Education books

5th January 2001 at 00:00
How serious are we about lifelong learning? The UK's population is ageing, fewer babies are being born, the old are living longer.

Conventionally, we regard this as a problem, possibly a crisis. For the elderly (and vigorous) contributors to Getting a Life (edited by Michael Simmons, Peter Owen pound;9.99) it is more of an opportunity. The subtitle is "older people talking", but "older people with something important to say" would be nearer the mark. A vast resource of energy and experience is being neglected - and education is the key.

Here, for instance, is Eric Midwinter, now a veteran campaigner. "Our society must start educating its members - all its members - about the huge potential of the last third of our life."

Peter Laslett, co-founder of the University of the Third Age, emphatically agrees. "The current and laudable drive towards lifelong learning is not facing up to the fundamental issues," he argues - it is too focused on the second age - the earning age. It is all about skills and not about wisdom.

True or false? There is evidence either way in Schools in the Learning Age (edited by Bill Lucas and Toby Greany, Southgate Publishers pound;12.95. Tel: 01363 776888), the latest collection of papers from the independent charity Campaign for Learning.

The thrust of the campaign is economic - "Learning pays: for individuals, businesses and nations," says Sir Christopher Ball, its founder patron. Well, yes, but there is more to it than that, and other contributors to the manifesto tell us why.

Their theme is that schools as we know them educate young people for a world that no longer exists. What would schools be like, Guy Claxton asks, if they were truly dedicated to helping all young people become confident, competent, lifelong learners? What would they be like (John Abbott and Terry Ryan want to know) if they really used what we know about the learning process? Or if (Tom Bentley's question) they were explicitly required to foster creativity and innovation?

Their answer is: very different from how they are now - and very different from the position that Goernment is pushing them into. As Tom Bentley says, government initiatives are all about "working the existing institutions harder, seeking better outputs from the same basic resources and structures".

In the rest of the book, however, that message is underplayed. The campaign wants to win government over, not alienate it, so the strategy is to argue that the politicians' tightly defined road to school improvement runs parallel with the skills and attitudes track of lifelong earning. Can the two ways be made to converge?

Only if we learn to increase classroom teachers' autonomy, argues Henry Pluckrose in his latest book, The Caring Classroom: towards a learning environment, (Education Now Books pound;9.95).

Pluckrose draws on a lifetime of working with young children and their teachers. It is creativity, he claims, that unlocks learning. But creativity is exactly what current trends discourage. Policy-makers are too obsessed with what H L Mencken long ago described as "the search for master formulae that will take the place of the competence and resourcefulness of teachers". Even so, he says, there remain countless ways in which teachers can release and nurture children's delight in learning - and here is a practitioner's handbook that, wisely and convincingly, describes them.

The trouble is that policy-makers still don't grasp the depth and range of what teachers do. The Sharp Edge of Educational Change, edited by Nina Bascia and Andy Hargreaves (Routledge Falmer pound;17.99), uses international research to show the disconnection between what education reforms are expected to achieve and what actually happens. Often, the authors say, it is because schools and teachers are seen as the objects of change and not as the instruments of it.

One result, they say, is that teachers increasingly feel they have too little time to teach. "It is about time that teachers were pulled back from the sharp edge of change and moved towards its leading edge, intellectually, emotionally and politically." That must be true - and the evidence makes important reading.

Michael Duffy

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