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Policy warning on effective learning

Teachers are learners not production-line workers, a conference on effective learning in Edinburgh was told last week.

In a strong attack on the Government's education reforms, Professor Sally Brown of Stirling University's education department said: "If policy-makers want to introduce change in classrooms, there will have to be a learning process for teachers. The top-down, management-orientated approach is not noted for taking account of how teachers make sense of the world."

This was particularly true of the 5-14 programme. She sympathised with its aims but felt the guidelines ignored practical realities and made complex demands on the teacher. "It is difficult to see what incentive there is for teachers' thinking to make the switch into the 5-14 framework," she observed.

Her research showed that teachers often "hijacked" 5-14 terminology, describing a pupil as a "B child" or equating primary 7 with level D. "This allowed them to continue to make global judgments about pupils as more or less able, hard working, slow and so on in a context where the 5-14 guidelines exhorted them to differentiate but provided no practical help about how to do that in real classrooms."

Professor Brown also mounted a strong attack on the vocational influences behind existing policies and asked: "A century from now, will we be content to say our central priority for learning has been training for what one might call 'virtual' jobs?" The conference, organised by the General Teaching Council, marked a move away from "the bad things in teaching," such as problems of probation and discipline, Tony Finn, the council's education convener said.

Mr Finn, headteacher of St Andrew's High, Kirkcaldy, said the council aims to emphasise "teaching and learning, celebrating achievement and fostering debate on how teachers can contribute to more effective learning".

Overcoming underachievement by boys, especially those from deprived backgrounds, underlined the importance of more effective links between home and school, Professor Brown said.

Recent developments in the curriculum have played to girls' strengths, she suggested. Boys were less good at verbal reasoning, in the acquisition of learning in specific contexts rather than in the abstract, and at open-ended collaborative work and assessment through course work.

Professor Brown said: "In the longer term new ways have to be found of understanding and responding to a culture which, as early as middle primary school age, leads to disaffection and poor attitudes to learning among a substantial number of boys, and to fears that an educational underclass of boys will be generated.

"This faces us with a dilemma. There has been the strong movement which says that this population will be educationally motivated only in so far as it can see learning as relevant to employment in the future. The unemployment patterns of older males in families, however, undermine aspirations that might have been stirred by encouragement from teachers for boys to 'work hard so you can get a job.

"Unfortunately there is profound evidence of a culture among boys, especially in disadvantaged areas, which scorns those who work hard, volunteer answers in class, achieve well in the ways promoted by the school and are praised by teachers. The achievements which are well regarded in such cultures may well be those of the hard man or the clown who may frighten, disrupt, distract or amuse others in the class in ways that are certainly not conducive to school learning."

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