You would never know by looking at the John Swett School that groundbreaking work is going on inside. A high chain-link fence surrounds the half-dozen or so portable classrooms that make up the Oakland, Calif., elementary school. The compound is completely paved, and bare pipes run along the sheltered walkways that connect the buildings. From a little distance, the enclosure looks more like an isolated army base than a school. Only the jungle gym, strewn with yellow police tape, betrays its true identity.
Yet it is here that University of California psychologist Ann Brown has come to create what she calls "a community of learners.'' Working with teachers at John Swett, a predominantly African-American inner-city school, Brown is engineering change and simultaneously studying its effects in the classroom, a real-world interplay of research and reform.
Three decades ago, when Brown entered her chosen field, her laboratory was far removed from the everyday reality of students and schools. Like most behavioral psychologists of the day, she studied children as if they were mice or monkeys, using the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus. Designed to observe how animals respond to stimuli, the apparatus looks like a confessional, with a one-way mirror separating the experimenter from the subject. In the 1950s and '60s, behavioral psychologists used the device to study children because they believed that the same basic laws of behavior held true for every species--humans included.
With a kind, round face, topped with fine curly brown hair, Brown doesn't look like someone who would ever isolate children in such an impersonal contraption or run them through what now seem like meaningless tasks. She leans forward on the dark leather couch in her Berkeley home and explains why she did. "I am a psychologist; I have always been a psychologist of sorts,'' she says, implying that this was simply the way things were done back then. "I started my academic career 30 years ago studying learning, and I'm still doing that. But what I did then and what I do now are as distinct as night and day.''
What she does now is delve directly into the messy realities of classroom life. Researchers have long studied the individual aspects of schooling--curriculum, instruction, technology, and assessment--but few have examined the interplay among them. This is what Brown does, and it has given her a unique perspective on teaching and learning. It has helped her see how misguided traditional schooling is, and it has given her clear ideas about how classrooms should operate, ideas she has been testing at the John Swett School and, more recently, at Sequoia Elementary School, also in Oakland.
What Brown envisions is an elementary classroom in which students take individual and communal responsibility for their learning; a classroom where constructive discussion, questioning, and criticism are the mode rather than the exception; a classroom where students are encouraged to develop their interests and strengths and conduct research. Unrealistic? Brown doesn't think so.
What schools should be doing, she insists, is teaching kids how to be lifelong learners. This is what she and the teachers at John Swett and Sequoia are trying to do. "We aim to produce a breed of intelligent novices,'' Brown writes in a 1993 anthology on cognitive studies, "students who, although they may not possess the background knowledge needed in a new field, know how to go about gaining it.''
Brown's vision relies heavily on her own research in the cognitive sciences, much of it conducted in school classrooms. Cognitive revolutionaries, Brown among them, have discovered that people learn best when actively constructing knowledge rather than passively absorbing another person's expertise. They've found that students have knowledge and feelings about how they learn and that the most effective learners have control over the learning process. They've also come to see that, while people can learn almost anything if they put their minds to it, most learn some things more easily than others because of their own individual interests.
"If you have theories that are based on what kids can actually do when they are challenged and interested and motivated,'' Brown says, "then you have a completely different concept of what curriculum and assessment should look like. The theories of learning that are coming out now from psychologists who are interested in schools are more complicated but more real and have more direct application to classrooms because they were developed by studying children in classrooms.''
Noted author and Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner first came across Brown's work in the 1970s. She was among the first to study students' own reflections about their thinking and learning, an area of psychology that has come to be known as metacognition. Gardner says that in the 1980s, when many psychologists began turning their attention directly to education, Brown's work stood out "because, unlike almost everything else in this field, it was actually useful.''
Brown's current work designing classes that capitalize on children's natural learning processes is unparalleled, according to Gardner. By drawing on both psychological theory and classroom experience, and by offering models of what can be done in regular classrooms with regular teachers, Brown, Gardner says, is having "more impact than any other psychologist of her time.''
