Education books

29th May 1998 at 01:00
Priorities vary. A government minister worries about how much homework a pupil should do. What Mr or Miss Smith in room 14 wants to know is how to get Jimmy and Ramandeep to obey the school rule which says they cannot wear their coats in class. The lads are refusing, hoping for a major shouting match which will escalate into serious disruption. The teacher feels unable to back down, but seems to be looking down a tunnel which leads only to humiliation.

In Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms (Routledge pound;10.99), Paul Blum provides a detailed 10-point plan, over a page and a half, for dealing with this very problem. That he does so shows his deep understanding of that feeling of emotionally driven, sweaty nausea that accompanies the struggle to maintain discipline in a "difficult" secondary school .

His "Teacher Survey", which describes different levels of disruption and asks the reader to check his or her own experience against them, is perceptive and relentlessly descriptive, from "Students will start talking to their neighbours as soon as you start to address the class or ask a question", right up to "There is an overall feeling that can only be described as 'semi-frenzy'. People are falling out of their chairs, shouting at each other . . ."

Blum deals in the art of the possible, starting from the assumption that few teachers achieve perfection. "Most teachers," he writes, "have to rely on a mixture of strategies to survive and succeed." Just those words will comfort the many teachers who chastise themselves for failure.

After Paul Blum's often bleak account, Roger Merry's Successful Children, Successful Teaching (Open University Press pound;11.99 paperback, pound;40 hardback) calls for a cognitive and emotional leap. What Merry does - and he does it very effectively - is take what academics know about the way children learn and apply it to real classrooms. Others have tried this; few have made it so interesting or genuinely helpful. One passage points to the mismatch between formal schooling and what American psychologist L B Resnik calls "higher-order thinking skills" - open-ended, taking on differing points of view, absorbing multiple criteria for decision making, not tied to a series of known steps. "Resnik herself," writes Roger Merry, "notes that an emphasis in schools on getting the right answer in order to achieve high grades actually discourages such higher-order thinking."

Also from Open University Press comes Supporting Early Learning: the way forward, by Vicky Hurst and Jenefer Joseph (pound;11.99 paperback, pound;40 hardback). Their plea is for a "developmentally appropriate curriculum", with activities that match developmental levels in young children.

In a chapter on "Play and learning" the authors make a distinction between children's play, which is, in fact, serious learning, and adult play which is, they say, "recreational, often light-hearted, and certainly not part of the 'serious business of life' ". Yes - now what was it that Bill Shankly said about that?

Each time I pick up The Which? Guide to Changing Careers by Sue Bennet (Which? Books pound;10.99) it falls open at the instruction, "Think about whether you need as high a salary as you earned before". Perhaps this is the only real issue, especially for teachers, who do not have skills recognised as generic. Nevertheless, there is excellent advice here. I particularly like, in a section on writing job applications, a paragraph called "Spurious Leisure Interests". Most headteachers and governors have seen a few of those on application forms in their time.

Gerald Haigh

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