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March 12, 2001

Algebra Class Offers Lessons in Teen Culture

California State University, Sacramento child development professor Lynda Stone has been playing anthropologist.

Twice a week, she treks to a Sacramento middle school to observe young American teens in their native habitat. She's trying to understand how they work in classroom groups and, specifically, if doing so helps them learn algebra better.

Stone is far from completing her study, but her work so far is tantalizing.
It suggests that some students benefit from "copying" and that seemingly useless "chit chat" can actually help the students use life experiences to solve problems. Stone also says the student groups seem to mimic class norms - such as expectations of being helpful.

The project has long-term interest to an emerging group of educators seeking to understand classroom culture, with hopes of helping teachers create better learning environments. But her work has more immediate implications here in California.

Students who hope to graduate from high school are now required to pass algebra, a notoriously difficult subject. That's made a good number of students - and adults with long memories - cringe. And educators across the state are hoping group work will help meet the challenge.

"We don't have nearly enough understanding about what is going on in these groups, or how to make them more effective in teaching," Stone says.

So Stone sits and watches groups of students at work. Her camera catches them on videotape. Wireless microphones capture the conversations. And she pulls students aside for individual interviews.

If she can find additional grant funding, Stone plans to expand her analysis to other types of classes and even to playgrounds and the neighborhoods in which students live. She envisions a small army of graduate students doing the same type of fieldwork she's now doing.

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