Dodgy information

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Information amp; Book Learning By Margaret Meek Thimble Press Pounds 7.95

Do topic books contribute to learning? Paul Noble looks at a new title that puts the sceptics' point of view.

Seductive, colourful and packed with facts, topic and other information books have adorned the walls of primary classrooms since at least the time of Plowden. Visually glorious they may be, impressive they may also be to visitors, but do they make a significant contribution to children's learning? Are they, perhaps, little more than complex, very expensive wallpaper?

To ease "accessing", the information they contain is usually chopped up into easily digestible bits, garnished by designers and artists using all sorts of technological tricks. But can we be sure this facilitates the process whereby readers come to their own understandings of the world?

Margaret Meek is deeply sceptical and argues that we need to open up our notions of what books for learning should be like. Her sharp and well-founded criticisms of "non-fiction" (a term she tries to avoid) are as valid now as they were when she first made them 20 years ago, even though we are now in the era of the CD-Rom and the national curriculum. But both of these developments have, if anything, encouraged the presentation of the world "in bits", disembodied, unchallenged facts (origin unacknowledged) disgorged as received wisdom by information retrieval systems as well as by textbooks.

Meek starts from the premise that reading for information is not about stitching together certainties, but about reflection and the intellectual involvement of the reader with the text. Her kind of reading for information is about "thinking, wondering, and sometimes understanding, with the ever-present possibility of being unsettled". This clearly demands that writers share curiosity as well as understanding with readers,make them aware of the uncertain as well as the certain, and offer children learning by "lending their minds out".

Her arguments are extremely persuasive, although she is not perhaps severe enough on modern "topic" books for their lack of narrative and voice and sense of curiosity shared. The trend towards more questioning approaches seems to have gone unnoticed, however. Textbooks are not what they were, and her model textbook could be 30 years out of date. But her argument is not substantially weakened. Any examination of primary history textbooks of the 1950s and 1960s will show how badly they compare with today's, although in terms of the quality (and indeed quantity) of writing,of the degree of wonder and excitement being communicated, the comparison is not always so favourable to the present.

"Sometimes more attention is paid to what children look at than to what they read," Meek argues, and in her analysis of the Dorling Kindersley style she draws attention to how, when information is portrayed in clinically beautiful photographs, it presents a kind of "truth" brooking as little argument as the off-the-peg textbook fact. The DK style, now widely imitated, is a successful example of text being the adjunct to illustration rather than the reverse.

Quoting from a book called Bread, she illustrates how redundant some illustrations can be. I was reminded of a comedy sketch depicting a newsreader reading a report illustrated by "stills". "In Bolton (picture of Bolton), a man (picture of man) saw (picture of saw) a blue (illustration of blue) . . ." and so on. The example from Bread was so similar it was comic. Such "pedagogic plodding", as Meek terms it, does not help a child to make understandings, not least because it excludes the imagination and speculation. For this kind of reading the imagination does not even need to be slipped into gear, and yet without imagination how can we expect to get a grip on truth? As Meek asserts, even the youngest readers reading for learning need more from topic books than the naming of objects in pictures.

Information and Book Learning is a very worthwhile read. My new year's wish is that chapter 11, "New Beginnings", should appear by magic on the fax machines of every editor and publisher of children's books in the country.

Paul Noble is headteacher of St Andrew's C of E Primary School, Blunsdon,Wiltshire, and a member of the judging panel of The TES Junior Information Book Award. The results of this year's book awards will be announced at the Education Show on March 6

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