Communities of Learners
In the early 1990s the Fostering a Community of Learners' classrooms (FCL) research project became renowned for modeling the practical instantiation of a set of theoretically grounded “first principles” of learning and teaching. When Jerome Bruner and Courtney Cazden, among others, visited FCL classrooms, they witnessed students talking, writing, thinking, and using technology in the service of both science understanding and literacy skillsina classroom environment specifically designed to support such activity. They saw formerly disenfranchised students, who typically had little exposure to advanced science curricula or sophisticated literacy tasks, become active participants in their own learning. Cazden, reflecting on FCL's 1990s efforts, has said:
FCL … became one of the most visible school reform programs in the U.S.—well documented for the quantitative achievements of its students over successive years on both standardized literacy tests and criterion-referenced tests in both literacy and science developed within the program, and also discussed in the writings of numerous academic visitors. (Cazden, 2005, p. 1)
The origins of FCL lie with Ann Brown and her closest collaborator and husband Joe Campione. The couple had moved from the University of Illinois, Champagne Urbana, to the University of California Berkeley's Education in Mathematic Science and Technology Department in 1988. They immediately established a research team of faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and skilled technical staff to design classroom communities of learners in the Berkeley/Oakland area. Brown (1992) described the FCL classroom design in this way: “I attempt to engineer innovative educational environments and simultaneously conduct experimental studies of those innovations” (p. 141).
Their goal was to put theory into practice in visible, equitable, and intellectually honest ways. The FCL project encompassed K-8 classrooms, in several schools, including a multigrade spiraling curriculum in John Swett Elementary School and Sequoia Middle School, both in East Oakland. The goal was to design robust classroom learning environments in which everyone (students, teachers, researchers) learned to “use their minds
well.” Learning and teaching were viewed as a social process within which mutual appropriation is facilitated by talk, gesture, drawing, computers, and text (Brown & Campione, 1994). FCL promoted dialogic modes of communication in ordinary classrooms.
The underlying principles (Brown & Campione, 1994) are listed in Table 1.
Brown and Campione's first principles were influenced by branches of psychology, linguistics, anthropology, sociology and out of school learning, and by the leading scholars of the time, including Bruner (1990), Cazden (1984), Cole and the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (1998), Heath (1991); Latour & Wolgar (1986), Lave & Wenger (1991), Rogoff (1994), and Wertsch (1991) among others. FCL design was grounded in sociocultural views of learning and teaching, especially Vygotsky's (1978) concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Disciplinary content goals were predicated on Bruner's views of learning and development. As Bruner put it, “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development” (Bruner, 1996, p. 33).
The life science content was chosen for its “high appeal and engaging qualities to motivate students to learn to read, write, and talk and reason about important ideas” (Rutherford & Ash, in press, p. 5). The life science content was chosen also because high-quality science teaching and learning is less commonly available to the students who most need it. Several in-depth discussions of scientific reasoning in FCL classrooms are available (Ash, 2008; Engle & Conant, 2004; Ricco & Shulman, 2004); these focus on adaptation and interdependence, core principles of FCL's life sciences disciplinary content.
Anne Marie Palincsar, a collaborator with and colleague of Brown said of FCL:
Fostering a Community of Learners … had an amazing synthetic quality, both in substance and form … a diverse array of participant structures in which students—engaged as collaborative researchers—pursued deep understanding of content knowledge and domain-specific reasoning in the biological sciences. (Palincsar, 1999, p. 33)
One key aspect of FCL's success was translating Vygot-sky's (1978) zone of proximal development to practical classroom design. The ZPD is the distance between current levels of comprehension and levels that can be accomplished in collaboration with people or powerful artifacts; such interpretations emphasize readiness to learn, “where upper boundaries are seen not as immutable but as constantly changing with the learner's increasing independent competence at each successive level” (Brown et al., 1993, p. 35). Brown designed the classroom to contain multiple and overlapping ZPDs by carefully selecting specific participant structures (involving people, computers, books, videos, TV programs, and other mediational means) encompassing various goals (content knowledge, computer tech savvy, reading comprehension) in different social configurations.
