Dalek dogma is a bitter pill;Last Word

15th May 1998 at 01:00
A prescription is what you get when you are ill. It should not be applied to all teachers in all circumstances. Current attempts to prescribe how teachers should teach, however well-intended, are mistaken.

In addition to the prescriptions for literacy and numeracy, there are proposals for national schemes of work for the other seven subjects of the primary curriculum. "Unprecedented Government intervention in almost every lesson", as the Daily Telegraph reported it.

I welcome voluntary schemes. Any teacher can learn from other people, or from videos of classroom practice. Only the arrogant believe they know it all.

In Education: an alternative vision, produced by 15 academics in 1993, I wrote: "There should be a huge emphasis on literacy right at the centre of the infant school curriculum." So I applaud the Government's campaign on literacy. It is only the prescription I dislike.

Asking teachers to split each hour into the same 15-15-20-10-minute formula, for every class, day after day, is like telling journalists that all articles must have 15 sentences setting the scene, 15 developing the story, 20 sentences giving two opposing points of view with quotations, and 10 sentences of summary. No choice of structure, whatever the story.

I am not here addressing the extreme views of Chris Woodhead. In a TES article in April, the chief inspector said it was "dangerous" for teachers to work out their own best professional practice. Striking a match in a gas-filled room, treading on a tiger's toe: that's what I call dangerous. Working out best practice is what professional people are paid for.

In his annual lecture he asked whether we wanted reflective practitioners or people who could teach reading, as if thinking about the job was somehow in opposition to doing it. Woodhead's own utterances are so intellectually woolly that debating with him is like arguing with a pom-pom.

I want to persuade people whose opinions and motivation I respect, like the Government's Michael Barber and John Stannard, director of the national literacy strategy. Michael Barber (TES, May 1) offers the names of researchers on whose findings the strategy is based. This is not the issue. I am in favour of using research in this way. Many of my own books on class management, questioning and explaining are based on research findings, but without the element of compulsion.

In any case, research on reading, even in the references that Michael Barber quotes, is not sufficiently clear cut to justify wholesale adoption of fixed strategies by all. Experimental groups "beat" control groups by relatively slight amounts. No method trounces the rest. The context - pupil age, background, interest, teacher expectation - is very important.

I have asked for a reference to research demonstrating that all teachers should sing in unison, irrespective of context. None has been produced, because none exists. Where is the evidence for two thirds of time being devoted to whole-class teaching, whether pupils are bored out of their skulls, or so engaged they want 100 per cent of it? There is none.

Compelling all teachers to use "traditional" methods, assumes this has some incontrovertible virtue. What other professions look only to the past? Where are the traditional dentists (no anaesthetics, big forceps), traditional plumbers (earth closets are best), traditional journalists (quill pen and pony express), traditional engineers (wooden structures that catch fire)?

In the 19th century teachers taught huge classes. There were few books or illustrations; no videos or computers. Little choice existed compared with today's many possibilities.

A head who had attended literacy training summed it up: "There were some very interesting ideas from the literacy people, stressing flexibility, but then this prat from OFSTED (not Woodhead) came in and made it sound all rigid and compulsory."

The 19th century ended with the demise of a bad policy. Payment by results was abolished in 1898. What a pity, exactly 100 years later, if we exit the 20th century with another policy that, in retrospect, will seem just as wrong.

How many teachers, recalled by the famous in the "You never forget a good teacher" campaign, used the identical lesson structure with every class, every day? Not one. Daleks teaching by prescription cannot meet the huge demands of the next century.

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