Synergistic Knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge Structures

14 02 2011

Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to know something and the space where new knowledge is born. While this is not related to the little paper I am working on (my dissertation), it does make a great diversion and something that may have larger implications for teaching and learning across cultures and in classrooms everywhere. For the past several years, I have been tossing around an idea I have come to call the theory of developing synergistic knowledge. This idea was in part born out of several readings that allowed me to look closer at diverse knowledge structures. Combined with observations from my travels and daily experiences, I started to form this idea of synergistic knowledge where the knowledge constructed might be greater than the sum of the parts of all agents and actors involved. This is an idea that is still new in my mind and is still taking form. I have yet to incorporate my current thinking informed by the works of Jurgen Habermas with the Theory of Communicative Action, my dissertation chair Scott Warren with the theory of Teaching and Learning as Communicative Actions and the work of Bruno Latour with Actor Network Theory.

I believe this will become increasingly more important as we see classroom walls fall away allowing “the social” to flow across oceans and into our everyday interactions through distributed learning environments. I also believe that an understanding of synergistic knowledge may play a role in exploring the space where knowledge is constructed beyond the knowledge resources that students and teachers bring to a lesson.

Recently, I have come across several items that I hope to explore further in future writings. The first is a wiki titled 8 Ways: 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning. The second is the Schooling The World Blog related to a film titled Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden. Both of these sites are deep with context that may inform future thinking on this topic as well as increase my understanding of indigenous knowledge structures and this place I call synergistic knowledge. Part of this reflective exercise is to get at the theoretical structures of synergistic knowledge while another purpose is to better understand it’s role in indigenous cultures as a way of knowing. Finally, what are some of the ethical considerations for us as we look at increased interactions with indigenous cultures facilitated by the infusion of technology into their cultures?

For those looking to dive deeper into this idea of a theory of developing synergistic knowledge, I offer the following text which I wrote and presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. This paper represents an early attempt at trying to capture and understand this emerging idea I had related to the interaction of knowledge structures in social constructivist learning environments.

I invite comments and ideas so feel free to post them on my blog.

Now I Present…

Proposed Theory of Developing Synergistic Knowledge

Chris Bigenho

University of North Texas Department of Learning Technologies

Abstract: Through a review of literature informing constructivist approaches, distributed learning and indigenous knowledge, I propose a new theory of Developing Synergistic Knowledge and suggest possible implications for instruction and design in distributed learning environments. This theoretical piece forms the basis for future qualitative and quantitative work in understanding developing synergistic knowledge.

1. Objective
I wish to propose a theory where knowledge constructed in distributed learning environments functioning as socially engaged and cognitively diverse learning communities can result in knowledge that is greater than the sum of knowledge exchanged within the community. I refer to this as synergistic knowledge. I propose that synergistic knowledge forms at the interface of cognitively dissonant dialogue in socially situated communities of learners. What do we know about the nature of knowledge that is constructed in socially situated learning communities? What do we know about socially negotiated knowledge? Is it possible that the knowledge constructed in learning communities can be greater than the sum of the information exchanged in the community?

2. Perspective
The theory of Developing Synergistic Knowledge formed from the ontological perspective that learning is a socially situated endeavor. Learning involves drawing on ones prior knowledge and cognitive dissonance with what is known, what others know and what the learner knows. Learning is transformative and not simply a transmission of knowledge. Learning is messy and requires reflection of personal worldview and open consideration of other worldviews. Understanding adds to learning in that learning becomes transferable to new problems never encountered before. It is through understanding that we can move flexibly through new and similar domains. It is within this context that I developed and propose the theory of developing synergistic knowledge.

3. Methods
This theory draws from the literature on synergistic knowledge as presented in studies surrounding Indigenous and Western ways of knowing, as well as studies analyzing knowledge construction through communication in threaded discussions. I pull from the constructivist canon as well as literature informing about indigenous knowledge. The proposed theory of developing synergistic knowledge evolved from the review of this literature.

