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Critical questions

Robert Fisher reports on a skills programme from the US

School Effectiveness series

Transforming Teaching and Learning

By Colin Weatherley, Bruce Bonney, John Kerr and Jo Morrison

Network Education Press pound;16.95

This book is one of a series edited by Tim Brighouse, whose foreword states that the books seek to provide an antidote to the "loneliness of the long-distance teacher ... daily berated by an anxious society". It describes in theoretical and practical detail how a critical skills programme (CSP) from the UScan be implemented in UK schools.

The first page sets the tone. A cartoon teacher clasps a CSP book and says:

"And the best thing - it works!" (This is what Mussolini said about fascism.) Other cartoon characters pop up in each chapter, repeating the slogan, which may not be the best for a programme about "critical skills".

The trouble with cartoon characters is that they are not real people.

The heavy use of illustration gives the book an easy-read, easy flick-through feel. For a busy teacher who wants to take in the main points in a few minutes this is a big plus. The book begins with the story of a package thumping through the author's letterbox. It was CSP, which he claims might be "one of the most significant events in recent UK educational history". The book sets out to provide basic information about CSP with vignettes of its application in schools and colleges.

The key ideas will be familiar to those who know the principles of the key stage 3 strategy, accelerated learning and other skills programmes. A number of specific terms, such as "full value contract", are used to describe the ground rules of a classroom community; a number of tools are also used, such as "quality discussion standards" and the "thumb tool" (pupils give thumbs up, down or horizontal to express degrees of support for an opinion in a discussion). These and other strategies,$ such as target-setting, brainstorming, problem-based challenges, engaging different learning styles, debriefing, use of learning logs and peer assessment (called a "huddle") are usefully packaged into a cross-curricular training programme.

CSP shares elements with total quality management in its emphasis on discussing with students what "quality" means in relation to any learning activity - eg: what is a quality discussion? What is a quality audience? What is a quality teacher? There is other useful advice on how to organise group work, but not much on creativity or the thinking skills that underpin successful learning.

Teachers from the UK and the US, from primary to college level, attest to the value of CSP and show how they have walked the talk in their classrooms. The evidence is anecdotal but the teacher-contributors are keen. The final chapter links some current DfES objectives to CSP objectives. The Education Bill (2001) is quoted as saying that teachers should be free "to develop ideas on ways that will raise standards". This book offers to "long-distance" teachers ideas that are worth developing.

Robert Fisher is Professor of Education at Brunel University

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