In brief

17th October 2003 at 01:00
TEACHING TOWARD SOLUTIONS. By Linda Metcalf. Crown House Publishing pound;19.99.

There's been something of a flurry of education books from the United States. You can spot them because American authors flash their educational credentials so brazenly. Linda Metcalf, PhD, is a school counsellor and co-ordinator for safe and drug-free schools in Texas.

If England and the US are divided by a common language, it affects our classroom practice too. I can't imagine many teachers addressing their students with: "Guys, good practice at football today" and "Wow, I can't believe your performance today."

Yet Linda Metcalf, PhD, has an important central point. Her premise is that we often talk to students in a negative way. We say things like: "Sue, you have the ability, you just need to apply yourself." She maintains that this is a problem-oriented approach, and suggests we take a "solution-focused motivational approach". This means thinking of our students' goals and envisaging the future as we want it to be. "Sue, I realise you have passed four out of the last six tests. When you put your mind to it, you are certainly successful."

She illustrates her point convincingly, and provides many useful templates for reshaping students' behaviour. But however good the idealism, the tone is alien, and it is difficult to fathom publishers who believe an American import like this will translate without adjustment to the UK market.

TUNED IN AND FIRED UP. By Sam M Intrator. Yale University Press pound;15.95.

Tuned in and Fired Up reminds me of a host of genuinely liberating education books published in the 1960s in which writers such as David Holbrook wrote about personal growth, maturity and creativity. This book has a similarly worthy aim: to pin down those apparently indefinable moments in the classroom when a teacher inspires students. In one case study, Mr Quinn takes his class to the school field to write about nature.

He creates a classroom rich in displays and colour. He plays music when students are writing their reading journals.

Many of us are privileged to have been taught by our own Mr Quinns. My inspiration - Roy Samson - was less predictable. To recapture the thrill of the Spanish Armada, he set the biology pond on fire. To sharpen our response to the five senses, he blindfolded a Year 7 student and fed him cat food. Reading about other people's inspirational teachers can be interesting, but I'm not sure where it gets us.

Of course, we all want more teachers to be inspiring, and reading American case studies may nudge us to be more creative and experimental. But this book never really gets beyond the descriptive stage. It doesn't help us to define what inspirational teaching might be, nor to imagine how we might encourage it in UK classrooms, nor even to suggest an agenda for reforming education. Rather, it's a celebration of good practice.

Reassuringly, it describes much that I see happening in my own school. So perhaps the key message is that we underestimate our own capacity to inspire. Perhaps there's more inspirational teaching going on in UK classrooms than we imagined.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds SCIENCE, NOT ART: TEN SCIENTISTS' DIARIES. Edited by Jon Turney. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation pound;8.50.

What do scientists get up to? Ten rising science stars, more than promising but not yet top of the tree, agreed to keep a personal and professional diary for six months for this engaging, slim volume.

Janna Levin is a cosmologist working on chaos, whose recent book How the Universe Got its Spots: diary of a finite time in a finite space, claims the universe is not, as many assume, infinite. She wrestles with mathematical proofs on immense themes. She also wrestles with grant applications, illness and finding enough time for her musician partner.

Yadvinder Malhi is an environmental scientist working on how tropical ecosystems respond to climate change. He got married recently. Charlotte Roberts is a paleopathologist who studies ancient human remains, shedding light on modern diseases. Despite her asthma, she loves fell-running and her dog. They, along with a biophysicist, mathematician, geneticist, marine biologist, neurophysiologist, physical chemist and doctor-cum-space-scientist, present endearing figures as they try to reconcile their intellectual enthusiasms with the demands of loved ones, accommodation and the everlasting round of grant applications. Give them the money, I say. Let them pursue knowledge and benefit the rest of us.

Victoria Neumark

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