Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology

Volume 30(3) Fall / automne 2004


Dr. William J. Egnatoff is Assistant Professor, Computers in Education, Faculty of Education, Queen’s University. He may be reached at

Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age, 2002. Carl Bereiter. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 526 pages. ISBN: 0-8058-3943-7.

Reviewed by William J. Egnatoff

Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age is a critical and technical analysis of the discipline and profession of education in terms of notions of mind, knowledge, and understanding. Bereiter believes that the aim of public education is to help all students build a comprehensive and coherent understanding of the world. He offers no recipe for enhancing progress towards this aim but he does use the idea of a recipe as a “conceptual artifact” to illustrate how further progress might be achieved by thinking differently about knowledge.

Bereiter’s family enjoyed the excellent cooking of his mother-in-law and so family members would sometimes attempt to construct a recipe based on her cooking. She knew how to prepare gnocchi very successfully, but she did not follow a recipe and often varied what she did. That variety made the construction of a useful recipe an interesting challenge. Now, the gnocchi, the cook’s knowledge, and the recipe are all different things. Bereiter, following Karl Popper, puts each in a different world. The gnocchi is material (World I). The cook’s knowledge, which Bereiter calls “personal knowledge”, is mental (World II). The recipe is non-material and is separate from the ideas of any individual (and distinct from any particular written or oral representation). It lives with all other conceptual artifacts, in World III.

Popper’s distinctions might not be needed to understand what a recipe is, but having a three-world epistemology that clearly separates conceptual artifacts from their origins becomes more important when attention turns to the vast and increasing world of knowledge work. Everyone uses objects in World III, but knowledge workers actually expand World III; they use conceptual artifacts to improve existing ones and to produce more. To continue the gnocchi example, imagine that the recipe has moved from its domestic origin into the marketplace, into a cookbook that its publisher wishes to revise. The publisher hires a chef to test and improve the recipe, and a cookbook editor, who has a strong sense of what makes a good recipe. The chef, in trying to improve the recipe, temporarily becomes a knowledge worker alongside the editor. What the chef does in World I—cooking—while under contract to the publisher is secondary. What the publisher wants from the chef and the editor is an improvement to the recipe, a conceptual artifact.

In addition to a three-world view of reality, Bereiter offers a practically differentiated look inside the world of the mind, World II. First, he advocates that people stop thinking of the mind as a container of knowledge, and start thinking of the mind as the manifestation of the brain as it adapts continuously (accommodation and assimilation) to all that is presented to it. Nevertheless, it would be so awkward to talk always of the brain “behaving knowledgeably” that Bereiter reverts to saying, albeit metaphorically, that a person has various sorts of “personal knowledge”, the stuff of World II. (1) Some of that stuff can be readily talked about or written down—statable knowledge. Gnocchi contains flour, potatoes, and egg yolk. (2) Some knowledge—implicit understanding—comes from long experience and allows one to make predictions. As the gnocchi dough is being kneaded, the cook knows at any instant whether or not it has just the right amount of flour. (3) Some knowledge—episodic knowledge—is in the form of experiences that we can draw upon. The cookbook editor recalls details of successful conversations with chefs and uses those to guide the extraction from the current chef of details needed to refine the recipe. (4) The chef and editor both have hunches—impressionistic knowledge—about the sorts of new flavours the public might like. (5) They both have great skill in doing their work; part of that skill is cognitive—knowing how, and part sub-cognitive—the part that gets better with practice. (6) They have overarching knowledge that keeps them on track and tells them how well they are doing—regulative knowledge. Understanding something well, whether cooking, using a recipe, or making a better recipe, depends on bringing into play all six forms of knowledge as one works intelligently with what one is trying to understand.

Creating a recipe, an example of a social process that Bereiter calls “knowledge building”, has a three-fold benefit: taking a step towards creating a cookbook, learning about cooking, and gaining experience in creating recipes. Similarly, knowledge building has a three-fold place in school: as productive work that adds value to ideas useful to students, as a means of learning, and as a way of becoming a knowledge builder. Solving problems of understanding, not just receiving explanations or engaging in discovery, ought to be part of every approach to teaching. The activities teachers plan for students should not distract from the development of understanding by degenerating into a focus only on content, activity, or self-expression. Good instruction will involve talk about the quality and improvement of ideas being generated and about the thinking that is going on. Such talk will emphasize common understanding rather than agreement, commitment to expand the factual base, selective criticism based on knowledge-advancement goals, and nonsectarianism.

Bereiter would like to see teachers immersed in two knowledge-building communities—one with their students, to understand the whole world, and the other with educational researchers, to understand teaching and learning. Researchers need to work more directly with teachers on problems they face and teachers need to feel more connected with the advancement of knowledge about teaching, learning, and the particular subjects they teach.

Why are Bereiter’s ideas important? Each of the popular approaches to education retreats from a major problem: back-to-basics retreats from the intangibles of an educated person; liberal education, from producing knowledge producers; developmentalism, from transcending the limits of human nature; and futuristic education, blinded by a surface view of the future, from considering how we actually learn and think. Debate has been constrained not by reality but by the availability of adequate concepts. Bereiter offers many concepts, including those sketched in this review, all carefully and critically related to major ideas that have dominated educational thought in the half century of his own remarkable service as teacher and educational psychologist. The writing is refreshing and provocative, and well illuminated with examples and stories.

People interested in educational technology would do well to examine Bereiter’s ideas and arguments critically, pressing them into service and perhaps improving upon them. Although students, teachers, and researchers use the Internet extensively as an information source and communication channel, they make very little use of it for the sort of collaborative knowledge building that Bereiter argues is essential in the knowledge age. Should people use educational technology simply to learn about existing ideas or should they use it to produce new ideas? How can educational technologies serve in creating a hybrid research-practice culture that will bring our educational system into the knowledge age?

ISSN: 1499-6685

Copyright (c) 2004 William J. Egnatoff

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