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Connections: The Endless Quest

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One reason for the gap is that the day-to-day demands of the classroom leave teachers little time and energy to keep up with research literature. But even many of those who read the journals and reports find the results counterintuitive and therefore--often wrongly and illogically--reject them. Teachers have difficulty accepting studies, for example, that claim teaching and learning are not enhanced by smaller classes or ability grouping of students.

Whatever the reasons for the gap, it deprives teachers of information and ideas that could change their professional lives. The seminal research of Ann Brown, described in the story on page 38, is a prime example. Early in her career as a behavioral psychologist, Brown studied children in laboratory settings as though they were pigeons or hamsters. But in her effort to improve, she kept reassessing her work, looking for new insights, and trying new ideas. She decided she couldn't really understand how children learn in a laboratory setting, so she began to study them in their natural habitat--the classroom. Based on her observations there, Brown came up with the concept of metacognition--the idea that children learn better when they are aware of how and why they learn and are conscious of their own learning skills. Working with teachers, she used that concept as the basis for her Reciprocal Teaching program, in which students take turns leading their peers in discussions about what they are reading.

Brown then began redesigning the classroom. Her goal was to create "a community of learners'' in which constructive discussion, questioning, and criticism are the mode rather than the exception; where students develop their interests and strengths and conduct research. Renowned Harvard cognitive scientist Howard Gardner says Brown is having more impact on the field than any other psychologist of her time.

Even though David Ruenzel left the classroom to become a writer, he continues his quest to understand better the mysteries of teaching and learning. Last summer, he tracked down some of his former students and asked them to reflect on their schooling and teachers. In the story beginning on page 32, he describes what he learned from those encounters.

Ruenzel discovered what Ann Brown could have told him: that his students enjoyed his classes most, and learned more, when he stopped trying to "teach'' them and instead created an environment in which they taught themselves and each other--a community of learners, if you will. Always bothered by a sense of uncertainty as a teacher, Ruenzel came to understand that uncertainty is the very nature of teaching. Every meaningful mistake he made as a teacher resulted from trying to control, trying to rescue teaching from the morass of uncertainty. He now believes "uncertainty is not shoddiness but is in fact surprise, insight, epiphany--all the things that are the lifeblood of genuine teaching.''

It is a different kind of uncertainty that faces inner-city teachers like those at the Milwaukee elementary school featured in the story on page 26. Student mobility is so high in many urban schools that teachers don't know who will be in their classrooms on any given morning. For thousands of poor youngsters, the school door is a revolving door. And there is little that research-based pedagogy or teacher commitment can do to overcome or even offset the quiet tragedy that results. Teachers and schools must keep trying to cope, but ultimately this is an educational and human problem that only the larger society can solve.
--Ronald A. Wolk

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