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Learning on Line

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"One reason why Sponges and the animals like (Sponge) have three ways of reproducing instead of one may be because their (the animals I am referring to) cell structure is so simple that you can get the cell structure easily by...losing some cells. For example, I have a theory about one of the ways Sponges and related animals reproduce, when a wave detaches part of the skin from a Sponge or other animals like it (the Sponge) is like algae and grows into a full-sized animal this is called Regeneration and Budding is probably like it."
--a student in an upper-elementary classroom in Toronto, as excerpted from Schools for Thought by John T. Bruer.

This passage represents the best of what students accomplish through Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment, an information-management system developed by researchers Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

After years of research on developing writing skills, the two researchers set out to create a broader classroom environment that would promote the acquisition of higher-level cognitive skills within the context of a discipline. The Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment or CSILE was the result.

Teachers begin a unit in CSILE by asking students to ponder three key questions: What do I already know abut this topic? What do I wonder about? What words would I use to look up the information on my database?

Although the students work in small groups, every child spends 30 minutes a day entering either graphics or text on his topic into a common database. The intention is not for students to create daily reports for their teachers. Rather, students use one another's research and writings as a way of advancing their knowledge--something like the professional journals that scholars rely on. The student above, for example, is putting forth a theory. Other classmates wrote responses either challenging or supporting that hypothesis. At the end of a unit, the group decides whether any of the material in its accumulated database is worthy of wider publication.

Thus far, the researchers have found that students in the program improved more than comparison students on the Canadian Test of Basic Skills. In fact, each year a student spends in a CSILE classroom results in a larger gain on the test compared with students not enrolled in the program.

But the researchers say the greater payoff is that the program students become better at generating causal explanations and coherent accounts. They also retain more of what they learn, and they are more likely than students in traditional classrooms to say that their goal in school is to understand rather than to earn a high grade or praise.

--Debra Viadero

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