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After years of research on the development of writing skills, Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education set out to create a classroom environment that would promote the acquisition of higher-level cognitive skills within the context of a given subject area. The Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment--or CSILE--was the result.

Teachers begin a CSILE unit by asking students to ponder three key questions: What do I already know about this topic? What do I wonder about it? What words would I use to look up the information on my database? Although students generally work together in small groups, each child spends 30 minutes a day entering either graphics or text on his or her particular topic into a common computer database. The idea isn't for students to create reports for their teachers but rather to create a resource of student knowledge that others in the class can use to advance their own learning.

In the course of their work, students put forth a theory on their respective topics. Classmates in each group respond, either challenging or supporting the hypothesis. At the end of a unit, the group decides whether any of the material in its accumulated database is worthy of wider publication.

According to the researchers, program students' scores on the Canadian Test of Basic Skills have risen more than those of control-group students. In fact, the researchers found that 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 Scardamalia and Bereiter say the greatest payoff is that the program students become better at generating causal explanations and coherent accounts. In addition, they retain more of what they learn and are more likely than students in traditional classrooms to say their goal in school is to understand rather than to earn a high grade or praise.

--Debra Viadero

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