4. Evidence
Learning environments should be situated in the context of a community of learners (CoL) or practitioners (Lave & Wenger, 2003). Lave and Wenger (2003) tell us that communities of practice are inclusive of individuals with diverse abilities, expertise and experiences where newcomers enter the community and move toward full participation. Newcomers adopt characteristics of the CoL including values, goals, community beliefs and structure of discourse (Jonassen, 1999). “Learning to become a legitimate participant in a community involves learning how to talk (and be silent) in a manner of full participants” (Lave & Wenger, 2003, p. 105). Learning within these communities occurs in teams rather than isolation (Jonassen, 1999). Learning represents a transformation of the individual and “implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities” (Lave & Wenger, 2003, p. 53). Polin adds that members will take on new responsibilities and roles within the community as they acquire new capabilities (Polin, 2004). This socialcultural model of knowledge and learning “creates flexible knowledge structures that facilitate the problem solving in new situations” (Grabinger, 2004, p. 55).

Learning communities work within the epistemic stance of constructivist learning environments where the learner is at the center of the learning experience. (Jonassen, 1999). These community centered environments include learner centered environments, knowledge centered environments and assessment centered environments (Bransford, Vrown, & Cocking, 2003). Learning communities allow for knowledge construction built on a learner’s prior knowledge, ideas and concepts leading them to deeper understanding that is demonstrated through both formative and summative assessments (Bransford, Vrown, & Cocking, 2003; Bransford, Vye, Bateman,

Brophy, & Roselli, 2004).

A major learning tool of constructivist communities of learning is dialogue (Lave & Wenger,

2003). This is facilitated in distributed learning environments through the use of technology (Bransford, Vrown, & Cocking, 2003). A key component for the formation of learning communities engaging in meaningful dialogue leading to deep understanding are the elements of affective trust and cognitive trust (Barker & Camarata, 1998). Without trust, communities would not effectively engage in “generative dialogue [where] people let go of their positions and views” (Isaacs, 1999, p. 40). This is similar to Lave and Wenger’s thoughts about learning to talk within the practice (Polin, 2004). Polin uses as an example the OMAET program at Pepperdine University. Here, dialogue is primarily text based in both synchronous and asynchronous modalities. While individual growth is supported through these exchanges, the community goal

is to advance the collective wisdom of the group (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999). This is best facilitate when there is a diversity of opinions and expertise (Lave & Wenger, 2003; Sunstein,

2006; Surowiecki, 2004). “Studies of mock juries [show] that the presence of a minority viewpoint, all by itself, makes a groups decisions more nuanced and its decision-making process more rigorous (Surowiecki, 2004, p. 183) Wherever there are diverse opinions, there is the chance for conflict and cognitive dissonance.

How this conflict is resolved is very important to the learning process. It is through resolution of this cognitive dissonance that deeper understanding is developed (Bransford, Vrown, & Cocking,

2003). It is also at this confluence of differing perspectives and worldviews where synergistic knowledge lives.

There is little in the literature directly related to the formation of synergistic knowledge. One area of study that draws on the concept of synergistic knowledge is Indigenous knowledge systems. Specifically, comparisons of Indigenous ways of knowing compared to Western ways of knowing (Cochran et al., 2008; Le Grange, 2007; Yunkaporta, 2007). Indigenous knowledge differs from Western knowledge in that Western knowledge is divided into domains or disciplines (Cochran et al., 2008) where Indigenous knowledge is holistic, communal, circular, and synergistic. In this context, synergistic knowledge has its roots in the creation of new knowledge when opposites interact (Yunkaporta, 2007). Yunkaporta (2007) goes on to say that “Aboriginal Synergistic Knowledge can be used to overcome the Western binary oppositional logic that demands adherence to one absolute and rejection of its opposite. Aboriginal rationality instead allows conflicting ideas to coexist simultaneously” (n.p.).

In a study looking at Indigenous learners in a Western science-learning environment, Le Grange (2007) found that the environment was usually hostile to Indigenous knowledge structures. This resulted in collateral learning of which there are four types:

1.  Parallel collateral learning-where multiple views can be maintained without experiencing conceptual conflict.

2.  Simultaneous collateral learning-where the learner simultaneously learns about a concept from two different worldviews and can assess similarities and differences between the different worldviews.

3.  Dependent collateral learning-where one worldview presents challenges for another worldview leading to the current belief being tentatively altered by construction of new knowledge.