Ann Brown was born in an air-raid shelter in Portsmouth, England, during World War II. Her mother was Irish, her father English. At age 11, Brown remembers thinking that college was not in the cards. She attended a rigid Catholic elementary school, governed by ruler-toting nuns. In those days in England, children had to pass an exam to get into college-preparatory schools. Only one in four made it over the hurdle. Brown, who was dyslexic and, as a result, a very late reader, was not among them.
Brown's mother wouldn't let her go to the local non-preparatory school because it wasn't Catholic. The only other option was an expensive parochial school that the family couldn't afford. But the school took Brown anyway because her mother did a lot for the church. The first thing the nuns did was teach Brown to read. She proved to be clever and a good student. Seeing an opportunity to improve the school's reputation by sending a graduate on to college, the nuns hired tutors to help Brown pass university entrance exams.
At 18, as Brown was preparing to attend the University of London to study history, she saw a documentary on how animals learn in their natural environments. "I was so fascinated,'' she recalls, "that I looked up animal learning in my handy guide to universities and found that in order to study learning, I needed a degree in psychology.'' Because of her late educational development, she had a poor background in math and science, prerequisites for the study of psychology. With little hope, she set up an interview with the head of the psychology department. Coincidently, the professor was an expert on 18th-century literature--Brown's high school specialization. They discussed poetry for hours, and Brown left with a scholarship to study psychology.
But rather than researching animals in their natural habitats, Brown focused on lab animals--rats, mice, pigeons--that were learning things they were never intended to. In retrospect, Brown believes that the learning theories of the behaviorists she studied back then--B.F. Skinner and Edward Tolman, among them--all share common features that make them less than ideal models for educational practice. "All derived their primary database from rats and pigeons learning arbitrary things in restricted situations,'' she says. "By studying the behavior of pigeons in arbitrary situations, we learn nothing about the behavior of pigeons in nature.'' And even less, she adds, about the behavior of children.
Even as a University of London psychology student, Brown was not comfortable with the behaviorists' view of learning. "I questioned it,'' she says, "but I was very good at it. The trouble with academics is that if you are good at a subject, you go on doing it.'' So Brown continued conducting behaviorist experiments at the University of Sussex, where she landed her first teaching position.
In 1968, Brown headed off to the United States on a two-year sabbatical. It was a chance to make a new start. She had officially been trained as an experimental psychologist but had begun working with children in the area of cognitive development. Once in the United States, this is what she decided to focus on. Brown liked her new identity and her new home better than the old. "It was a much more exciting place and easier to get grants, so I decided to stay,'' she says. She was offered a post at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
During the 1970s, Brown's work focused on human memory. She found that children could be trained to use simple strategies to improve their memories, but she also noted that they tended not to use the strategies they learned unless prompted to do so. She wondered why. Was it that they didn't realize the strategies were useful or simply that they didn't care? In trying to answer these questions, Brown came up with the concept of metacognition: the idea that children can learn better when they are aware of how they learn. "I was completely struck by the fact that you could get students to improve, but if you walked away, they just didn't do it anymore,'' she says. "The reason they didn't do it anymore is because they didn't understand why they were doing it.'' Many children, she discovered, especially those who are disadvantaged, don't think to orchestrate, oversee, plan, and revise their own learning activities.
Her next thought was that maybe children could be trained to do it. She found, however, that this was no easy task, especially in the laboratory setting, where children were being encouraged to learn material for no purpose other than to please an experimenter. She began to question the whole lab approach to studying children. Gradually, she was drawn into the classroom.
This migration to the classroom was frowned upon by some of her peers. The first grant proposal Brown wrote was rejected when anonymous reviewers accused her of abandoning her experimental training and conducting "pseudo-experimental research in a quasi-naturalistic setting.''
Around the same time, Brown turned to the study of reading, something she had never thought she'd do given her own personal struggles as a youngster. "Having been such a poor reader myself, it's the last thing in the world that I wanted to do,'' she says. But when a colleague wrote a grant proposal to launch a center for the study of reading and needed a developmental psychologist for his research team, Brown let him use her name. After the center opened, the funders requested a book chapter on what was known about metacognition in reading. "When I wrote the chapter,'' she recalls, "I soon realized that all the interesting questions had not been asked. I got pulled more and more into that work.''
