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Perched atop laboratory stools, eight students in Freda Hill's 7th-grade science class are swapping notes about their field trip the previous day to a local steam-heating plant.

"The Ashley Street plant has been operating since 1988," says a small blond girl. "It was called a trash energy facility, but at the time, there were a lot of problems with environmental systems."

Mary Kelly volunteers that the pipes carrying water to the plant are 22 miles long and two feet in diameter.

So the conversation goes, with each student offering another scrap of information. Each time someone speaks, heads bend and students scribble intently in their notebooks. Along the way, the group discusses the "opacity" of smoke, the mathematics of converting water to steam, and the three forms of oxygen. Upon completing a thought, pupils call on classmates to take up the discussion. Their teacher sits silently, her arms folded across her chest, and takes it all in.

Then the group runs into some confusion. One student says the prefix "milli-" means 1,000, and another says it means 1 million.

"What is your math?" Hill interjects. When the students seem unsure, she adds: "We need to clear that up. Maybe we can e-mail the plant and see."

Computer mailing. Students sharing observations. Teachers who don't control a classroom discussion or pass out right answers like so many pieces of candy. It's a typical day at the Mason Investigative Learning Center.

The school last year became one of just 14 in the United States and Canada that are using fresh findings from the field of cognitive science to transform the way they teach. The program, sponsored by the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, is known as "Schools for Thought."

It grew out of McDonnell-funded experiments that took place over the past two decades in Toronto; Nashville, Tenn.; and Oakland, Calif. The researchers leading those studies came up with three separate programs aimed at improving learning in a variety of subject areas: Fostering Communities of Learners, Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments, or CSILE, and The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury.

Although each of these classroom interventions is distinct, all are built on some of the same basic principles of cognitive science. At their core, they share the common notion that the traditional model of schooling--the one in which the teacher lectures and students read from textbooks--is no longer adequate. While lecturing and drilling may be fine for inculcating basic skills, these scholars found, they fail to engage students' thought processes in a way that promotes deep and true understanding.

To bring about that kind of learning, they concluded, students must start with what they already know and build their knowledge from there. They must do their own research and work collectively on complex, realistic problems that are anchored in the disciplines they are studying. They should, in short, "construct" their own knowledge.

The researchers collected data over the years to support their ideas. The case they built was, in fact, strong enough to prompt John T. Bruer, the foundation's president, to call teaching based on cognitive psychology the "educational equivalent of the polio vaccine and penicillin." And national school reformers began to seek out the researchers' advice.

But, until Mason came along, the scientists had never put it all together, in every grade, in a single middle school.

A Real-Life Lab

Housed in a rundown former elementary school, Mason hardly looks like a setting for putting into practice state-of-the-art cognitive research. Broken windows dot the uppermost reaches of the school. Students must pass through a metal detector on their way to class in the morning just as they do in every middle school in this city.

Cramped for space, the school holds music classes in a basement stairwell. And, last month, student voices raised in endlessly repeated Christmas carols reverberated throughout the building.

Next year, the school, a science and mathematics magnet, is scheduled to move into a setting more appropriate to its mission. Its new address is a sleek, modern-looking structure with a three-story tower and a glass cupola. The building is steps away from the St. Louis Science Center, which has been a partner in the magnet school program.

Despite its special status as a magnet school, Mason's 274 students are remarkably diverse. One-quarter of the student population has been formally identified as gifted, while another quarter participates in the Title I remedial-education program for disadvantaged students. Twenty-four students commute to the school from more affluent neighborhoods in the surrounding county, and slightly fewer receive special-education services.

That kind of variation, however, is difficult to detect in classes like Hill's. What her students were doing that day partly stems from the Fostering Communities of Learners program. Developed by researchers Ann Brown and Joseph Campione of Harvard University's graduate school of education, that program is aimed at nurturing students' reading, writing, and argumentation skills.

