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Out of such a network could well come revolutionary classroom concepts like the new math, which was developed under grants from the federally supported National Science Foundation. The new math is in use now in 40% of the nation's public grade schools despite increasing complaints from bewildered parents, who wonder whether teaching arithmetic by "sets" can help a child add up a grocery bill. One of the new-math textbooks poses a problem in subtraction this way: "Take the set of animals which is the inter section of the set of lizards with the set of sick animals out of the cage." But the old way of saying that, insists one critic, Caltech Physicist Richard Feynman, was much better. This subtraction really boils down to: "Take the sick lizards out of the cage."
Presumably, the regional research laboratories will devote their energies to the need for getting the sick lizards out of pedagogy. The prototype of the laboratories idea is the M.I.T.-initiated Educational Services, Inc., supported by private foundations but sustained largely by $20 million in federal grants. There, 350 faculty members from 200 colleges and universities have pitched into studies that range from the best way to teach semiconductor physics to development of a course on "Man." The "Man" study will take some time to evolve; it will try to find the answers to three questions: "What is human about human beings?" "How did they get that way?" "How can they be made more so?"
A new laboratory in New York City, operated chiefly by eight area universities, is analyzing successful slum kids to see how they overcame severe handicaps, finding ways to get parents involved in school activities, exploring educational parks. "In city slums, public schools are often just rotting cadavers," says the laboratory's planning chairman, Dr. Robert A. Dentler. "We must find some answers."
Most of the R. & D. centers will concentrate on less sweeping topics. In a Pittsburgh elementary school, University of Pittsburgh researchers roll piles of "programmed" textbooks into a huge hall, where children pick them up, work in silence at their own pace. An eight-year-old might be working on fifth-grade math, second-grade English, third-grade science. At Harvard, experts are studying the psychological factors that can inhibit a deprived child's ability to learn. The University of Oregon is trying to find out just how much influence teachers have in running their schools.