Students were expected to know different things; they shared this distributed expertise within dialogically based, ritualized participant structures (Brown et al., 1993; Rutherford & Ash, in press), such as reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown, 1984), jigsaw teaching (Aronson, 1978), and whole-group discussion. Such participant structures are now commonly used in many classrooms across the United States.
Schoenfeld (2004) has argued that such classroom design is marked by:
A carefully delineated set of classroom practices, among them decomposing and recombining the topic under discussion into interlocking subtopics that can be studied by subgroups of students and then can be taught to other students. For FCL to succeed, then, the big ideas of the curriculum need to be identified and ‘jigsawed’ in ways that are suitable to the intended organization of classroom practices. (p. 243)
In actual FCL practice, “decomposing and recom-bining” was reflected in a basic research cycle of research (decompose content); jigsaw teach (recombine content); and consequential task (transfer content) (Brown et al., 1993; Brown & Campione, 1994, 1996).
In most FCL classrooms teams of five to six students researched, talked about, and wrote a collaborative research report, which they would use to teach other students in jigsaw groups. Students were socialized into these patterns of expected participation with particular participation structures such as Benchmarks, Research Rotations, Jigsaw groups, Cross-talk groups, and Dilemmas. Table 2 lists some participant structures' configuration, frequency and purpose.
Cazden (2005) has described particular FCL participant structures in this way:
- Research rotations through several activities: (a) individual research, reading, and note-taking; (b) working at the computer to find new resources, e-mailing each other and outsiders or working on their team's report and conferencing about it with the teacher; (c) participating, initially under the teacher's guidance.
- Reciprocal Teaching (RT) comprehension discussions of texts—from books, the Internet, or sections of their student reports.
- Jigsaw groups: Periodically, as research teams became more knowledgeable about their subtopics, a student from each team met in an ad hoc group with a member of each of the other teams and taught them.
- Cross-talk: When the students themselves realized that Jigsaw teaching required them to know all about their team's topic, not just their individual sub-topic, they initiated an intra-team version of Jigsaw that they named Cross-talk. (Cazden, 2005, p. 8).
FCL design has been extensively cited, reviewed, transformed, borrowed, critiqued, and expanded over the past 15 years. A Google search for the phrase FCL cross-referenced with Ann Brown produced approximately 5,000 sites. A brief scan of the first 50 or so Google pages reveals that researchers and practitioners alike have adapted FCL principles and practices to multiple disciplines and at many levels of the educational system, from elementary to university). The special issue of the Journal of Curriculum Studies (2004) illustrates FCL implementation in several disciplines: English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. Such work has underscored both the benefits and limitations of the FCL curricular reform.
Perhaps more telling is the fact that FCL principles and practices have influenced leading scholars and researchers in the learning sciences. Scholars from many disciplines have subsequently explored a variety of FCL-influenced research agendas, including Disciplinary Perspectives on Fostering a Community of Teachers as Learners (Special Issue of the Journal of Curriculum Studies, edited by Shul-man & Sherin, 2004); Instructional Psychology: Past, Present, and Future Trends (de Corte & Verschaffel, 2006), Thinking Practices in Mathematics and Science Learning (Greeno & Goldman, 1998), Inside Japanese Classrooms: The Heart of Education (Sato, 2004), Design Research: Theoretical and Methodological Issues (Collins, Joseph & Bielaczyc, 2004), to name just a few. The research agendas of these scholars inevitably have relied, at least in part, on FCL first principles and the notion of design experiments.
There have also been criticisms. Lehrer & Schauble (2004) suggested these limitations:
… two questions about FCL remain open. The first concerns the utility of principles as a way to both describe and spread new educational programs…. A second major question about FCL is whether it is a good idea for school science to be so exclusively focused on the reading and integration of textual information.
