Downtown leaps to top of the leagues

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Vivi Lachs is a consultant in multimedia working with schools in Hackney, London. She is visiting the United States and Canada on a Winston Churchill Fellowship looking at information technology in the understanding of science. On these and the following two pages, she reports on developments from the other side of the Atlantic.

A learning revolution is taking place in New Jersey where IT is putting pupils at the centre of the process. Vivi Lachs reports

Union City has dumped its curriculum. Teachers have turned their teaching style on its head - phonics is out, constructivism is in. And the results are staggering.

The executive director for academic programs, Fred Carrigg, decided that he needed to do something drastic in an attempt to turn the Union City area, from bottom scores in the national tests to greater success. He did this by radically changing how teachers taught and what they taught. A gamble and possibly a recipe for disaster, but he has created a success - within two years the school was scoring above the national average.

Union City is a town in New Jersey, just across the Hudson from New York City. It has an old guard of Irish and Italian immigrants, followed by an influx of new cultures, the largest being HispanicLatino. There are 11 schools in the Union City area including elementary, middle and high schools, covering schooling from kindergarten to age 18. The schools are very much inner-city "problem" schools, the area is known as a special-needs district, which attracts some extra funding for technology and professional development. These schools were failing so badly that the state threatened a takeover. Something had to happen.

Fred told me the story with enthusiasm. His background is in English as a second language (ESL) and he says it was this that gave him the power for his ideas and his starting point - the teaching of literacy.

The teaching styles in these schools were very traditional: desks in rows, teacher chalk-and-talk at the front and pupils all working on one task. Early literacy was taught using phonics. There were many changes in a short space of time. Phonics teaching was changed to a whole-language approach to literacy. ESL and special-needs support happened in the classroom, not on a withdrawal basis as previously. This made the class teacher the vital factor in the equation - Fred stressed the importance of the class not being too fragmented.

The buzzword in the States is constructivism, the idea of putting children at the centre of their own learning, making decisions about what they're learning and when they're ready to move on. Learning through doing, that is actively constructing their learning medium.

This change in style served to save a lot of money from buying workbooks, reference and text books. Each classroom had its own library. This extra money of $50 per pupil was given (can you believe this?) to the teachers. Many of them asked for computers as they felt that they would reinforce their teaching and complement their style.

Within three years the pass rate for eight-year-olds in the state's standard testing rose from 38 per cent to 96 per cent. The literacy programme ran from kindergarten up to eight years old. From nine, the emphasis changed from literacy to "how to learn". The huge amount of content taught was reduced considerably and the emphasis shifted to questions such as: "How do you find out what information is relevant? What is important to know? Essentially, they were looking at skills such as thinking and making decisions and comparing. "

In the high school ages, subjects were grouped as faculties of liberal arts, mathsscience and applied arts. This gave the possibility to combine subject areas. Indeed, even cross-faculty. An English teacher in on high school I visited in the area was doing an English-science project looking at DNA in science and Great Expectations in English, and asking the question, What impact would there have been for the characters in Dickens's great work if DNA testing had been available?

Enter a new player, Bell Atlantic, a large telecommunications company. Fred was delighted, "It was an accidental but logical next step, perfect. Any change needs a catalyst to keep it going or it can't be sustained. The technology brought in multiple sources of information and global communication, also multimedia tools giving ownership to students, and totally fitting with our belief." Bell Atlantic made an inspired decision - not only did it wire one school for Internet access in labs and four to six computers in each classroom, but it also gave each grade 7 pupil (12-year-olds) a computer for home use.

This led the way to discussion groups on-line about different subjects - Shakespeare was particularly popular, with contributions from both students and teachers mainly in after-school hours. All coursework had resource suggestions for World Wide Web sites that were particularly appropriate.

Now students who were in the grade 7 group are working on presentations using IT, telling their own stories. And Fred is keen that the students run workshops for teachers. "They're so patient," he smiles, "and staff are willing to learn from students more than other faculty members."

Linda Roberts, of the US Department of Education sees the story of Union City as "the model you wish everyone could go through". I came out wishing that too.

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