Education books

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Many years ago I worked for a secondary head who would not allow teachers to write such comments as, "You are capable of much better". His argument was that a teacher who knew that would get on and do something about it.

This same theme - that school cannot duck its responsibilities to the under-achieving child - is central to Able Underachievers, edited by Diane Montgomery (Whurr Publishers pound;19.50). The book has 11 contributors from a range of countries, writing on, for example, gender differences, behavioural difficulties, and "gifted child" projects in other countries. All have useful and often highly practical things to say.

At the core of the book, though, in every sense, is Professor Montgomery's own chapter, "Inclusive Education for able underachievers: changing teaching for learning". The title sums up the message well, but just to underline where she's coming from, she writes, "because it is the teaching methods by which the curriculum is delivered which are predisposing children to fail and to underachieve, it is the schools that must be made to change".

The national curriculum, she writes, "has been specified in such detail that the assumptions seem to be that it is simply the job of the 'teacher' to read it up and then tell it in a lively manner to pupilsI Ten years on in the UK we have a cadre of teachers who are educationally illiterate and pupils who are becoming repositories of facts but who lack the ability to put their knowledge to any useful real-world purpose."

Many are saying such things. Unlike some, though, Diane Montgomery, is not shy of tackling the detail. In a further chapter, on tackling literacy difficulties in able underachievers, including dyslexics, she has some excellent things to say about, among other things, handwriting. Over the years, many teachers, searching for a handwriting style that looks presentable from the start, have forgotten what was understood many years ago - that handwriting is a flowing process, not just a static means of presentation. Diane Montgomery says that the way to improve the flow is to teach cursive handwriting - all letters joined, all starting on the line. "It increases fluency, and speeds up writin, which enables more thoughts to be written down."

The only problem with this book is familiar enough - that any approach which is effective for "special" children is going to work at least as well with all the others. The author recognises this. "All learners need to experience an education which is supportive and valuing, whatever their differences," she writes. She goes on to conclude, however, that, "Regrettably, the findings in this book are in direct contravention to state systems of education in many countries."

Much of the groundswell of rebellion against the didactic, teacher-centred classroom comes from recent research into how the brain works and consequently how children learn. Mark Fletcher's Teaching for Success, (pound;17.99 from English Experience, 25 Julian Road, Folkestone CT19 5HW. Telfax: 01303 226702) sets out to give teachers the tools and ideas to take advantage of what he calls "huge leaps in knowledge at the interface between neurological research andI best practice in the classroom."

This is, in effect, a fun workbook for teachers, with activities that will illuminate their work with children. So, for example, there are memory tests - lists of words, stories with key words embedded, with invitations to reflect on why context matters, and what strategies might improve the score. One page links emotion with memory by first asking "Tell me everything about your first day at school," and then meeting your "I can't remember that far back!" protest by leading you through a series of 18 prompts ("Did you have sisters or brothers at the school"; "Did you have lunch there or come home?") that fill in the gaps.

Some teachers might prefer a straightforward textbook about learning and the brain. Those who want something a bit lighter will enjoy Mark Fletcher's approach, for there's plenty of theory alongside the fun and games.

Denis McInerney, in Helping Kids to Achieve Their Best (Allen and Unwin pound;12.99), also recognises the essential point that children can't learn unless they want to. Here, too, is a readable handbook for teachers, with case studies and recognisable classroom problems all underpinned by good theory.

Gerald Haigh

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