Education books

14th July 2000 at 01:00
"We know what works in teaching," the Government's pundits say, and they commission consultants at great expense to confirm their confident prescription. The reality, as teachers know, is more volatile and more exciting. Teaching is an art, not just a science. The Intuitive Practitioner, edited by Terry Atkinson and Guy Claxton (Open University Press pound;17.99) is a welcome reminder to teacher educators that this is so.

It is sub-titled, "on the value of not always knowing what one is doing". A better phrase would have referred to not always being certain. Uncertainty, after all, is the prerequisite of learning. But there is nothing in these pages to weaken the thrust of proper accountability, and nothing at all to support laissez-faire progressivism, "the supposed but in most places non-existent cause of all our educational problems".

Instead, there is a persuasive reminder of how - in maths teaching, for example, or in assessment - intuition works to complement analysis and stimulate reflection. The over-riding theme is that flexibility, motivation and creativity are too important in teaching to be snuffed out by over-prescription. In learning too, perhaps.

The message is the same in Key Issues in Secondary Education, a book for student teachers edited by John Beck and Mary Earl (Cassell pound;12.99), which deals with everything a student needs to understand to become an effective teacher, over and above subject knowledge.

The first of three parts covers "schooling, curricula, teaching, learning and assessment"; the others deal with "care, opportunity, community and the environment" and "values, citizenship, and personal, social and health education". That list makes a striking reminder of what we now expect of our teachers.

More striking, though, is the quality of the advice given. Look, for example, at Ruth Joyce's down-to-earth chapter on drug and substance abuse, or at Michael Reiss on sex education. Published materials, he says, have real limitations. Try instead, he advises, a 10-minute extract (no longer) from almost any soap opera.Children will discuss and, more importantly, reflect upon the issues.

Despite their growing professional commitments, teachers are increasingly likely to be involved in research or postgraduate dissertations. This is an unfamiliar field for most, so new editions of two invaluable guides are welcome. Research Methods in Education by Louis Cohen, Lawrence Manion and Keith Morrison (Falmer pound;17.99) is the standard work. Now in its fifth edition, it is significantly updated and includes an excellent new section specifically for novice researchers. As always, it is comprehensive, authoritative and commendably clear - an excellent marriage of theory and practice.

The Research Project: how to write it by Ralph Berry, (Routledge pound;9.99) concentrates on practice - how to select a project,where and how to gather data, how to structure and write it, how to secure publication in an appropriate specialist journal.

New material includes a chapter on the Internet and some shrewd advice about it. For any but the most recent topics, the author says,the printed word may be easier to access and easierto use.

The publishers of When Schools Compete by Edward B Fiske and Helen F Ladd (Brookings Institution Press, pound;13.75 from Plymbridge Distributors.Tel: 01752 202303) describe it, pointedly, as "a cautionary tale". It is an American study of the introduction in New Zealand from 1989 of the package of school reforms - central prescription, school-level management, parental choice, market competition - that our own governments quickly copied and extended. Many Americans would like to copy it too.

For the authors, the New Zealand experience is a valuable experiment in action: a way of moving the argument from ideology to evidence. So does it work? They find that it does, in part. It also polarises the system, they say, and produces far too many losers. It has the effect, too, of creating under-performing schools. This is an important, accessible and even-handed study. Policy-makers in the United Kingdom will surely want to read it.


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