Lehrer & Schauble have accurately suggested that a central challenge in FCL (or any) dissemination is transporting and translating principles and practices, as both are essential. Brown herself was wary of “lethal mutations” particularly when practices, without the principles that informed them, were blindly copied. Brown and Campione argued instead that specific choice of participant structure or content, or form of transfer task, depended on particular contexts, as well as how first principles were specifically interpreted within them. Campione has said that he and Brown:
saw their work as going from laboratory research to learning principles to the design of a learning environment. Then based on their analysis of the learning environment, they would make modifications and additions to the learning principles, which in turn led to modifications of the learning environment and new laboratory experiments. (Collins, Josephs, & Bielaczyc, 2004, p.16).
The emphasis, then, was on the reciprocal interplay between the “first principles” and real-world classroom practices; they saw dissemination itself as “implementation with evolution.” They viewed such principles as constantly evolving as further instantiation of the project took place.
The second limitation mentioned by Lehrer and Schauble (2004), lack of hands-on materials (other than texts, computers, and experts), was accepted by Brown and Campione within this complex FCL intervention model. Brown has argued often and convincingly that the students in her classroom practiced science as many scientists practiced it over the centuries, as natural historians, using observation and thought experiment, rather than direct experimentation, as the basis for their reasoning.
Erik de Corte's 2000 study has noted perhaps the biggest challenge to wide-scale dissemination of FCL-like projects, “[the] methodological problem of the confounding of variables in design research, echoing a major criticism of the protagonists of randomized field trials” (p. 6). Such validity arguments have become more common over the past decade in a current climate of standardized tests and accountability.
Regarding the long-term curricular reform potential of projects such as FCL, Rutherford and Ash (2008) have written:
In the early 1990s, we had more latitude to develop our own curriculum, schedule our day, and embed literacy practices into all our work…. Such choices are not so readily available to teachers in current environments. New state and national standards and testing guidelines have narrowed teachers and researchers' choices. But before we say that we cannot create such learning communities in the 2000s, let us take seriously Ann's caution about not throwing the baby out with the bath water and revisit her first principles of learning from the perspective of “possible worlds,” to borrow Bruner's (1986) phrase.
Finally the following comment about FCL should be noted:
[It is the] one program discussed in detail by Jerome Bruner in his book, The Culture of Education, [in which he calls for a] “more intimate perspective” of what we have learned about how teachers teach and how students learn. Bruner speaks of Brown as “perhaps the leading figure in this advance.” (Bruner, 1996, p. 86, cited in Cazden, 2005. p. 8)
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Brown, A. L. (1994) The advancement of learning. Educational Researcher, 23(8), 4–12.
Brown, A. L., Ash, D., Rutherford, M., Nakagawa, K., Gordon, A., & Campione, J. (1993). Distributed expertise in the classroom. Saloman, G. (Ed.). Distributed Cognitions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1990). Communities of learning and thinking or a context by any other name. In D. Khun (Ed.), Contributions to Human Development, 21, 108–125.
Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 229–270). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.
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Collins, A., Joseph, D., & Bielaczyc, K. (2004). Design Research: Theoretical and Methodological Issues. Special Issue: Design-Based Research: Clarifying the Terms. Journal of the learning Sciences 13 (1) 15–42.
De Corte, E. (2000, November). High-powered learning communities: a European perspective. Keynote address to the First Conference of the Economic and Social Research Council's Research Programme on Teaching and Learning. Leicester, England.
Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2004). Modeling natural variation through distribution. American Educational Research Journal, 41(3), 635–679.
Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117–175.
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Rutherford, M., & Ash, D. (2008). The Ann Brown fostering a community of learners legacy: Still learning after all these years. In J. Campione, A. Palincsar & K. Metz (Eds.) The legacy of Ann Brown (pp. 222–249). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schoenfeld, A. (2004). Multiple learning communities: Students, teachers, instructional designers, and researchers. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36(2), 237–255.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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