At the time, teachers commonly taught reading skills using basils and workbooks rather than real literature or whole texts. If a teacher wanted students to learn how to summarize, he or she might ask them to summarize paragraphs on a work sheet. Brown's collaboration with Annemarie Palincsar, a teacher and graduate student in special education at the University of Illinois, fundamentally challenged that approach.
Although Palincsar and Brown come from different backgrounds, the two shared an interest in helping disadvantaged students learn reading-comprehension strategies. Both were also drawn to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky's theory that children learn best in a real social setting with a wide range of learning opportunities available to them. Together, Brown and Palincsar developed a remarkably simple technique: Students read a particular text and then take turns leading small group discussions to help the others better understand what they've read. They called the approach Reciprocal Teaching.
During a typical session, one student reads a passage aloud while the others read along silently. The children, guided by the leader, then ask each other questions about the text. They may ask for clarification of a word or phrase they don't understand or a more general question about the subject matter. They also summarize aloud and predict what might happen next.
Brown and Palincsar tested the approach using reading groups at a number of schools in Springfield, Ill. Almost immediately, evidence that the method worked began trickling in. Students who started out scoring only 40 percent on daily reading-comprehension tests raised their scores to 85 percent after only 20 sessions. The program was adopted by the local school district and later endorsed by the state of Illinois. Over a 10-year period, more than 800 teachers have been exposed to the teaching method.
Still, it bothered Brown that the approach was being used almost solely to teach reading in a reading-group setting. "I realized that it would be better if students didn't read to prove they could read,'' she says. "It is important for students to read in the service of learning, which is what you and I do. I read because I want to know about something or for pleasure. I wanted to turn reading from a school task into a learning task.'' It was at this point that she began to envision a classroom in which students read for the purpose of learning meaningful material and spent time discussing and writing about what they were learning.
This shift in focus coincided with a move west. Tired of the rural setting in Illinois, Brown landed a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley. It was a rocky transition. Two days after she and her husband, psychologist Joseph Campione, moved into a yellow stucco house in the Berkeley hills, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck. "It's a nice place to live,'' she says, "but you have to have the ability to put your head in the sand.''
As an outsider, she also had trouble finding a local school that would let her turn its classes upside down. After a year of following leads only to have them turn into dead ends, Brown heard about a 6th grade teacher and Berkeley graduate student who wanted to make significant changes in her classroom and then study the results. "Why, that's what I want to do,'' Brown remembers saying. That teacher, Martha Rutherford, became Brown's foot in the door at the John Swett School.
Inside Jill Walker's 2nd grade classroom at John Swett, students are conducting research about animals. Several have compiled a list of questions about defense mechanisms. Are animal babies born with the same defense mechanisms as their parents? Why do different animals have different mechanisms?
Where did the questions come from, one student is asked. "From our heads,'' she says. "When we read books, we're going to find out the answers.''
Walker's students work together in small groups. One group is engaged in Reciprocal Teaching, but others are conducting research or working on computers. This aspect of classroom design was the result of collaboration with teachers. When Brown first became involved at John Swett, she impressed upon Martha Rutherford that it was important to design the class so that the students would communicate with each other and build knowledge among themselves. But Rutherford knew that young children need structure. So they came up with the idea of rotating groups of children through regular activities; the children are free within a given structure. "It was a negotiation of needs and theory,'' Rutherford says.
Much of the activity in this bustling classroom goes on without direct intervention from the teacher. But Walker does spend some time "guiding'' each group. She approaches one table, for example, where students are supposed to be reading and taking notes about swamps. Not much is happening.
Walker first asks which student is the leader. A girl named Sharon (the children's names have been changed at the request of the school) comes to life, posing a question for the group: "What do we want to write in our journals from this book?''
"Trees,'' someone offers.
The students are clearly on the wrong track. Although the challenge for the teacher is to guide without taking over, that is not always possible, so Walker interrupts: "Do we want to write about trees? We're studying habitats. Which habitat is this about?''
A student says "swamps'' and then falls silent.
