BOX 6.1 Literacy: Then and Now

Colonists were literate enough if they could sign their name, or even an X, on deeds. When immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 1800s, educators urged schools to deliver “recitation literacy” to the foreign children who filled the schoolrooms. That literacy was the ability to hold a book and reel off memorized portions of basic American texts such as the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, a part of the Gettysburg address, or some Bryant or Longfellow. With the coming of World War I, and the prospect of large numbers of men handling new equipment in foreign countries, Army testers redefined reading. Suddenly, to the dismay of men used to reading familiar passages, passing the army reading test meant being able to make sense, on the spot, of never-before-seen text. Currently, that kind of “extraction literacy,” revolutionary in 1914, looks meager. Finding out who, what, when, where or how simply does not yield the inferences, questions, or ideas we now think of as defining full or “higher literacy.” The idea of a classroom where young women, poor and minority students, and learning disabled students all read (not recite) and write about (not copy) Shakespeare or Steinbeck is a radical and hopeful departure from the long-running conception of literacy as serviceable skills for the many and generative, reflective reading and writing for the few (Wolf, 1988:1).

through experimentation and observation (e.g., Lehrer and Schauble, 1996a, b; Linn, 1992, 1994; Schwab, 1978). Society envisions graduates of school systems who can identify and solve problems and make contributions to society throughout their lifetime—who display the qualities of “adaptive expertise” discussed in Chapter 3. To achieve this vision requires rethinking what is taught, how teachers teach, and how what students learn is assessed.

The remainder of this chapter is organized around Figure 6.1, which illustrates four perspectives on learning environments that seem particularly important given the principles of learning discussed in earlier chapters. Although we discuss these perspectives separately, they need to be conceptualized as a system of interconnected components that mutually support one another (e.g., Brown and Campione, 1996); we first discuss each perspective separately and then describe how they interrelate.


We use the term “learner centered” to refer to environments that pay careful attention to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting. This term includes teaching practices that

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