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Beware of zealots lurking in schools

I have always been suspicious of pedagogical fundamentalists; that is, people who maintain that there is only one "right" way of teaching. Claims that literacy or numeracy must be taught in a certain way, or that only some forms of assessment are legitimate, or that classroom grouping and organisation must always conform to a single model, should be treated with scepticism. Such dogmatism shows a lack of respect for the diversity of learners and learning.

Educational history indicates that fashions come and go: some methods enjoy brief popularity and then disappear, while others reappear in a new guise (and perhaps with new terminology). Unfortunately, policy makers nowadays show very little interest in history or theory and this leads them to present unremarkable ideas as if they had all the charm of novelty. Curriculum for Excellence is a case in point.

I want to suggest that several, currently fashionable, approaches, which in themselves have something to contribute to the teaching repertoire, carry serious risks if combined to produce an unquestioned orthodoxy about how teaching and learning should occur. The risks relate not only to the experience of pupils but also to teacher professionalism and, indeed, the social function of schooling in a democratic society.

The first element is "active learning". This is an ill-defined term and it is often explained negatively as the opposite of "passive learning" where children are subject to large doses of didactic teaching. "Active learning", by contrast, requires youngsters to work in a way that demonstrates engagement with the desired aims, through dialogue with the teacher and other pupils, or through performing certain actions, or through the production of some visible output. Children who are active learners, it is claimed, remain "on task" and focused in their efforts.

I think this gives a very one-sided perspective on the learning process and runs the risk of promoting a rather superficial view of the development of understanding. A quiet child, who may prefer working on his or her own, and who is disinclined to volunteer information, might well be engaged in thoughtful reflection even though there is little immediate external evidence to confirm this. It is wrong to construe silence and detachment as necessarily signalling resistance, hostility or laziness. Such a negative construction might even be regarded as discriminatory, privileging socially extravert children against more introverted personalities.

That brings me to the second element, the widespread invocation of "social constructivist" theories of learning, particularly associated with the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. This presents an interpretation of how children come to construct and understand their experience, emphasising that positive interaction with their socio-cultural environment is essential to healthy development. In itself, this theory offers many useful insights. But so too does the work of Jean Piaget, which presents a more individualistic view of children's social, moral and intellectual development.

It is no accident that Vygotsky's work was carried out in post- revolutionary Russia, at a time when a collectivist ideology, stressing the solidarity of the group, was being aggressively promoted. Educationists who are strong advocates of Vygotsky's thinking stress the value of co-operative learning and group work, methods that certainly have their place but should not exclude other approaches.

In the final analysis, it is not possible to learn something for someone else (despite the Scottish admonition "I'll learn you"). Individual learners have to understand and assimilate new material, incorporating it into their existing cognitive structures. Working with others can assist that process but only up to a point. A balance has to be struck between social interaction and individual effort.

The third element concerns the role of the teacher. Teachers are now expected to be collaborative and collegial, to engage in paired teaching and embrace teamwork. Once again, these methods have much to recommend them, but they should be understood not just as a reaction against excessive teacher autonomy, but also as part of a wider management strategy to reshape the teaching workforce and make it more accountable. Too much emphasis on teachers working together can lead to a form of "groupthink", in which there is a push to reach a ready consensus and an unspoken threat that those who do not conform will be marginalised. It is one example of how corporate culture has been transplanted from the private to the public sector. There is a real danger that "collegiality" is a smokescreen for group conformity.

When we put these three elements together, what do we have? We have a model of pupil learning that tends to over-emphasise surface manifestations of "activity" and underestimate the importance of less visible, but possibly deeper, processes of understanding. This is reinforced by a selective use of the research evidence about children's development. The role of teachers is similarly reconceptualised in a way that defines professional behaviour in terms of organisational loyalty, rather than reflection and critical thinking. Most worryingly of all, both pupils and teachers are being remodelled to serve global economic and technological needs, defined by powerful multi-national companies and inter-governmental agencies, which value compliance much more than freedom. Some educational zealots seem happy to assist in that process.

Walter Humes is visiting professor of education at Stirling University.

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