School Choice & Charters

School For Thought

March 01, 1996 11 min read

Perched atop laboratory stools, eight students in Freda Hill’s 7th grade science class are swapping notes about their field trip the day before 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.” Another girl volunteers that the pipes carrying water to the plant are 22 miles long and 2 feet in diameter.

And so the conversation about the facility 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, taking 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.”

Students sharing observations. Electronic mail. Teachers who don’t control classroom discussions or pass out right answers like so many pieces of candy. It’s a typical day at the Mason Investigative Learning Center in St. Louis.

Mason is one of 14 schools in the United States and Canada experimenting with findings emerging from the cognitive sciences, under a program sponsored by the St. Louis-based James McDonnell Foundation. Known as Schools for Thought, the program grew out of a handful of McDonnell-funded studies over the past two decades in Toronto; Nashville, Tenn.; and Oakland, Calif. Using their findings, researchers at each site came up with separate educational programs: The Oakland team spawned Fostering Communities of Learners; the Nashville contingent turned out The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury; and out of Toronto came Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments.

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

To bring about that kind of learning, they argue, students must start with what they already know and build their knowledge from there. They should 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 involved in the McDonnell project collected years of data to support their ideas. The case they built was strong enough for John Bruer, McDonnell’s president, to call teaching based on cognitive psychology the “educational equivalent of the polio vaccine and penicillin.” National school reformers have begun to seek their advice. But, until the Mason Investigative Learning Center was launched in earnest in 1994 with 6th and 7th grade teachers--it was expanded last year to include 8th grade--the scientists had never put it all together, in every grade, in a single middle school.

Housed in a run-down elementary school building, Mason hardly looks like a place where state-of-the-art teaching is practiced. 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 St. Louis. Cramped for space, the school holds music classes in a basement stairwell, the singing reverberating throughout the building.

Next year, this science and mathematics magnet school 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, just steps away from the St. Louis Science Center, which is a partner in the magnet program.

Despite its special status as a magnet school, Mason’s 274 students are remarkably--and intentionally--diverse. One-quarter of the student population has been formally identified as gifted, but 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.

This diversity, however, is hard to detect in a class like Hill’s. The discussion on the heating plant, and the format it followed, stems from the Fostering Communities of Learners program. Developed by researchers Ann Brown and Joseph Campione--who both moved recently from the University of California at Berkeley to Harvard University’s graduate school of education--the program is aimed at nurturing students’ reading, writing, and discussion skills.

In their purest form, community-of-learner classrooms are divided into small research groups, or “pods,” of students. Assisted by a teacher or aide, the students work together on problems, using reference materials available in the classroom, e-mail, and Internet postings to help them. As students read together, they stop periodically to summarize a text, clarify a point, ask questions, and predict what paragraphs ahead hold. After a time, the students reshuffle, or, in program lingo, “jigsaw.” Each group sends a representative to another pod, where that person shares what he or she has learned.

The trip to the Ashley Street heating plant was part of an across-the-curriculum 7th grade unit at Mason on how a city works. In language arts classes across the hall from Hill’s, student research groups are each publishing a newspaper from the perspective of a particular segment of the community. One group is putting together a black community paper, while another publishes one modeled on the more mainstream St. Louis-Post Dispatch.

Summing up the Schools for Thought approach, Larry Walker, one of Hill’s students, explains, “It’s like we’re more responsible for teaching ourselves than the teacher is.”

Though Hill also uses the computer component of the program, it is less visible in her room. That component, which was developed by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, teaches students how to use a computer information-management system to build a communal knowledge base. In some respects, this initiative is similar to the professional journals and computer networks that scientists turn to for help. Students might use the computer system, for example, to post questions on a certain topic, put forth an idea, 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 Lamon, director of the Schools for Thought proj-ect. “The purpose is not to go to the library and take notes and copy the notes into the database.”

Down the hall from Hill’s room, 6th graders are studying math using 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, the program is a series of fictional multimedia adventures, presented on videodisc, that pose complex math problems students often spend weeks working on.

In the first adventure, “Journey to Cedar Creek,” the 30-something Jasper sees a newspaper ad 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 cruiser. 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 many questions students must answer is whether Jasper can get the cruiser home before then. All the information they need to solve the various problems is embedded in the video, like clues in a detective novel. By the time they have finished the episode, the youngsters have solved at least 15 separate math problems.

Although the McDonnell programs themselves are new to the Mason Learning Center, the general ideas behind them were not foreign to many educators at the school. Working in what they call an “investigative learning center,” some Mason teachers have for years emphasized hands-on learning and group work. Nevertheless, for some parents and faculty members, the prospect of completely shifting to a new paradigm 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 McDonnell grant that fuels the Schools for Thought program paid for roughly two weeks of staff training during the summers of 1994 and 1995. In addition, project director Lamon observes classrooms and meets with teachers regularly to offer suggestions.

As a result, classrooms like Steifer’s are quite different than they were before. During a recent class session, his students worked in four pods--each focusing on a different topic: time, length, weight, or money. Using some basic conversion facts, they compiled 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 will be part of a class test on that subject.

About 60 percent of the teaching at the school these days, McDonnell president Bruer figures, reflects the 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. “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 have seen some of the biggest changes in students who were once their most reticent. Althea Taylor, who teaches gifted students, says that by the end of the first semester, she could see some of her quietest students emerging as leaders. “They’re willing to take a risk,” she says. “Whereas in the past, they would just give up.”

The school has acquired some encouraging hard evidence that supports the new pedagogy. Last year, on a standardized basic-skills test, Mason’s students outscored all 22 middle schools in its district--including seven other magnet schools. Resear-chers are also administering their own battery of tests to see if the program is improving students’ problem-solving, writing, and reading-comprehension skills. In addition, they will be studying what students know about their own thinking strategies, something called meta-cognition.

There are other less formal indicators that change is afoot at Mason. Take Mary Christmas’ mailbox. Christmas, the school’s guidance counselor, keeps the box outside her door so students who need help can send her notes. Not so long ago, the notes centered almost exclusively on typical adolescent disputes: quarrels over playground games and youngsters complaining about friends talking behind their backs. Recently, however, the notes began to have a new focus: schoolwork. Students, Christmas says, are complaining about groupmates who don’t “share,” “contribute to the discussion,” or in other ways pull their own weight.

“It’s hard,” says 8th grader Lillie McDaniels, “because you can’t make somebody do what they don’t want to do. 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.”

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

Without textbooks and workbooks to show what students are learning, some parents have voiced concern that teachers aren’t covering enough academic ground. Eighth grader Jim Malone says, “My mother thinks since there’s no traditional homework, I’m not learning anything. I’ve been trying to tell her, but she’s edgy.”

When asked about this, Mason teachers insist they are not sacrificing breadth for depth; they’re covering as much material as they ever did, they say. If teachers are at all skeptical about the venture, it is because they fear the program will go the way of most educational fads and peter out. Regardless of what test scores may or may not show, faculty members say their students are more enthusiastic about school than in years past. Parents echo that sentiment, saying that for the first time in many years their children are talking about school at home.

“Usually somewhere along the line, as children get older, you begin to see the light dim,” says Andrea Walker, who was principal of Mason last year and will be again in the new building next year. “This may be the answer to how we keep some children excited about learning.”

--Debra Viadero

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as School For Thought

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