In brief

14th May 2008 at 01:00

Learning in the early years: a guide for teachers of children 3-7

Edited by Jeni Riley

Paul Chapman Publishing pound;18.99

This edited collection by Jeni Riley and colleagues, many based at London University's Institute of Education, is based on a well-laid plan: to bring together Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidance for the foundation stage and the national curriculum for key stage l, and to build bridges of commentary and discussion across the two documents, supporting the whole with recent and relevant research evidence.

Riley makes her positive commitment to this task explicit in her introduction, and identifies the three key issues for the seven chapters as play-based activities (when did we abandon the bolder term, "play"?), practitioners' subject knowledge, and ICT and learning in the early years.

Riley owns to a fine ambition for what the book will do for practitioners:

"We have aimed to inform, to delight and to inspire." The first chapter is the odd one out, including a swift and competent review of recent research in neuroscience, the fashionable accessory of the moment, an even briefer glimpse at modernism and postmodernism, where some of the usual suspects take a bow (Habermas, Lather and Dahlberg), and a more rewarding look at the concept of childhood, which leads us smoothly into the Reggio Emilia approach.

Next comes a useful summary of some major studies of effective pedagogy, covering work in New Zealand and the DfES's Eppe and Repey projects in the UK. All this adds up to a promising beginning. But the next six chapters, one for each of the six areas of learning in the foundation stage document, are uneven in quality and depth, and rarely delight or inspire. The exceptions are the chapters on personal, social and emotional development and on early mathematical learning. The PSHE chapter, by Liz Brooker and Lynne Broadbent, draws on a rich field of reference, and launches several well-aimed critical shafts, notably in the discussion of practitioners'

indiscriminate use of praise (the ubiquitous "enthusiastic cry of `Lovely'"), and the ways in which children acquire a sense of responsibility, or not, in some settings, where they are seen as essentially childish and vulnerable, rather than as competent citizens.

The mathematical chapter, by Carol Aubrey and Patti Barber, is even stronger, full of fascinating research stories, and reminders of what we used to know before professional amnesia set in some time around 1988.

There is not quite enough about the mathematics of block play, but there is much else to relish, especially the detailed action research story of a reception class working with a Pixie robot and a number line: as promised, informative, delightful, and inspiring. If only all the other chapters had reached this level, the book would more credibly meet Riley's confident claim, at the end of chapter 1, that "the place of this book on the shelves of early years practitioners is assured". In fact, the preceding sentence is closer to the truth: "There is no room for complacency as there is much to be done." Yes indeed, and parts of this book will certainly help us to get to work.

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