Walker tries to turn the conversation back to Sharon. "I'm not going to facilitate this conversation,'' the teacher says firmly.
Guided discovery is difficult to orchestrate, Brown admits. It takes sensitive clinical judgment to know when to intervene and when to leave well enough alone. "A major problem with guided discovery,'' she writes in a recently published anthology on classroom practice, "is the load placed on the guide, the official teacher. Invoking comfortable metaphors such as 'teacher as coach' does not tell us how and when the teacher should coach.
"Consider the position of a teacher who knows something that the students do not. Here she is in the position of making a judgment call about whether to intervene or not. She must decide whether the problem centers on an important principle or involves only a trivial error that she can let pass for now. Consider the case of the teacher who does not know the answer, or one who may share the students' puzzlement or misconception. In this case, she is first required to recognize this fact (which she might not be able to do) and, after admitting puzzlement or confusion, find ways to remedy it.''
The challenge to teachers is compounded by the fact that students given reign to discover in the classroom are apt, at times, to develop misconceptions. Last year, during a discussion on the use of DDT and other chemicals to combat malaria, a student informed the class that AIDS, like malaria, can be spread by mosquitoes. The child used analogy, theory, and technical language to support his point. "It's the same as with needles,'' he explained. "Infected blood gets into the needles and then spreads AIDS to another needle user. Mosquitoes bite an infected host and then bite a healthy person--the blood commingles.'' The dilemma facing the teacher in this situation is how to praise the boy for his impressive analysis and logic but also warn the other students against the misinformation.
Across the room, a simple exchange between two students demonstrates what Brown sees as the upside of guided discovery. "I want to show you something,'' 7-year-old Adria says to a classmate. Both are huddled around a Macintosh computer. Adria highlights a word and clicks on a boxed capital B on the tool bar. "See,'' she says. "The text gets bigger and bolder, so it stands out.'' One student has a bit of information and is sharing it with another.
Brown recognizes that youngsters develop talents and interests at different times. Traditional classroom practice doesn't acknowledge this, she says. Children of a particular age are all expected to grasp a certain amount of material in a fixed amount of time. This, she contends, runs against nature. In the Community of Learners program, students pursue a wide array of topics and subtopics at any given time. Students who develop an interest and expertise in a particular area pass it along to a peer. "No one is an island,'' Brown says of this kind of classroom. "No one knows it all. Cooperative learning is not just nice--it is necessary for survival.''
Last year, during a unit on animals, for example, a student fixated on the amounts of food various animals have to eat to survive. He noticed, for example, that sea otters, though relatively small, require vast quantities of food. He hypothesized that because the otter lives in the cold sea but has no blubber, it needs to eat a lot to produce the energy to keep warm. When someone else mentioned that tiny hummingbirds also require a lot of food, the student latched on to something akin to metabolic rate. He kept coming back to the concept time and again in class discussions. In Brown's terminology, the boy "seeded'' the idea of metabolic rate, which quickly "migrated'' through the class.
But the learning process is only part of the picture. Unless students have meaningful lessons to learn, Brown says, the process and the classroom structure will amount to little. Although there is clearly room for students to pursue areas of interest in her Community of Learners, Brown does not simply leave it up to students to decide what they will study. Instead, she and the teachers select a number of broad classroom topics and themes and revisit them often, each time pushing students to increasingly higher levels of understanding.
The classroom model also meshes Reciprocal Teaching with another cooperative learning technique known as the "jigsaw method.'' Students studying a particular topic in small research groups are assigned responsibility for one of five subtopics. The students research their subtopics and then share what they learn with the rest of their group; as the pieces come together, the whole picture emerges, just like with a jigsaw puzzle. When appropriate, the groups read books related to their research topic and then discuss them using the Reciprocal Teaching approach; the student who is the "expert'' on the particular subtopic under discussion leads the group.
The Reciprocal Teaching session in the corner of Walker's classroom is slow-going at first. A teachers' aide sits with three students: Tyrone, Katie, and Kendra. Each holds a book new to the group. They start by scrutinizing the title. Tyrone, the designated teacher, reads it aloud: "Read About Animals That Live in Shells.'' He pauses, unsure of what to do next.
