DILEMMAS OF SCIENCE TEACHING - Perspectives on Problems and Practice. Edited by John Wallace and William Louden. RoutledgeFalmer pound;15.99
This book makes good reading and is often dramatic. Each of its 16 chapters follows the same recipe: take a classroom problem in science teaching and engage a thoughtful and gifted teacher to write a real account of wrestling with it. These are undoubtedly the most vivid parts of the book. I particularly like the scenes from "The Laws of Science", "Constructivism", "Questioning", "Teaching Ethics", and the more sinister "Power" (in the classroom).
The voices of the children are authentic, puzzled, sometimes confident and often full of imagination. The voices of the teachers are also authentic and impressively honest. The memorable extract about the use of teacher power in the face of evil-minded youngsters trying to gas their cockroaches includes the setting of a successful trap to catch the delinquents. "I had them. I turned my smile into a hard scowl," the teacher says.
Of course, 34 children are too many for comfortable control, and their behaviour can be a nightmare. Even when other pupils get the scientific ideas wrong and blame Newton for his awkward first law, the teacher remarks that he, too, has found this difficult. They are "good kids", he says, and wonders what should be changed, the students, the science, or his own educational values - an excellent question that only he can answer.
These teacher scenes are followed by several commentaries by established scholars. Most offer their own elaboration of what has happened, some explain a current educational theory that seems relevant, and others give advice to the teacher on how to cope with these problems. Readers will not be surprised to hear that these experts rarely agree. Sometimes they offer contrasting ideas, sometimes complementary ones. Most are accessible and interesting, even if less vivid than the classroom accounts. The final pages are taken up with the "Editors' synthesis" - a truly difficult job under the circumstances.
Real teaching quandaries abound. In lessons on ethics, adolescent children often reflect back to us the xenophobia of their community; how can we reform this? Almost all small children describe the attractive force of the magnet as making the iron object "stick" to it, and they don't mean glue. When children are perplexed about explaining electric current, and rival theories begin to win the day, should we offer the authoritative answer? If the boys take the girls' batteries and they don't bother to complain for half the lesson, what action or comment is appropriate?
Most of the teachers in this book are Australian, but the issues and researchers' theories are common to all countries. I strongly recommend the book to teachers and postgraduate students for its invaluable reality. The chapters describe, in context, events that any student teacher will probably meet within the first year, and comments on them. That must be helpful and thought-provoking.
Joan Solomon is a senior research fellow at the Open University