4.  Secured collateral learning-where the “Indigenous learner has to resolve the mental conflict created by Western science” (p. 583).

The learning process is strengthened through the resolution of cognitive dissonance creating a “convergence toward commonality” (Le Grange, 2007).

Like communities of learners, trust is also fundamental in systems where diverse ways of knowing engage in cognitive interactions (Hassel, 2004). In a study looking at diverse ways of knowing in cross-cultural paradigms, it was reported that trust was an issue. “At the outset, participants within each program reported significant mistrust of large, land-grant research universities in part because prior experiences informed them that their knowledge tended to be discounted or ignored if it did not fit within a scientific model” (Hassel, 2004). Hassel reported that programmatic success depended on building personal relationships through trust and creating a “spirit of open inquiry”.

The development of epistemic fluency within a practicing learning community can help build trust and understanding. “Epistemic fluency allows one to recognize, appreciate and understand the subtlety and complexity of a belief system that one has not encountered before” (Goodyear, 2007, p. 358). Epistemic fluency is the ability to represent a variety of epistemic games- “approved methods of constructing new knowledge in a culture” (p. 358). Goodyear (2007) goes on to say that “active engagement in the collaborative construction of knowledge is a core quality and a necessary pre-requirement for the development of epistemic fluency” (p. 363).

In a study looking at interactions and cognition in asynchronous computer conferencing, four classifications of discussions were studied with each leading to “the construction of different kind(s) of knowledge, representing different degrees of openness to the ideas of others” (Schrire, 2004, p. 480). Interaction patterns for each threaded discussion were analyzed. The patterns included: (1) instructor-centered, (2) synergistic, (3) developing synergism, (4) scattered, and (5) student centered. Distributed interaction similar to synergistic interaction relates to the collaborative learning process and that higher-order thinking was “associated with synergistic interaction more than with other types of interaction.…Synergistic threads were found to differ significantly from instructor-centered threads on a classification differencing between exploration on one hand and integration and resolution on the other (X2 [1, n=48]=5.49, p < 0.05)” (493). Schrire (2004, p. 493) concludes that these findings “fit social constructivist theories where thought is considered to be a socially mediated and dialogical process”.

5. Results
This body of literature combines traditional constructivist perspectives from western ways of knowing with more holistic views found in indigenous cultures. It is through this interaction that I propose this theory.

Statement of Theory

Knowledge is constructed in distributed learning environments that function as socially engaged and cognitively diverse learning communities that can result in knowledge that is greater than the sum of knowledge exchanged within the community. Synergistic knowledge forms at the interface of cognitively dissonant dialogue in socially situated communities of learners.

6. Significance and Implications
Working with synergistic knowledge as a theory for design, distributed learning environments should seek to maximize the level of open non-destructive dialogue within the community. This dialogue needs to be learner generated and learner centered. Tools such as synchronous chat and asynchronous threaded discussions would be fundamental to the development of synergistic knowledge. While voice chat tools might also be useful, they are not designed to easily maintain searchable records of the conversations that are important for increasing cognitive contact with dissonant ideas.

Course designers and instructors should design the course from the constructivist perspective. Early in the course, efforts should be made to establish community norms that govern all exchanges. The goal would be to develop epistemic fluency as a community and as individuals. This development of trust will then foster the freedom to risk and share ideas through engaged dialogue. I wish to differentiate between discussions and dialogue. The purpose of discussions is to reach a decision while dialogue explores the nature of choice (Isaacs, 1999). I extend this distinction further by stating that dialogue explores the nature of choice through deep understanding of dissonant perspectives.

Many courses have discussion boards. These boards should become centers of dialogue. Many times, questions or prompts are posted by instructors or by students at the request of instructors. The responses to these are often directed back to the instructor with little call for engagement. Students often cite materials assigned in class as part of their posts. This does not qualify as dialogue as defined above. Dialogue must be more organic rising out of the interests and ideas of the learners as they are introduced to the big ideas within the domain of study.

