Can't we solve it with words?

13th January 2006 at 00:00
The Buskers Guide to Behaviour

By Shelly Newstead

Illustrated by Chris Bennett

Common Threads Publications pound;8.50 inc pp. Tel: 07000 785215.Email:

Classroom Confidential

By Louisa Leaman

Continuum pound;9.99

Bringing the Best Out in Boys(video and booklet)

By Lucinda Neall

Hawthorn Press pound;30

The Minds of Boys

By Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens

John Wiley Sons pound;15.99

The former education secretary Kenneth Baker was mocked when he told civil servants to compress all key policy information to a side of A4. How superficial and trivial, they sneered. I'm with Ken. Too many books about the nitty-gritty of education read as if they would have benefited from a little nimble-fingered hatchet-work at the editor's desk.

This goody-bag of behaviour books shows us the best and worst of the genre.

The shortest is Shelly Newstead's Buskers Guide to Behaviour. With echoes of the semi-comic Bluffer's Guide series, this seems an odd title when it comes to something as central to good teaching as behaviour. We might imagine a busker's guide to using Ofsted jargon or blagging your way through an interview, but behaviour? The blurb explains: "Buskers are people who have great intuition and courage of their convictions." The series aims to provide a rationale for practical approaches while staying light-hearted and clear and using current theory.

I found the conversational style ("no, hang on a minute, don't rush off to chapter 2")irritating, but teachers' tastes in such matters will vary. Some of the messages, however, are sensible, such as Newstead's view that many school reward systems only teach a superficial kind of acceptable behaviour. She is especially dismissive (as I am) of mechanistic discipline systems which lead to adults spending time totting up and subtracting points. Even at 70 small-format pages, this book could have been shorter.

Many of us have marvelled at a gifted teacher who effortlessly tames hormonally challenged adolescents without uttering a word. Louisa Leaman's Classroom Confidential attempts to dissect forensically the key elements of effective classroom management. Thus we should keep our pupils motivated by pitching the lesson content at the right level, give praise, and make lessons interesting. So far, so predictable. It's in the "how to" content of such books that we seek value for money. This one is useful in its guidance on what we might call the micro-skills of teaching: where to stand ("move around the class and make students feel they are being watched from all sides"); how to write on the board without turning your back. It would be especially useful for a new teacher and many will welcome its matter-of-fact style.

My review of Lucinda Neall's book, Bringing the Best Out in Boys: communication strategies for teachers, was enthusiastic (Friday magazine, November 8, 2002). The book offered so many new theoretical perspectives - including an unexpectedly compelling section on boys' testosterone levels - plus real, practical advice. The reader was in the hands of a savvy teacher who'd seen it and done it. Now there's an accompanying video in which boys from a range of age groups at the Nobel school, Stevenage, tell us what they like: interesting lessons, a variety of activities, teachers who are firm but fair. They want to be respected and never, ever bored. I'd be surprised if many girls would disagree with any of these points. And that's part of the problem. Whereas the book provided a range of genuinely new insights, the video tells us little that we wouldn't have predicted. You could spend your money on a pack of new camcorder tapes and film your own students. Certainly the quality of the filming and editing is no better than you could achieve at school.

Short clips show, for example, how a teacher might intervene in a corridor when two boys are fighting ("boys, can we try solving this using words rather than fists?") and how to encourage boys to take an interest in your subject ("Mitch, I know English isn't your favourite subject but just think what A-levels you could take if you got a really good grade." Mitch nods remorsefully).

More compelling is The Minds of Boys, an American import that contains the apparently obligatory cheesiness of a second-rate Disney animation. But, dispensing with the sick-bag at the end of the introduction, I found the authors' thesis compelling. They show us how the development of schooling in the past 50 years has squeezed out many of the styles of learning that would have benefited some boys, such as the hands-on apprenticeship model.

They look at ways parents can support their sons' development in the pre-school years; what teachers need to know about boys' brains; and - devastatingly - the destructive impact that unregulated television can have. "Never," they say, "not in his toddler years, his prepubescence, not even in his adolescence, allow your son to have a TV in his room." Here's a book that's not afraid to shy away from giving advice.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. First Appointments, a supplement for trainee teachers, is free with The TES next week

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