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October 22, 2001

Step one in education reform: Make learning an engaging process

By Jennifer McNulty

The first thing to know about teaching is that it's not as simple as standing in front of a classroom and dispensing facts. Not if you want the children to learn, that is.

But old habits are difficult to change, even with a wide body of research confirming that it's time to replace the old model of instruction. And that's where UCSC psychology professor Barbara Rogoff wants to begin the national discussion of education reform.

"The traditional model holds that learning depends entirely on teaching, but research shows that learning requires the active involvement of the learner," said Rogoff, whose new book Learning Together: Children and Adults in a School Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) describes the success of a collaborative learning venture at a public school in Salt Lake City.

"The most powerful way to help people learn is to be engaged with them in activities in which they're interested," said Rogoff. "Teachers act as guides, rather than bosses."

A leading developmental psychologist and the author of the award-winning book Apprenticeship in Thinking, Rogoff has conducted research on learning and education that has transformed contemporary understanding of how people learn.

Learning Together presents insights about the learning process as gleaned by Rogoff and other participants in an innovative collaborative school. In the classroom, the curriculum is planned cooperatively by adults and children to build on children's interests and to engage all participants--children, parents, and teachers.

Although the idea sounds simple, Rogoff said it can be quite difficult for adults to rethink their assumptions about how to foster learning. In fact, she devotes a chapter of the book to describing her own struggle to learn how to cooperate with children. Rogoff first became involved with the venture as a parent when her oldest daughter, now 22, enrolled as a kindergartner. She went on to conduct significant research at the school, the results of which contributed greatly to Apprenticeship in Thinking.

Rogoff and her coeditors, Carolyn Goodman Turkanis and Leslee Bartlett, do not intend their book to serve as a prescription. Rather, they hope, it will inspire readers to reflect and talk about learning in their own communities. This approach to learning is uniquely and infinitely adaptable, said Rogoff, who uses its principles in her university teaching.

"The key is that learning is tailored to people's interests, so the specifics can be adjusted to each community," said Rogoff. "It respects where people are coming from--their interests, their backgrounds, and their aspirations."

Students at the school are motivated and excel in leadership, collaboration, and problem solving, said Rogoff. In addition, the benefits of collaborative learning hold up by conventional standards: The students test as well in elementary school as their peers in conventional schools, and when they reach junior high and high school, they achieve better grades and test scores than their counterparts at conventional schools.

"Evaluation is important, but it needs to be evaluation that fosters learning," said Rogoff. "When evaluation is done in collaboration with the children, the kids are involved in setting their goals and evaluating their progress. The emphasis is on what the children need to learn next rather than on classifying children." In addition, the school stresses learning from errors and discourages comparing students. The aim is to support the learning of all the students, as well as the adults, by building on their shared interests and strengths.

About the school: Created in 1977, this public elementary program is a parent-teacher-child cooperative in which parents are required to contribute three hours per week to classroom instruction for each child enrolled. Families can choose this school instead of their neighborhood school if they are willing to satisfy the time commitment.

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