The aide prompts him, "What are the strategies we can use?''
"Summarize, clarify, and question,'' he says. "Does anyone have any questions?''
When no one speaks, the aide asks, "What are shells?''
The students have been studying the topic, and their areas of expertise quickly become apparent. "They are coverings for animals with soft bodies,'' Katie says. "Snails are a good example.''
Tyrone asks the others to predict what kinds of things might be in the book. "I think the book will have animals with shells, like trilobites,'' Katie says.
With visible surprise at Katie's use of technical language, the aide inquires, "Why trilobites?'' As if stating the obvious, Katie replies, "Because they are early animals that had shells.''
Tyrone pipes in, "I think the book will have some animals that live in the water. I know that not all animals with shells live in the water, but some do.''
As Tyrone reads the next section, Kendra and Katie help him with difficult words, such as "exoskeleton.''
The aide pushes them to think. "The reading says that animals had soft bodies and then developed hard bodies. Why did they develop hard shells?''
Katie answers, "Because they need protection from predators.''
"They need protection from the weather,'' Kendra chimes in.
Katie runs with that idea. "Yeah, in a stormy sea with waves crashing, the animals might get knocked against the rocks.''
Tyrone asks if any words need clarification. "What are exoskeletons?'' Katie asks.
"Skeletons are bones inside,'' Tyrone says.
"Ex means non or not, so maybe it means no skeleton,'' Katie suggests.
"Good guess, but that's not the answer, so let's keep digging,'' the aide says. "What is the topic we are reading about? What makes sense?''
Katie summarizes what they've read then gasps, "Oh! I think it means skeleton on the outside!''
After about an hour and a half, all the students in the class return to their desks, and Walker asks them how their research went that day. Some students complain about problems that arose in their groups, while others talk about what they learned. Walker wraps up the session with a few encouraging remarks. "It's only our third day of research topics,'' she says. "There were some conflicts, but that's normal; that's just the nature of working in groups. We will be able to look back and realize that even though it was difficult in the beginning, we've come a long way.''
On the door outside of Laurie Wingate's 5th grade classroom at Sequoia Elementary School is a big orange sign that says: "Caution. Construction Zone: Work in Progress.'' The work under way today is what Brown refers to as a "benchmark lesson.'' This is a common activity that closely resembles a traditional lesson, with an adult leading the class. But even here, dialogue is valued.
Today, Wingate turns the class over to biologist Doris Ash and takes a seat in the back of the room. The students sit at desks in a large circle. Ash begins by saying, "I'm going to talk some; then I am going to let you talk. We're on a search for a big idea, an idea so big that you can use it in Oakland, in Borneo, in the ocean, and on all the continents.''
She asks what students know about the food chain. A small boy starts to offer a rather technical definition. Ash tells him to define his terms. "A herbivore, an animal that eats plants, gets eaten by a carnivore, which eats meats,'' he says. "A decomposer eats what's left over after everything dies.'' When he finishes, he calls on a girl across the room who adds that scavengers also eat dead things. This process, what Brown calls "handing off,'' allows students to have some control over the conversation and encourages them to talk to each other instead of always directing comments to the teacher.
Ash asks for examples of the kinds of animals mentioned so far. As the students give her some, she draws a simple food chain on the board: a mountain lion eats a deer, which has eaten grass. A student takes it further, noting that when the mountain lion dies it is eaten by worms, which are then eaten by insects. But he doesn't stop there. Insects, he adds, are eaten by mice, which in turn are eaten by cats and owls.
Ash is visibly excited. "Look what happened,'' she says. "We were drawing a nice straight chain, but we can't put all you know about food into a chain. It's more like a web.''
The class explores the difference between a food chain and a food web. During the ensuing discussion, children make lengthy, sometimes complex, points. In fact, when several try to give a short answer, Ash pushes them to elaborate. The students begin to see that the web concept encompasses more complex relationships between organisms than the food-chain idea.
Taking off on a student's comment, Ash poses a hypothetical question: "If most frogs suddenly died, what would happen to the food web?''
