sharing the procedure and rules of KBCs, I think it is more important to focus on the skills. When I begin introducing KBC's to my students, I always think about the skills I want them to know and have in order to set them up for success. The skills they need are what allow for the richest knowledge-building discourse.

Skills we practice as learners during KBCs:

  1. Responding to simple, direct questions with a purpose and with KB vocabulary (KBD)

  2. Being an active listener while supporting and encouraging the person speaking

  3. Recognizing and acknowledging different points of view and being respectful

  4. Presenting information clearly and in an organized way

  5. Summarizing key ideas and identifying any connections learners may have

  6. Giving, receiving, and building on feedback, ideas and information by asking more questions, checking for understanding, and debating topics

So now you might be thinking, "How are Knowledge Building Circles any different from regular classroom discussions?" The simple answer to that question is ... AUTHENTICITY. At the risk of sounding like a broken record... just like the topic of your inquiry, KBCs are genuine and happen AUTHENTICALLY. With that being said, that means that they aren't necessarily planned events that happen in your classroom.

In my experience, I may have had the idea or plan that a KBC would take place, BUT I didn't know when and why. The questions and ideas always emerged from student discussions. KBC's are something that will occur when a student comes to you with a new question, idea or curiosity. Maybe you're working in the class and you hear some students talking amongst themselves and they say " I wonder what would happen if..." OR maybe the learning is slowing down and you need a moment to stop, think, reassess and go. This is your cue! It's time for a KBC.

As inquiry teachers, we want these discussions to be constantly happening. We want our students to build on their theories, change their methods of approach when they get stuck, and push their learning forward in a more independent way.

But how? How do our students do this? What does this sound like? Educators need to model and share Knowledge building discourse. One of the easiest ways to do that is through the use of KNOWLEDGE BUILDING PROMPTS.

When you walk into my classroom at the beginning of the year, it may look kind of bare. I have some decorations that I have made, as well as bulletin board titles, but in general, my walls are free from premade anchor charts or your "Scholars Choice" learning posters. Our classroom walls are used for documentation of student learning. One of the only "Anchor Charts" I have posted on my wall is the KNOWLEDGE BUILDING PROMPTS & QUESTIONS. Conversations are important but the VOCABULARY we use as learners is a crucial part of our overall understanding. These phrases and questions are examples of things students could potentially say during knowledge building. I have these posted in our classroom as a reminder of how students can engage in meaningful conversations independently, with their peers, or during KBCs.

Student discourse shapes learning. Students are encouraged to frame their contributions with metacognitive phrases that support mutual respect and foster awareness of how ideas interrelate. (Natural Curiosity, 2017)

These prompts and questions are what shape knowledge-building discourse in our classroom during any inquiry. I like gradually introducing the questions and prompts to my students as I hear them say something similar. I take what my students are saying and rephrase it in a way for them to acknowledge that knowledge building is happening.

For example, if a student says, "That's weird, why did it do that?" I would say something like, "That's a great question! Class, James noticed something strange during his learning and he is wondering why something like ____ might happen. Does anyone have any ideas or theories about why you think that might have happened?" If this is a new phrase for my students, then I would follow the question I asked by saying, "While your sharing your ideas, trying sharing them by saying something like 'I don't know for sure, but my prediction for why that may have happened is...". At that point, I would add that question and response prompt to our KNOWLEDGE BUILDING PROMPTS & QUESTIONS board.

Some of the questions and prompts might be obvious to you as the teacher, but it is a different way of learning and speaking for students. Over the years, I have done some research and reading on the topic of questions and prompts that use vocabulary that promotes knowledge building discourse.

The key components of Knowledge Building Discourse include:

Theorizing, elaborating explanations, synthesizing, making analogies, reflecting, proposing design experiments, identifying promising ideas, questioning, searching for a better way, etc. In an inquiry classroom, we want these to be the classroom norm. Learning KB discourse is like learning a new language. It is not something that comes easily to individuals, let alone students, so practice, repetition and consistent exposure to key vocabulary are crucial!

Like most things in the classroom, we want to take a scaffolded approach to KBD and KBC's. Just like in inquiry we want to start off with a Guided or Controlled approach, where the teacher calls the initial KBC, they present the questions and ideas of the students to the class and they guide the circle. In the above image, you can see some of the questions and prompts I have created. They are speech bubble graphics that showcase questions and sentence starters to support students. While guided KBC's take place, I present, discuss and add our new KB "vocab" to the "Anchor our Learning" bulletin board so students always have access to it. I am always modelling this "new language". As students become more aware, the role of the teacher shifts and students gradually become more comfortable.

Soon enough, students will call, lead, facilitate and organize their own KBC's using KBD, while the teacher acts as a support system. Over time the vocabulary becomes innate which in turn, strengthens overall knowledge building.

- Lidia

To purchase and download these Knowledge Building Circles - Questions and Prompts graphics CLICK HERE

Looking for more information on KBC's and KBD? Check out these resources:

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