Envisioning Knowledge: Building Literacy in the Academic Disciplines
reviewed by Margaret C. Hagood - June 09, 2011
Title: Envisioning Knowledge: Building Literacy in the Academic Disciplines
Author(s): Judith A. Langer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751588, Pages: 192, Year: 2010
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In Judith Langers most recent book, Envisioning Knowledge: Building Literacy in the Academic Disciplines, she poses three questions: What is knowledge? How do we gain it? And how do we teach it? To Langer, these questions are important because knowledge is more than a vacuum of facts devoid of context, and it is through honing knowledge that we develop deep disciplinary understanding. She outlines several characteristics of knowledge: (1) Interrelations of facts within and across domains, including what does and doesnt belong in the domain; (2) honed and crafted understandings related to social and disciplinary conventions, and (3) discipline-specific meaning making of context, content, and conventions of a domain.
Using examples of classroom instruction in grades 6-12, Langer sets out a well-designed path to answer these questions for the betterment of engaging teachers and students in developing learning in various disciplines (specifically science, social studies, math, and English). She continuously draws upon content, context, and conventions to demonstrate how engagement in thought and language in disciplinary knowledge matters and how to achieve academic literacy.
Langer describes knowledge as relational and socioculturally situated and built upon background and experiences with disciplinary specific content. Given the specificity of her definition, she argues in Chapters 1-4 that literate thinking skills and strategies used to create meaning and build knowledge must be developed explicitly and deeply, connecting home experiences with the defined content area to ultimately create an academic literacy within a certain discipline. This development must be active, engaging, and content specific.
Langer describes the gaining of knowledge as a result of a persons active desire to learn by making sense of the world through envisionment building. Envisionments are holistic understandings at any given moment that include past experiences and backgrounds, hunches, ideas related to what is understood and misunderstood and are always developing. Langer then connects how envisionment building assists in making sense of the world and contributes to knowledge building moving from learners home learning and out-of-school academic literacy to their honed learning of academic, disciplinary knowledge. She outlines five stances that learners take toward content at a given moment as they build knowledge, moving from encountering new material to critiquing knowledge based upon reflective experiences.
Langer also describes two orientations that people usually take as they are developing meaning. Learners may take on a point of reference, which includes objective reasoning in order to get information and build conceptual knowledge. Or, they may approach learning as exploring horizons of possibilities, which includes subjective open-ended meaning making to discover something new. She gives in-depth explanations of these orientations, illustrating how teachers use them, sometimes separately and sometimes interrelatedly, to plan instruction that focuses on content knowledge and on how students learn to think about the material.
In Chapters 5-10 Langer uses examples from middle school and high school classrooms, as well as from a professional development group of teachers, to illustrate how engagement and disciplinary knowledge develop using four key features: building envisionments, forging curricular connections, engaging in deep discussion and related writing, and providing meaningful strategies. Throughout, she shows how teachers explicitly instruct and implicitly guide students content knowledge to become part of a disciplinary community focused on core academic subject areas. She illustrates how teachers actively engage students through inquiry and interactive methods that build upon discussion and writing activities within the content area. She shows how teachers draw upon stances students take toward content and design instruction that incorporates both point of reference and exploring horizon orientations to help students go deep into content. She highlights teachers instructional practices but also includes how they teach students to approach thinking about the content within each discipline. Throughout Chapters 5-9, as people engage in Langers envisionment building, they become more aware of the processes of literate thinking and become more thoughtful, critical, and reflective learners within their disciplines of study.
This text has potential uses in both undergraduate and graduate courses focused on connecting the general process of knowledge development and active learning to instructional practices and content engagement in classrooms. The writing is approachable and user friendly, with clear definitions and concise explanations. At a time when much attention about curriculum instruction is focused on teaching standards without much attention to the context or conventions of developing deep understanding and ownership of particular disciplinary knowledge, this text is a welcomed addition to the conversation.