Fertile questions

What is love? Why learn about the 19th century now? Is our city united?

Imagine a high school class in which the only assignment for a semester is to explore one such open-ended question.

That's what happens at 12 "Intellect Schools" in Israel, living labs for how to make schooling an exercise in critical thinking.

Yoram Harpaz, a researcher at the Bronco-Weiss Institute for the Development of Thinking in Jerusalem, helped create the school model five years ago. Speaking about it recently at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, he stressed that good learning is an active process that yields understanding and creativity, not just fact-based knowledge.

The challenge for the teachers in these public schools is to devise "fertile questions" that are provocative, include some moral or ethical dimension, and are open-ended but not so theoretical as to prevent practical research. Some of the schools are for "gifted" students, while others serve average or at-risk kids.

Teams of students formulate research questions to address some aspect of the topic. They come and go from the school rather freely, in between trips to libraries, interviews - anything that will help in their quest.

The end of the semester brings "summing performances." History students, for instance, once staged a trial in which class members justified the study of the 19th century by explaining how its lessons could be applied to the future.

Some teachers, of course, have difficulty ditching lecture notes for more-active approaches. But Dr. Harpaz's anecdotal account suggests the model is bearing fruit. And maybe it's exportable. As people filed out of the Harvard classroom, you could almost see the fertile questions forming.

E-mail teichers@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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