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Researchers' Meeting Puts Theory Into Practice

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ATLANTA--For years, participants at the annual meetings of the American Educational Research Association have noted the irony that, at a time when research is pointing out the inadequacy of lecturing as a way of teaching, the sessions at the meeting tended to consist of four researchers lecturing to a passive audience.

Last year, however, a committee decided to change that. So at this year's meeting, which took place here last week, 15 percent of the sessions used "experimental'' formats designed to foster interaction among the presenters and between the presenters and the audience.

The experimental formats included "town meeting'' discussions, small-group sessions, hands-on demonstrations, and "PBS-style'' roundtables in which moderators led conversations among a number of speakers.

Of course, being researchers, the association members had to evaluate their experiment, and they designed six studies to gauge participants' reactions. Over the course of the week, the evaluators collected questionnaires from attendees and speakers, held focus groups, and interviewed participants about their "day at the annual meeting.'' They also conducted an ethnographic study, in which a researcher followed a participant throughout the week.

The data were expected to be analyzed late last week, but an informal survey of participants suggested that the results of the experiments are mixed. While some welcomed the freedom from the bonds of the traditional format, others feared that some of the cures were worse than the disease.

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One of the experimental sessions featured not only an unusual format, but an unusual speaker as well: Kenneth G. Wilson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Ohio State University.

In an informal interview with Matthew B. Miles, a researcher from the Center for Policy Research in Sparkhill, N.Y., Mr. Wilson explained that he became involved in education two years ago when he agreed to co-direct Ohio's state systemic initiative, a National Science Foundation reform project. Knowing little about the subject, he consulted with colleagues from Ohio State's school of education and from the National Academy of Sciences' committee on the federal role in education research, on which he served, and conducted his own study of the problem.

His conclusion was that a new paradigm is needed, one that fosters "wisdom-centered learning.''

The system would include 20-year apprenticeships for teachers, beginning in the 5th grade, support for "planning professionals,'' and third-party evaluations in the classroom, rather than standardized tests.

Mr. Wilson said that, though controversial, his proposal could revolutionize schools in the way Copernicus revolutionized the way we view the solar system.

"In the early days, there was no political consensus that [Copernicus's view] was the right way to go,'' he said.


In addition to featuring a leading physicist, the meeting here also highlighted educational practitioners, who are not always prominent at A.E.R.A. conferences. To do that, the meeting's organizers brought one of the best-known educators in the country, Deborah E. Meier, the principal of Central Park East Secondary School in New York City.

Ms. Meier's talk, "Why Kids Don't Want To Be Well Educated,'' focused on student motivation, a problem that has gained increasing attention from the research and policy communities.

At a meeting with reporters after the talk, Ms. Meier said that the drive for national curriculum standards might harm student motivation by focusing on what students ought to know, rather than what they do know.

"We have a tendency to look at kids as inadequate, compared with standards,'' she said. "There is a devaluing of kids in this standards talk.''


A familiar figure at A.E.R.A. meetings got some new-found attention last week because of his new job.

Marshall S. Smith, the undersecretary of education-designate, drew a crowd of nearly 1,000 people to his talk on the Clinton Administration's education policy.

Mr. Smith, the former dean of the graduate school of education at Stanford University, is one of four U.S. Education Department officials with research backgrounds who had been scheduled to speak here even before the election.

Although Terry Peterson and Michael G. Cohen, both aides to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, could not attend last week, Sharon P. Robinson, who has been nominated to head the office of educational research and improvement, appeared at several sessions.--R.R.

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