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Pupils can always do better

It's September again, and everyone is back at school, bright-eyed and ready to learn. And that's just the teachers.

The question is, what should they be learning? The pendulum of change is now swinging backwards and forwards so rapidly, that primary teachers could be forgiven for feeling that the best strategy is just to stand still. But of course, this is not the answer. All good teachers know that no matter how well they and their children are doing, they can always do better.

If only there were more time to sit back and think, to reflect on what motivates children, what are the magic ingredients that can enthuse a reluctant reader, what do teachers need to know about language development, how can arithmetic facts be made exciting?

This Primary Update is about teaching and learning. We have picked up the debate about teaching methods, literacy and numeracy standards, international comparisons and teacher training, and brought together views about ways forward.

Despite all the polarised language which has been used in print and on podiums in recent months, there are signs of a greater meeting of minds. As Lucy Hodges found in her survey of educationists' suggestions for the Government's proposed teacher training curriculum (page 9), pragmatism was the most dominant "ism" expressed. There was little interest in the so-called "trendy" issue of child development, for example, and perhaps this is worrying. The Three Wise Men, in 1992, famously insisted that primary education is not applied child development. But surely how children learn cannot be entirely divorced from how they grow, and this element is now largely absent from most teacher training. Whatever "child-centredness" means - an issue discussed by Philip Gammage and Chris Woodhead - no one disputes that children are at the heart of primary schools.

This Update explores innovative approaches to teaching, how to motivate and encourage children, and what will raise standards. We look at an antipodean system which helps children use their "whole brains" and learn faster, and at ways to boost children's self-esteem so they have the confidence to try new things.

As Michael Barber says in this week's TES Primary and Pre-school section (TES2 page 11), no one cares more than teachers about raising literacy standards. But there are still big questions. How much explicit teaching do children need to become good, thoughtful, confident readers and writers? There is a huge body of research, but what does it actually mean in practice? Those piloting the Government's national literacy centres project are trying to chart these waters with a highly-structured programme likely to run into controversy (page 19).

Meanwhile, it seems fitting that the man who set so much of the debate in motion, Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead, should encourage more of it here in The TES (page 3-4). He urges teachers to challenge their beliefs and questions the meaning of well-known phrases. He presses readers to respond to his thoughts in future editions - a request we welcome.

But whatever the philosophy teachers hold in their heads as they start the new term, somehow they have to get through day after day populated by real children. What strategies do they use? Pretty much everything, as Gerald Haigh found (pages 6-7) when he visited two schools last term.

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