A student who hasn't yet spoken postulates that if a lot of frogs die, flies would flourish because of the demise of one of their natural predators and worms would have a tough time because all the flies would eat them. He hands off to another student, who points out that animals that eat frogs will also be affected.
Later, when the discussion shifts to the subject of scientific evidence, Ash asks what students might do to confirm that falcons are scavengers. Someone suggests that they examine falcon scat for mouse bones. But another student points out that even if they found bones in the droppings, they still wouldn't know whether the falcon ate the mouse when it was dead or alive. Another student suggests asking a ranger. "Consulting an expert,'' Ash interjects. "That's a good strategy.''
After the benchmark lesson, the students are scheduled to work on computers. But Wingate makes an on-the-spot decision to postpone the computer work and have the students read and work in research groups instead.
Each group receives a packet of articles on a chosen topic. The articles have been selected to help the students begin to frame research questions. "You can read out loud or to yourselves,'' Wingate tells the groups. "If you need to ask your neighbor for clarification, that's fine. You can make notes, but remember the notes are for you and should be structured to be helpful to you.''
Some of the articles are easy to read; others are quite challenging. After glancing at his packet, a boy in one group suggests, "I think we should read these by ourselves and take notes and ask each other questions as we need to.''
A girl in the group disagrees. "I think we should read them together so we are sure we all understand, so that no one feels bad about asking questions.'' The group decides to take this tack.
One of the students volunteers to start as the leader and calls on another to read aloud. She reads about a DDT controversy in Michigan. It seems that salmon in that state are still showing signs of contamination long after companies stopped using the pesticide. A group member asks for clarification. "What does contamination mean?''
"It's like something bad is added,'' a student says.
"What does persistent mean?'' another asks.
"It means it just keeps happening again and again, like a pattern,'' one girl in the group says. She did not say anything during the benchmark lesson but seems right at home in her research group. When someone asks what hatcheries are, she explains, "It's like a place where you raise birds, but you are raising fish.''
Questions that they can't answer among themselves, they note in their research journals. Later, they will either look up the answers or ask Wingate or Ash for help.
Frustrated with what seems to her a plodding pace, one girl in the group declares, "This isn't working. Let's just read on our own.'' But the others demur, and the discussion continues.
Neither Jill Walker's class at John Swett nor Laurie Wingate's 5th grade class at Sequoia are perfect. As in all classes, some students don't do their work, some monopolize the discussion, some are obstinate. But with all their rough spots, these classes, like others at the two schools, are giving inner-city students an opportunity to take part in serious and rewarding discussions and to conduct real research. They are not only learning to read, write, and discuss but also how to solve problems and think.
Reciprocal Teaching has become standard practice for many teachers, but Brown is not as sanguine about her Community of Learners program. She believes that Reciprocal Teaching caught on because it is an adaptation of an already popular classroom technique--reading groups. "With the Community of Learners,'' she says, "we're asking teachers to do something much more complicated.''
Brown has resisted the prepackaged-curriculum approach to dissemination. As Martha Rutherford of the John Swett School puts it, Brown is "not interested in having [her] work put into a glossy box like a coffin.''
Instead, Brown hopes that a network of teachers who have successfully implemented the program in their classrooms and understand its underlying principles will carry it to others. She believes a wide range of teachers will become interested if they get a chance to see what the Community of Learners approach can accomplish.
Brown and her colleagues have collected information and numbers that she believes demonstrate the program works. During the 1992-93 school year, for example, the reading-comprehension scores of Walker's 2nd graders at John Swett increased by 34 months. Half of the class ended the year scoring at the 5th grade level or above on standardized reading tests.
But the more impressive evidence, Brown says, can be seen in the students' attitudes toward learning, not in their test scores. Children in her Community of Learners understand that it is not enough just to get a right answer, she says; they know they need evidence to back it up.
Harvard's Howard Gardner, one of Brown's biggest boosters, puts it this way. "She has taken ordinary kids, often disadvantaged, and shown that they can think, that they can be miniature scholars, doing the kinds of things scientists do.''