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Columbus Dispatch

Learning how to learn puts students at head of class
October 1, 2002

By Ruth E. Sternberg

Linda Woolard thinks of her Newark fourth-graders as explorers and herself as their guide, as they navigate geology, spelling and multiplication.

This week, the Miller Elementary School students are trying to identify rocks they collected.

Woolard observes as they work -- chipping, weighing and watching chemical reactions. She's ready to answer questions, but lets the children perform their own experiments.

"If you immerse yourself (in a subject), you'll come to understand it and know what you need to know,'' said Woolard. "You'll own that, and find your own interests.''

It's a popular view of teaching -- giving children the tools to learn, then letting them make their own discoveries.

"I don't know a teacher that hasn't been taught in that way,'' said Matt Peterson, an eighth-grade science teacher at Jones Middle School in Upper Arlington. "I don't know if there's a college out there that teaches you to teach lecture-style.''

More than half of 1,209 fourth- and eighth-grade teachers in a recent survey preferred to let students direct much of their own learning.

The survey, released yesterday by the Manhattan Institute, asked teachers to characterize their classroom styles.

Seven in 10 teachers said learning how to learn, rather than memorizing, is most important, according to the survey, which has a margin of error of 3 to 5 percentage points.

But the survey also showed that not all teachers are communicating basic concepts -- such as Newton's law of gravity or major historical events -- and that not all teachers expect students to give the correct answer all the time.

"It should give policymakers pause,'' said Henry Olsen, director of the institute's Center for Civic Innovation. "If they really believe that every child needs to be proficient, they need to figure out the ways teachers are employing that are actually designed to reach that.''

Some teachers say they believe in giving students a little freedom.

"Children learn better if they are actively engaged,'' said Carol King, principal of Karrer Middle School in Dublin.

But that doesn't mean they don't pay attention to what their students are doing. Peterson assigns work -- then stands back. For instance, he recently told his 105 eighth-graders to perform any experiment.

"I have kids doing how fast oranges decompose in various compost piles, and I have kids looking at the hemoglobin uptake in red blood-cell cultures,'' he said.

But he has a plan.

"The theme is they had to collect data and analyze it,'' he said. "The ultimate goal is to teach them about variables, constants and controls.''

Denise Sizemore, a fourth-grade teacher at Fifth Avenue Elementary School in Columbus, lets her children work in groups to discover concepts on their own.

But she doesn't let them work entirely alone.

"I'm the one that is telling them what we are working on and what it is that they are to do,'' she said.

The children watched her show them what a graph was for.

"Then they work at their tables to make their own graph,'' she said. "If they're confused, they are able to work with group members to help one another.''

Woolard said letting students direct some of their own learning is more difficult than simply lecturing. She has to know her district's curriculum goals and make sure each child will be able to discover them.

But it's fun, she said -- especially when the children tell her what they have discovered.

"I'm a learner, too,'' she said.

To see the Manhattan Institute survey, What Do Teachers Teach? A Survey of America's Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers, visit

©2002 Columbus Dispatch



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