Off the shelf

Gerald Haigh

On a recent Sunday afternoon I was in the company of lots of adults and small children. Suddenly, someone pointed out that my nine-month-old grandson, George, surrounded as he was by real-life talk and stimulation, was straining to look across the room to where his five-year-old cousin was watching a video of Tots TV. That the screen should so readily grab the attention of a baby who has had very little exposure to it was a bit disturbing and the incident seemed symbolic of society's general unease about the relationship between young people and video.

For those who feel this worry, there is little comfort to be found in Young Children, Videos and Computer Games by Jack Sanger, with Jane Willson, Bryn Davies and Roger Whittaker (Falmer Press, Pounds 13.95). The product of research among children of four to nine, funded by the British Film Institute and the British Library, the book reaches a number of worrying conclusions. It suggests that the whole of "screen-based technology" strongly reinforces traditional gender stereotypes. "The research team's overwhelming impression was that not just computers but most technology is male dominated."

Neither do schools or parents really understand what is going on. "Significant adults in children's lives were unable to discern what elements of technology might be productive in children's learning." There is a real challenge for schools here.

One characteristic of the way that children play computer games, according to Jack Sanger and his team, is that they are perfectly happy to win in any way they can. "They did not see the use of short cuts or cheating as undermining this sense of victory." This poses a problem for those who believe that the word "game" implies the ethos described by Henry Newbolt - "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" In Sport, Ethics and Education (Cassell, Pounds 13. 99) Peter J Arnold, formerly head of education at Moray House Institute of Education, conducts a philosophical debate about sport and education. Dr Arnold, like his historical namesake, concludes that sport is a necessary part of a balanced curriculum. "Sport is a practice concerned with fairness, " he writes. For my own part I do not believe that children can learn anything from a team game that they would not learn more effectively from playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir. It was a constant irritation to me that John Major could never see that. Still, it is good that Dr Arnold has produced a thoughtful, philosophical book at a time when education is obsessed with short-term instrumental objectives.

Another one is The Elements of Teaching by James M Banner Jr and Harold C Cannon (Yale University Press, Pounds 11.50), which arrives from the USA at a time when there is increased emphasis here on teaching and the qualities of the teacher. The authors give us a thoughtful examination of what it is to be a good teacher under headings such as "Ethics", "Order", "Imagination". Each term is dissected - authority, for example "... differs from power in its moral component and because, while power may be used for good or ill, authority does not connote coercion".

This kind of clarity is present throughout the book, which, although deeply theoretical in one sense, also includes numerous illustrative stories about school life. There are not many books like this around these days.

One illustration of the power of teaching, I suggest, is that if you remember any of the mathematical formulae you learned at school, it is because a good teacher found a way of making sure they went in and stayed there. Doing this in print is difficult, but Lionel Salem, Frederic Testard and Cora-lie Salem have a good shot at it in The Most Beautiful Mathematical Formulas (Wiley, Pounds 11. 99).

The greatest strength of their book, which is translated from the French,is the way that it demonstrates unbridled enthusiasm for the subject. To the authors, mathematical formulae are wonderful, exciting things, and they manage to convey this to the reader, aided by Coralie Salem's graphics and cartoons. In the space of two pages, for example, they manage a better explanation than I have seen anywhere else of Fermat's last theorem. Give this to your A-level maths students, or just take it home and enjoy it.

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Gerald Haigh

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