Education books

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
I smacked my daughters occasionally. I was of that generation and background - it was what you did. Now I bitterly regret it, and the fact that their adult reminiscences about Dad hitting them are affectionately jovial somehow makes things a lot worse.

Anyone who still needs convincing about this ought to read Trust and Betrayal in the Treatment of Child Abuse by Laurie K MacKinnon (Guilford Press pound;21.50) which examines the enormous complexities involved in working with families where children are at risk. One section, "The Control of Children", looks at smacking, which some parents see as not only permissible, but necessary, and "describe receiving support from other authorities, lawyers, doctors, the police, psychologists and even, one inferred, from a magistrate." All this despite the fact that "there is significant evidence that it does not achieve the aims parents desire".

When I first started teaching, "child abuse" meant hitting children harder and more frequently than the rest. Then, quite suddenly, it started to mean sex. Surviving Paedophilia by Kate Cairns (Trentham Books pound;42, pound;13.95 pbk) is about the effects of abuse which, in the words of the blurb, spread "like a blast from a bomb". Drawing heavily on case histories - and exploring ways out of the darkness - the book is both sad and hopeful.

Were you to read both of these books, you might well turn with relief to Children's Minds, Talking Rabbits and Clockwork Oranges: essays on education by Kieran Egan (Teachers College Press pound;17.50, distributed by Eurospan, 0171 240 0856). The first chapter, "Literacy and the Oral Foundations of Education", offers an absorbing account of the invention of literature, and an explanation of the means by which oral poets created and handed down thousands of lines of elaborate imagery.

The author goes on to question some basic assumptions: for example, the idea that students learn best when you start with what they know. Which, he asks, would go down best on a Friday afternoon, "The structure of your neighbourhood" or "Torture instruments through the ages"? The point is that we define knowledge too narrowly. "If we consider their affective lives and their imaginative lives in what they 'know', we can save the principle."

Professor Egan's reflections lead easily into Learners and Pedagogy, edited by Jenny Leach and Bob Moon (Paul Chapman pound;49). For 30 years the Open University has produced invaluable collections of the most important writings on every aspect of education. This one, exploring the relationships between learning, teaching and knowledge, is firmly in that tradition, with a contents page featuring such names as Jerome Bruner, Paolo Freire and Brian Simon.

Perhaps the most important message that emerges is in just one simple sentence from Jenny Leach and Bob Moon's chapter, "Recreating Pedagogy". Reflecting almost exactly one of the main strands of Kieran Egan's book, they write: "Learning rarely, if ever, occurs in the ways that curriculum planners, including teachers, anticipate."

Gerald Haigh

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