From a pedagogical perspective, the instructor should refrain from offering responses to posts that carry the characteristic of fact or quality. Rather, each instructor response given should be to stimulate increased engagement between the learners within the community rather than between the learners and the instructor. The instructor can help the learners connect with other members of the community by being familiar with the epistemic stances of each of the learners. They can suggest the posts of other learners and encourage them to take on new perspectives.

Trust is important to any community where synergistic knowledge can develop, so to is responsibility. The community should take on a sense of responsibility for the learning of the group. This means that everyone in the community should be aware of projects and ideas held by community members. It is my belief that as trust within the community increases, so will responsibility. This will lead to deeper dialog and greater reflection that ultimately creates an environment where synergistic knowledge can develop. Finally, qualitative and quantitative work needs to be done to better understand the nature of developing synergistic knowledge.

Barker, R., & Camarata, M. (1998). The role of communication in creating and maintaining a learning organization: Preconditions, indicators, and disciplines. The Journal of Business Communication, 35(4), 443-467.

Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: A reconceptualization of educational practice. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (pp. 269-292). Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bransford, J., Vrown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2003). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

Bransford, J., Vye, N., Bateman, H., Brophy, S., & Roselli, B. (2004). Vanderbilt’s AMIGO3 project: Knowledge of how people learn enters cyberspace. In T. Duffy & J. Kirkley (Eds.), Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: Cases from Higher Education (pp. 209-234). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Cochran, P., Marshall, C., Garcia-Downing, C., Kendall, E., Cook, D., & Mccubbin, L. (2008). Indigenous ways of knowing: Implications for participatory research and community. American Journal of Public Health, 98(1), 22-27.

Goodyear, P. (2007). Discussion, collaborative knowledge work and epistemic fluency. British Journal of Educational Studies, 55(4), 351-368.

Grabinger, S. (2004). Design lessons for social education. In T. Duffy & J. Kirkley (Eds.), Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: Cases from Higher Education (pp. 49-60). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hassel, C. (2004). Can diversity extend to ways of knowing? Engaging cross-cultural paradigms [Electronic Version]. Journal of Extension, 42. Retrieved March 31, 2008 from

Isaacs, W. (1999). Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York: Currency. Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructioinal theory (Vol. 2, pp. 215-239). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (2003). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Le Grange, L. (2007). Integrating western and indigenous knowledge systems: The basis for effective science education in Sourth Africa? International Review of Education, 53, 577-


Polin, L. (2004). Learning in dialogue with a practicing community. In T. Duffy & J. Kirkley (Eds.), Learner-Centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: Cases from Higher Education (pp. 17-48). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schrire, S. (2004). Interaction and cognition in asynchronous computer conferencing. Instructional Science, 32, 475-502.

Sunstein, C. (2006). Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Doubleday.

Yunkaporta, T. (2007). Indigenous knowledge systems: Comparing Aboriginal and Western ways of knowing [Electronic Version]. Aboriginal Rights Suite 101. Retrieved March 28,

2008 from



3 responses

15 02 2011
NAIS Annual Conference 2011 Community

[…] Chris Bigenho Synergistic knowledge and indigenous knowledge structures Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to know something and the space where new knowledge is born. While this is not related to the little paper I am working on (my dissertation), it does make a great diversion and something that may have larger implications for teaching and learning across cultures and in classrooms everywhere…[MORE] […]

22 02 2011
Heike Winschiers

Indigenous Knowledge Technology Conference 2011

Indigenous knowledge systems differ fundamentally from the knowledge systems that underlie technology development. Numerous initiatives aim to enable remote diverse communities to share their wisdom and practical know-how with conventional digital technologies but often overlook the very systems that they use to organize and make sense of the world. Further, many indigenous communities, especially those in rural places, have few opportunities to appropriate new technologies emerging in ubiquitous computing, such as social networks, flickr, virtual and augmented realities.
To design digital infrastructures for currently unserved knowledge systems we must account for the transformations that occur as technology interacts with the ways of knowing, doing and being that constitute indigenous knowledge systems.

28 09 2011
The Week in Print [Sept 29, 2011] « Life in the Renaissance

[…] ideas to play with on an emerging theory I have been working to develop for a couple of years now- Developing Synergistic Knowledge. It seems I have some new material to consider as I toss this around in my head. Advertisement […]

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