In their purest form, FCL classrooms like Hill's consist of students divided into small research groups or "pods." Assisted by a teacher or aide, the students use reference materials available in the classroom, electronic mail, or Internet postings to seek the information they need. As they read together, they stop to summarize the text, clarify what they are reading, ask questions, and predict what the paragraphs ahead hold. After a time, the class reorganizes or "jigsaws," and each learning group sends a representative to another pod. In their new groups, each representative shares what he or she has learned.

The visit that Hill's students made to the Ashley Street plant was part of a curriculumwide 7th-grade unit on how a city works. Across the hall, in language-arts classes, the research groups are publishing newspapers from the perspectives of different communities. One group, for example, is putting together a black community newspaper, while another represents the more mainstream St. Louis-Post Dispatch. And students eagerly stop to describe to a visitor what they are doing.

"It's like we're more responsible for teaching ourselves than the teacher is," explains Larry Walker, one of Hill's students.

Though Hill also uses the CSILE program, it is less visible. Under the program, developed by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, students use a computer information-management system to build a communal knowledge base, much in the way that scientists use professional journals. The entries they post might ask for ideas to be clarified, put forth a hypothesis, or offer feedback to classmates.

"It's more of a forum so if students have an idea, they can put it out and look for things that support or challenge that idea," says Mary L. Lamon, the director of the Schools for Thought project. "The purpose is not to go to the library and take notes and copy the notes into the database."

Down the hall from Hill, where 6th graders are studying math, one can find the third piece in the Schools for Thought repertoire--The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury. Developed by researchers at the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University, that program consists of a series of fictional multimedia adventures contained on videodiscs that pose complex math problems that students might spend weeks solving.

In the first adventure, "Journey to Cedar Creek," the 30-something Jasper sees a newspaper advertisement for a 1956 Chris-Craft cruiser that needs work. He takes his aluminum fishing boat up the Cumberland River to Cedar Creek to inquire about the boat. After buying it, he learns that the running lights don't work, which means he must be off the river by sunset. One of the questions that students must answer is: Can Jasper get the cruiser home before then?

To answer it, students must solve a long time-rate-distance problem. All the information they need is embedded in the video like clues in a detective novel. By the time they have finished, they have solved at least 15 separate math problems.

Pupils as 'King'

Although the programs themselves were new to Mason, educators there were already leaning in a few of the same general instructional directions the programs indicated. Working in an "investigative learning center," some of Mason's teachers have for years emphasized hands-on learning, for example, and group work. And the school had already introduced some site-based planning--an innovation that gives teachers practice in the same kinds of cooperative, decisionmaking ventures they ask students to do.

Nevertheless, for some members of Mason's school community, the prospect of completely changing over to cognitivist teaching principles was frightening.

"When they presented this to us and said the kids would be in charge of what they learned, I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, what if they don't want to learn anything?"' says JoeAnn Mack, a mother of two Mason students.

Art Steifer, a veteran 6th-grade math teacher, was among the teachers who felt daunted by the transformation. "Prior to this, I had everybody in rows," he says. "It was OK, let's do fractions now or whatever. It took me seven or eight weeks to get used to not being king of the realm."

To help teachers like Steifer along, the $1.7 million grant that fuels the Schools for Thought program paid for a total of about two weeks of staff training during the summers of 1994 and 1995. In addition, Lamon travels among all the Schools for Thought, observing classrooms and meeting with teachers regularly.

Apart from the program, Mason also ran a summer school in which teachers could practice their new skills.

As a result, classrooms like Steifer's are somewhat different places now. On a recent visit, his students were working in four pods--one each for time, length, weight, and money. Using some basic conversion facts, they were compiling problems in each of those areas. After the students jigsawed, they shared the problems they had created with their new groups. The questions the students developed eventually would be part of a test on that subject.

Mason enlisted in the Schools for Thought program in the spring of 1993. The program began in earnest in 1994 with 6th- and 7th-grade teachers and was expanded last year to include 8th grade. In all, Bruer figures, about 60 percent of the teaching that goes on at the school now reflects principles of cognitive psychology.

