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Down to earth in farmland and inner city

Anyone wanting to understand the term "individualised learning" should watch the wonderful French documentary-style film Etre et Avoir, which shows six months in the life of a one-teacher primary school in France's Auvergne region.

With warmth and skill, M Lopez concentrates on the development of each child. He helps one little girl to understand that seven comes after six, while another child of a similar age can be led to count into the hundreds of thousands and grasp the idea of infinity (although he is not very good at washing his hands).

The teacher talks with an older boy matter-of-factly about the child's father's cancer. The boy cries; the teacher sits by his side. Illness is part of life, he says.

More matter-of-factness with young children was called for by early childhood education doyenne Lilian Katz, emeritus professor at Missouri university , at a London conference last week.

She complained about teachers she had observed who liked to refer to the whole class as each other's "friends". It is important to try to get along with everyone, Professor Katz said, but you don't have to like them all and only a few will be your true friends.

Children don't always need to be entertained, she told the conference, Celebrating young children's learning. They have powerful intellects and appreciate the chance to engage them in activities that mean something. In too many cases, the interaction between teachers and children and its content is phoney, she said.

The choice should not be between worksheets and "refrigerator art". In one lesson she observed in New York State, children were painting faces on paper maple leaves (which had been cut out by the teacher, she noted pointedly). One little girl said to her neighbour: "This is really dumb, but my mom will love it."

Meanwhile, in an inner-city project on bicycles, children had a chance to engage with a topic relevant to their lives, developing better ways to draw the bicycles through observation, meeting a bicycle shop specialist, and mapping bicycle paths for the school grounds. Writing improved, too, as children connected with their subject matter.

DH

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