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Case study: Theory in the primary classroom

I've been in the profession for six years and currently teach 30 enthusiastic reception children. I enjoy my job and envisage neither a seven-year itch, nor a change of career.

Last summer I took a large chunk of my PGCE lecture notes to the paper bank. Does this mean they were a waste of ink and paper? Many factors have influenced the way I teach. I studied child development theories during my PGCE. More recently, the foundation stage curriculum and accompanying profile have occupied my time. I've also made a mental note of hundreds of ideas and strategies pilfered from colleagues; hundreds more have grown out of my own successes and failures.

After six years, and perhaps a million interactions, I am not sure whom to credit for what I do between 8.45am and 3.05pm. In my first year, I relied on lecture notes, recommended texts and lesson plans. I welcomed advice from anyone happy to offer an opinion on anything, from classroom organisation to encouraging a disaffected seven-year-old boy to write. Now I have reached the stage where I respond to children in a more intuitive, less sculptured way.

Is it possible to track down the influence of theories on my daily teaching? I have often encountered children who speak very quietly, and some who would not talk to an adult at all. Other children more than made up for this reticence, unwittingly acting as role models for their quieter peers. During my PGCE I became familiar with Vygotsky's belief that children learn from each other and then transfer this knowledge to their independent work. In my classroom I find the use of "dynamic duos" allows children to test out their ideas on each other, building the confidence to take risks and answer an adult.

I also try hard to model appropriate language and behaviour, in the belief that most children will follow this example. At a recent school council meeting, we were sharply reminded of the thought processes and understanding of language of our pupil members. The adults innocently suggested setting up a working party to organise a new welcome sign for our entrance hall. Our five-year-old chairperson piped up, "I'd like to have a party".

There are echoes of Piaget's theories in the foundation stage curriculum, particularly when I set up an activity and observe children while they learn. But this approach reveals that children will reach goals at different times and in a differing order, and that practitioners should use language and situations familiar to the child in their teaching.

The pragmatic reality of being a busy teacher is that all the theories, planning and hard work hang in the balance when faced with 30 highly individual children. If I take Freddie's snuggler away, will he fail to learn a thing all morning? If I turn Doris's jumper round the right way again, will she ever learn to do it for herself? Often I do not realise the influence I have had on individual children until I observe them more objectively in their next class.

Every day, as a teacher, I have to reconcile the idiosyncrasies of my own school experiences, aspirations and values, the central principles of my education and training and the ethos of our school, not to mention the often vastly different pre-school experiences and needs of 30 children, and the concerns of their parents.

I have realised that, although aspects of child development theories underpin my teaching, they cannot always be applied directly and deliberately to life in the classroom. After all, what self-respecting four-year-old is going to wait around until I have consulted my textbook?

Catherine Wragg teaches at Long Ditton infant and nursery school, London borough of Kingston upon Thames

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