A mine of ideas;Reviews;General;Books

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
OBSERVING TEACHING AND LEARNING. edited by Christina Tilstone. David Fulton pound;13.

RAISING ACHIEVEMENT IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. By John Stringer and Robert Powell. Robert Powell Publications pound;10.

Available from Matrix, tel: 01565 650045. VALUED CHiLDREN, Informed Teaching. By Wendy Suschitzky and Joy Chapman. Open University Press pound;11.99.

Paul Noble puts classroom skills under observation

Christina Tilstone's book contains my quote of the year: "Teaching is so complex that it is impossible to get it right." No surprise there.

Observing Teaching and Learning includes contributions from lecturers and advisers who share Tilstone's interest in, and commitment to, special educa-tional needs. Their contributions are straightforward, largely commonsense and readable. You'll find the inevitable definitions, some useful descriptions of observational techniques, and a section on recording observations.

Observation may have its part to play in improving the quality of teaching and learning, but the key to success, according to John Stringer and Robert Powell in Raising Achievement in the Primary School, is "to put learning first".

The authors frequently observe, and with barely concealed disappointment, that the changes in education over the past 10 years, which have largely been concerned with structure and content, have been imposed from outside and have failed to do this. They believe that what happens in the classroom is what is important, and that ultimately depends on what teachers do.

Convinced that much of the time, energy and money spent on modifying education policy has been spent inefficiently, the authors try to re-focus attention on the classroom, but not without an appreciation of how difficult this might be today. As they pithily put it: "League tables are newsworthy, classroom skills are not."

I found myself sympathetic to the main thrust of their argument; it is refreshing to read a book that, when dealing with classroom management, gives practical examples of how to improve lessons. In fact, the chapter on tasks and activities sent me scurrying for a separate note-pad - good ideas are gold dust. Target-setting and assessment are also dealt with in a practical and reasonable way. More ideas for the pad.

Written in a conversational style, the book is occasionally overdressed with anecdotes, but its heart is so definitely in the right place that you forgive the blemishes of poor page design and editing. But editors please note - one-sentence paragraphs are obfuscating.

Valued Children, Informed Teaching has a different agenda. It is a book about inequality that tries to move the debate forward from the much-trumpeted issues of race and gender to the wider discussion of intolerance of individual difference. It challenges the reader from the beginning when it attempts to draw you into a staffroom debate about a cupboard, which, I must confess, I found contentious and interminable. But putting aside the book's obsession with cupboards, bridges and gates, how to focus on individual children and teachers is the issue. Echoes of 1960s philosophy here, although the language is definitely from the 1990s. "Zero tolerance of inequality" is the order of the day.

What goes to make up an individual's identity is examined in detail, although neither personality nor race or religion are treated separately. The book is not without its flaws. The authors abhor stereotypes but fall into the stereotype trap when they talk about "grey-suited" governors, and passion some-times leads to over-statement. Clearly, professionals and parents may have "equivalent experience and expertise" but surely not in every case?

But the book is thought-provoking and makes you consider to what extent schools should take on the task of trying to engineer social change.

Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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