WELCOME to the ``thinking lab'' at Fowler Junior High School. Cramped and cluttered, the room appears less than functional for remedial education classes. But Sally Cotter and her pupils seem unconcerned with the space limitations. Mrs. Cotter greets the children as they arrive, and the small group gathers family-style around the ``thinking table.'' This large, rectangular table dominates the room. But five Apple computers dotting the edges of the room beckon to the students with their bright screens and control-panel keyboards.
The students call up their files and begin working. When one boy is unsure of what to do, Cotter encourages him to reread the instructions posted on the wall. Without telling the student what to do she questions him until he sees how to proceed. Throughout the 35-minute class, she circulates from computer to computer and converses with students about their strategies for completing the exercise.
This is not an ordinary remedial education class.
Cotter is one of 300 teachers in about 20 states who are trained in an innovative program called HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills). The computer-aided program is designed to replace traditional Chapter 1 classes - the federally funded program for disadvantaged students. Most remedial classes concentrate on worksheets and drill-and-practice exercises.
Annemarie Smart, Chapter 1 director in Maynard, Mass., and a trained HOTS teacher, characterizes HOTS as ``a discovery kind of learning.''
The HOTS project was developed seven years ago by Stanley Pogrow, an education professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. By combining the pedagogical tradition of Socratic dialogue with modern technology, the program aims to develop thinking skills and self-confidence, which, in turn, produce increased learning. Dialogue between student and teacher is the core of the HOTS program.
Although the curriculum does not teach specific subjects, the effectiveness of the training is seen in higher standardized test scores in both reading and math, according to Dr. Pogrow. Studies show that HOTS students are achieving double the national gains of regular Chapter 1 students.
``Most of our Chapter 1 programs teach reading or math. This teaches children how to think,'' says Mary Jean LeTendre, director of compensatory education programs for the Department of Education in Washington.
``The success of the program is based a great deal on the teacher and the questioning technique that she uses,'' says Willie Freedman, a HOTS teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Malden, Mass.
The role of the computer is that of motivator, not educator. ``It's not the computers that produce the learning, it's the conversation between the teacher and the student,'' Pogrow says. ``The curricular techniques are very similar to what good parents have always done with children.''
Instead of sitting around the dinner table talking about what they did at school that day, students in HOTS sit around the ``thinking table'' and discuss what they did on the computer yesterday and what they plan to do today. ``It replaces dinner conversation, which most of them never had,'' Pogrow explains.
Many of the exercises HOTS students are asked to do are complex problems, which require them to think above their level of maturity. The program is the opposite of the ``dumbing down'' that critics say many remedial educational programs promote.
The traditional assumption is that some children suffer from knowledge deficits that require repetitive instruction, Pogrow says. He points out that such skills-based remedial instruction consistently results in improved test scores through the third grade. But after the third grade the scores start to go down.
Pogrow suggests that the learning deficit is different after the third grade. As content gets more complex, he says, the student's inability to learn the subject is a thinking problem, not a content problem. ``You learn complicated things by linking it to things you already know, and linking is a thinking process,'' he says.
Many disadvantaged children ``don't understand understanding,'' says Pogrow. ``They're very bright kids but they haven't the vaguest idea how to think about ideas.... Nobody's every talked to them about ideas or listened to them talk about their ideas.''
``What we do is we go way above their level, but we make it fun,'' says Pogrow. Teachers are encouraged to ask their students sophisticated questions and wait for answers. ``If you make it interesting, they will rise to the occasion.''
THIS is where the computer comes in. The students are fascinated by the things they can do on the computer and the interaction between computer and student fosters an encouraging educational environment.
Students are able to work out their ideas in private and test strategies at their own rate. The process builds both communication and thinking skills.
HOTS classes are small - usually six to eight students in a group. The two-year program requires 35-minute classes to be held four days a week. The program can be introduced at anytime from fourth through seventh grade, and the curriculum is the same regardless of the grade level in which it is begun.
``It doesn't really matter if it is introduced in elementary or middle school,'' Pogrow says, ``the idea is to implement it as soon as possible.''
School districts recommend teachers to be trained in the program. Pogrow insists that only excellent teachers can be successful HOTS teachers. ``We can't train an average or below-average teacher to be an effective HOTS teacher, and we're honest about that up front.''
Teachers describe the one-week training as ``intense and practical.'' Classes are limited to a group of 10 teachers, who take turns being students and teachers in workshop sessions. ``We retrain teachers in how they listen and talk to kids,'' Pogrow says.
Some teachers find this a difficult process. ``It's so hard not to overteach,'' says Cotter. ``We've all been geared to spoon-feeding, not giving them the wait time.''
Mrs. Smart suggests the benefits of waiting for an answer. ``Once they realize that you're not going to give them the answer, they are willing to risk coming up with their own answers.''
As the students begin to succeed at solving difficult problems, they gain the self-confidence needed to attack additional challenges. ``The most important thing [about this program] is that it does help a child to develop some good self-esteem,'' says Mrs. Freedman, who teaches HOTS to sixth and seventh graders.
But Freedman finds that her students are not making the same progress with problem-solving in math as they are in reading.
Pogrow agrees that gains in math are not as immediate as those in reading. He is working on a pilot middle-school math program to begin in September 1991. Also in the works is a plan to introduce HOTS into many more urban schools. By next year, Pogrow expects to have about 850 HOTS teachers in 35 states.
BOB BROOKS, principal of Fowler Junior High School, has overseen the school's switch from traditional Chapter 1 to the HOTS program, which took place three years ago.
He sees evidence of enthusiasm among the students in HOTS and suggests that some of the stigma of Chapter 1 is relieved by the HOTS approach.
HOTS students, such as 13-year-old Scott Sproul, are taking the lessons learned in the ``thinking lab'' back to their regular classes. ``In math class,'' Scott says, ``if you have a big problem you just break it down into simpler parts.''
The students view HOTS as different from their other classes. ``In art all you do is draw and stuff, this can help you in the future,'' says Dan McMahon, adding that he wishes he could stay in HOTS next year.
``Kids in this building will usually run to lunch and they'll run to gym,'' Mr. Brooks says. Now, ``some of the kids run here, and that's because they know that they are respected here and we're not going to `fix' them or remediate them, but we're going to let them work on their own and respect their thoughts as important. And kids pick up on that; they really feel good about that.''