Though not a complete turnaround, the changes are spread broadly enough so that they touch on some aspect of every student's school day. And students say it has made a difference for them.

"I think you learn better because you research it," says 7th grader Abdul Matteuzzi. "I can remember something from last year better than I could when I was in 6th grade and trying to remember what I did in 4th or 5th grade."

Teachers say they see some of the biggest changes with their most reticent students.

"For the quieter student who comes in, by the end of the semester, we can see that child becoming a leader," says Althea Taylor, who teaches gifted students. "At least they're willing to take a risk, whereas in the past, they would just give up."

The school has acquired some encouraging hard evidence as well. Last year, on the Stanford Achievement Test, a standardized basic-skills test, Mason's students outscored all 22 middle schools in its district--including seven other magnet schools.

Researchers are also administering their own battery of tests to Mason students to determine if students are improving their problem-solving, writing, reading-comprehension, and meta-cognitive skills, as well. Meta-cognitive skills are what students know about their own thinking strategies. Those results, however, have not yet been analyzed, Lamon says.

Group Dynamics

Then, there are the less formal indicators of change, such as Mary Christmas' mailbox. Christmas, the school guidance counselor, keeps a box outside her door where students can stuff notes asking for help in solving conflicts with peers. At one time, the notes centered almost exclusively on typical adolescent disputes--girls complaining about friends talking behind their backs, quarrels over playground games. Now, however, the notes are often about a subject that many middle schoolers would rather forget: schoolwork. Students are complaining about groupmates who don't "share" or "contribute to the discussion," Christmas says.

"With Schools for Thought, students are so accustomed to talking and sharing that it makes it much easier to solve conflicts," Christmas adds. "It used to be so hard to pull information out of them."

But, as much as the notes suggest that students' priorities are zeroing in on educational matters, they also point up students' biggest headache with the program: What should they do about classmates who don't carry their own weight?

"It's hard because you can't make somebody do what they don't want to do," says 8th grader Lillie McDaniels. "Say two people get a high grade, and one person gets a low grade. When you average it out, they all get the same grade."

But Mason educators say learning to work together as a group is part of students' education here and a necessary workplace skill.

"You're always going to have some children who are more task-oriented than others," says Cheryl Ward, the Schools for Thought coordinator at Mason. "But, as those children are challenged by other students, they eventually see the need to be on target more."

And without textbooks to slog through by the end of the year, students and their parents also sometimes worry whether teachers are covering all the content they should.

"My mother thinks since there's no traditional homework, I'm not learning anything," says 8th grader Jim Malone. "I've been trying to tell her, but she's edgy."

Teachers, on the other hand, insist they are not sacrificing breadth for depth. They are covering as much material as they ever did. If they are skeptical at all about the Schools for Thought venture, it is because they fear the program will peter out in the way of most educational fads.

They also say that, regardless of what test scores and studies may eventually show, children are enthusiastic about learning in their classrooms this year. Parents echo that sentiment, describing how their children talk about school at home for the first time in years.

"Usually somewhere along the line, as children get older, you begin to see the light begin to dim," says Andrea Walker, who was the principal of Mason last year and will resume that post when the school moves into its new building next year. "This may be the answer to how do we keep some children excited about learning."

At a cost of more than $800,000 a year, however, the McDonnell Foundation cannot afford to work its reforms in every district in America. For now, schools like Mason offer a laboratory for what it means to take findings from their original experimental sites and permanently install them in real classrooms.

A criticism of cognitive science has been that its findings have not been widely and systematically implemented in the same way that other school-reform programs are. The work at Mason is partly intended to answer such criticism.

"We talk about children, domain-specific skills, and meta-cognitive knowledge," says Bruer, the foundation director, who wrote an award-winning book that gave the program its name. "If we want teachers to understand and usefully apply our research, we have to make sure they understand it."

Vol. 15, Issue 17

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