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Learning in Community

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More than a decade ago, Ann Brown and Annemarie S. Palincsar perfected a technique for improving children's reading comprehension. The approach, "Reciprocal Teaching," was simple: Teach children to use the same strategies that expert readers use to get a handle on difficult text.

Students learned to ask for clarification when they came upon words they didn't know, to periodically stop and summarize the passages they had read, to ask questions about the text, and to predict what they would find in the reading ahead.

Reciprocal teaching came to be widely adopted--and sometimes misinterpreted--partly because it fit so well with the traditional reading groups that most teachers already used.

But Brown wanted to effect deeper and broader changes.

"I realized that it would be better if students didn't read to prove that they could read," she told a reporter in 1994. "It is important for students to read in the service of learning."

Thus, Brown and her husband, researcher Joseph Campione, set out to create a whole classroom environment in which students would "read to learn." The result was Fostering Communities of Learners.

Through that technique, which incorporates Reciprocal Teaching, students break into research groups. The groups can use classroom reference materials or roam the Internet for the information they need. They then "jigsaw," which means that each group sends a representative to another group. In their new groups, each representative then shares what he or she learned in the previous group.

The technique is an example of what Brown calls "guided discovery": Students accept as much responsibility as they can for their learning, but the teacher guides that discovery process to help students avoid misconceptions.

Brown and Campione tested the method in inner-city schools in the San Francisco Bay area, primarily in Oakland. They gave students short pre- and post-unit quizzes on the subjects they were studying--ecology and conservation biology.

They discovered that children in the experimental classrooms increased their performance from between 25 percent and 45 percent correct on the pre-test to between 70 percent and 75 percent correct on the post-test. Children receiving traditional instruction in the comparison groups, on the other hand, did not improve their performance significantly. Moreover, students in the FCL classrooms could use their knowledge to solve new problems and were better at comprehending unrelated texts.

--Debra Viadero

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