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Turning Tables, Reformers Advise Researchers on Student Learning

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PITTSBURGH--Turning the tables on their traditional relationship, some of the nation's leaders in cognitive research met here this month with practitioners to discuss ways in which educational innovations can contribute to theories about how children learn.

The participants agreed that reforms have yielded important insights, such as the role of classroom discourse and the creation of "learning communities'' in developing student learning.

But they also found that their conversation was hampered in part by a lack of a common language.

Unlike academic researchers, who look for hard data as evidence of success, those engaged in the work of school reform tend to tell stories that seldom meet the criteria for publication in scientific journals, said James Minstrell, a physics teacher at Mercer Island (Wash.) High School.

"We should not only honor experimental research, or the elaborate methodologies developed over lots of years,'' he said, "but also the other end--narratives and stories of what is going on.''

"I submit,'' Mr. Minstrell continued, "that we are not researchers; we are not teachers. We live somewhere along the continuum. And what constitutes research that is publishable should be on a continuum.''

Despite participants' differences, the conference helped add to the knowledge base about learning, said Robert Glaser, the director of the national research center on student learning, a federally funded project at the University of Pittsburgh that sponsored the meeting.

At the least, he noted, the exchanges here showed what happens when theories are implemented in classrooms.

"Researchers are realizing that change is not an organ implant,'' Mr. Glaser said. "A lot depends on the receiving condition of the body.''

Cognitive Revolution

The conference comes as a revolution in cognitive science is beginning to transform a growing number of schools and out-of-school educational programs. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1991.)

A substantial body of research, much of which has been conducted here at the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, has found that the traditional view of learning--in which teachers impart knowledge to passive students--is misguided. Rather, the studies have found, children learn by actively "constructing'' knowledge based on what they already know, as well as on their environments.

But in addition to studying children in laboratories, researchers in cognition have turned their attention to school-reform experiments, such as the ones represented at the conference.

"Schools are seen as places with expertise to be worked with and studied, rather than places where the ineptitude of bozos is declaimed,'' Mr. Glaser said.

Participants here said that the innovations being studied tend to share some common elements.

For one thing, fostering students' ability to use their minds well demands that schools encourage frequent student performance, said Joseph P. McDonald, a senior researcher with the Coalition of Essential Schools, a prominent reform network based at Brown University.

Currently, he said, student performance is relegated to "the margins,'' such as for homework and tests.

"Understanding is performance,'' Mr. McDonald said. "You can't work on it in any other mode. It's got to come out of the closet.''

Shifting Discussion

Other participants also described projects that shift responsibility for classroom discussion from teachers to learners.

Instead of the traditional pattern, in which teachers ask questions, students answer them, and teachers evaluate the answers, Mr. Minstrell of Mercer Island High said, his classroom encourages students to ask and answer their own questions, while the teacher reflects the questions back to them.

Such practices enable students to come up with scientific concepts, rather than have the concepts told to them, Mr. Minstrell said.

"That reflects the nature of intellectual practice involved in the discipline,'' he said.

Joseph C. Campione, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, also emphasized that classrooms should create "communities of learners,'' in which teachers, as well as students, practice learning behaviors.

Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at the Harvard University graduate school of education, said the projects described here point up the limitations of earlier theories of learning, which focused on the processes that go on inside students' heads.

"These are more concerned with the school community in which learning takes place,'' he said.

Out-of-School Programs

In addition to school reforms, participants here described some out-of-school projects that are aimed at enhancing children's learning.

For example, said Deanna Banks-Beane, a project director at the Association of Science-Technology Centers, the Exploratorium in San Francisco trains children to be "explainers'' at museum exhibits.

"Learning goes on, because this is [the pupil's] area of expertise,'' she said.

But out-of-school projects also foster such values as self-esteem and motivation, and address the particular needs of adolescents, said Laura Martin, the vice president for production research at the Children's Television Workshop.

These findings suggest that researchers should consider such factors in addition to cognitive learning, Mr. Glaser of the research center on learning said.

"We have to look at a whole range of issues,'' he said, "not just test scores.''

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