Don't break the wings of our dragonflies

20th June 2003 at 01:00
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. Edited by David Whitebread. RoutledgeFalmer pound;17.99

Those who can, do, says the slogan. But they also have to think, says Ted Wragg

Educational theory is supposed to be cold and dead, lacking the warmth and liveliness of practice. Goethe described how he pursued a magnificent dragonfly until he caught it. When he attempted to find out why it was so beautiful, he was left with a crumpled mess. The secret of its beauty was life itself.

David Whitebread and his colleagues at Homerton College, Cambridge, have assembled a useful collection of essays on aspects of educational theory of interest to primary teachers. Research cannot answer all the questions teachers might ask, but the best of it can illuminate matters such as how children learn certain concepts, or what teaching strategies might be effective in specific contexts.

The book is divided into three major sections, covering the organisation of learning, teaching the curriculum and the education of all children. In general, the standard of writing is high, and some contributions are models of clarity. There are many examples and references to practice, and thought-provoking activities to enable teachers to reflect on what they do.

Anyone who believes there is only one way to teach, as the Government clearly did when it laid down literacy and numeracy hour patterns for all to follow, should read Donald McIntyre's opening chapter, "The nature of classroom teaching expertise". He has been an active researcher studying classrooms for more than 30 years and this chapter offers as good a statement as you will find on the importance of the many contexts of teaching and learning.

One of McIntyre's examples makes this point well. Classroom research shows that the gap between a teacher asking a question and nominating a child to respond is about one second. Allowing three seconds or so, to give children time to think, when teaching science, for instance, can improve learning.

But this will not always be the result. If a teacher has a severe manner, a lengthier pause may become menacing instead of inviting.

The first part of the book covers several topics. Ruth Kershner considers the physical environment of the classroom, including the effects of layout on behaviour and motivation. Some teachers have involved young children, with a reduction in the number of conflicts and improved working strategies.

John Robertson's and Isobel Urquart's chapters on face-to-face communication are especially important. Voice, body language and choice of language all influence pupil learning as well as the establishment of classroom rules and personal relationships. Other contributors cover group work and pupil motivation.

No section on the curriculum would be complete without references to reading and number. In the second part of the book, these are central topics, but not the whole. Contributors discuss thinking, problem-solving and creativity, remembering and understanding, and the assessment of learning. Part three addresses the treatment of children as individuals, equal opportunities for boys and girls, learning, behaviour and emotional difficulties.

Certain fashionable features recur, so Vygotsky's work is omnipresent.

Highest guru points are scored by his notions of the "zone of proximal development", that region on the edge of children's knowledge through which they need intelligent guidance, and "scaffolding", whereby skilful teachers structure pupil learning, so that what starts off as an external stimulus can eventually be transmuted into something children internalise. I have seen no clearer account of these concepts than that of Urquart's chapter.

I like the format. The text is lucid and light on jargon. Where terms used by researchers do occur, they are explained in non-technical and unpatronising language. If ministers are serious about releasing teachers' creativity, trusting the profession, and encouraging evidence-based practice rather then issuing mass formulae, this book is welcome tooling up for teachers who want to be investigators in their own classroom, drawing on the best of what is known, then adding their own discoveries.

Another Goethe aphorism, from Faust, states: "All theory is grey, dear friend, but the golden tree of life is green." Nearly true, but there are some aspects of life's greenness that good theory can enhance.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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