Effective learning

11th February 2000 at 00:00
IMPROVING CHILDREN'S LEARNING. By Joan Dean. Routledge. pound;14.99. IMPROVING TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE CORE CURRICULUM. Edited by Kate Ashcroft and John Lee. Falmer Press. pound;15.99.

With "testing, testing, testing" having effectively now ousted that other much publicised tripartite political war-cry, it is a particularly appropriate time for Joan Dean's book to appear - Sanity we have need of thee.

Not that she has written a polemic for progressive education, although there is some harking back to Plowden and Bullock. Rather, this is a positive and balanced look at what research has found to be effective for children's learning at the primary stage.

Nevertheless, Joan Dean expresses the hope that the recent emphasis on literacy and numeracy will not make teachers revert to a narrower curriculum, and believes that giving the core subjects priority, militates against a broad and balanced curriculum.

Under headings such as classroom management and the teaching of literacy, she brings together a wide range of research findings that are clearly summarised under bullet points. The reader is helped to pick a way through the sometimes conflicting and confusing paths of educational research by the wise and nicely balanced conclusions that she draws.

Inevitably, Dean's handy brief summations cannot include everything and some topics are thinly covered, such as spelling, for example. But, except for a few rare occasions, the author keeps a firm grip on reality.

The core curriculum of English, science and mathematics is precisely what the contributors to Improving Teaching and Learning in the Core Curriculum hav prioritised. They share a concern to defend creativity in teaching these subjects against pedagogical prescription, which is another side of the narrowness and constraint coin that exercises Joan Dean. Considering the number of contributors, the book is understandably a bit of a mixture. There is a degree of "making the best of a bad job" about some of the contributions, while others are more aggressively positive. Bernadette Fitz-gerald, for example, writesin favour of the systematic teaching of grammar, and welcomes a structure that will "scaffold teachers' delivery of grammar" - a phrase that could only have come into being in the current climate.

Some of the analysis will be particularly helpful to new teachers - John Lee writing on working with genres, or the chapter on the nature and purpose of primary science. Ruth Sharpe also contributes a thoughtful and not uncritical essay on the numeracy hour that repays careful reading. But the book is spiced with case studies that bring one back to the practicalities of the classroom.

Reading case studies can be like listening to a neighbour give a blow-by-blow account of building a new extension, a tedious duty. But although tedium may occasionally rear its weary head, dramatic is a key word in this book. The authors cite dramatic changes in the classroom; the imposition of a rigid framework is dramatic.

While struggling with the speed and extent of change, the writers tenaciously hold on to the notion that teachers should be "reflective and independent" professionals.

Paul Noble. Paul Noble is head of St Andrew's primary school, Blunsdon, Wiltshire

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