A virtue out of difference
With admirable economy, the German philosopher Schopenhauer wrote 100 years ago:"The world is my idea". These few words capture the essence of how learning is seen today. We construct our own ideas of the world, using what we already know to shape and give them body. As none of us begins with exactly the same knowledge and experience as another, our ideas of the world can be different. This makes teaching difficult. Children sit in front of us, not with empty heads, but with different ideas about the world and the way it works.
Anne Qualter's message is that primary science teaching should be tailored to take into account these differences. Only by doing so will we make learning sound, stable and lasting. This might seem self-evident, but differentiating teaching in the classroom like this is not easy. First, we need to know what these ideas are. Then lessons have to be devised that relate to or change them and improve understanding.
Faced with such a task, it is not surprising that one common strategy is to ignore any diversity of ideas and try to hide them under a straightforward presentation of "the right answer". But burying a child's individual ideas is not effective. Ideas are often resistant to change and able to survive interment. Children are also adept at digging them up when our backs are turned.
Approaches to differentiation, Qualter points out, are often narrow and even sterile as far as teaching science is concerned. For instance, grouping children according to ability in English and mathematics is not helpful when it comes to teaching science. It tells us little about the ideas the children have or their ability in science. This, of course, adds to the difficulty since it means that differentiation has to be subject or area specific.
Qualter argues that differentiation has been made more difficult since the introduction of the national curriculum. It encourages the view, she says, that it is to do with sorting children according to levels of understanding, rather than by difference of understanding.
Her solution is to identify children's ideas, group them according to those ideas, and teach each group in a way that relates to those ideas. Illustrative quotations and case studies are in generous supply.
The final, short chapter brings together advice on planning a topic, exploring children's initial ideas, grouping children, classroom organisation, providing access, and assessment.
Qualter's main interest lies in teaching processes, which she traces to the Plowden Report. Some may agree that, "Teachers have to find ways to stick with their own beliefs while accommodating the demands of politicians", but it will be a brave teacher who tries that with an OFSTED inspection on the horizon.
Nowadays, few books on education avoid mentioning the virtues of learning in groups. Having children think together is a useful strategy, of course, but there is a risk that it will spread misunderstanding. Teachers need to be aware of this.
What this book says about differentiation is useful. Although Qualter ties it to a particular set of values and to science teaching, it has a wider relevance. Whatever we want to teach, beginning with a child's existing ideas is good practice - and often difficult.
Douglas Newton is a reader in education at the University of Newcastle