Everyone can walk on water

4th June 2004 at 01:00
The supremacy of fixed-ability thinking is turned on its head in this powerhouse of a book, which Tim Brighouse urges everyone involved in education to read

Learning Without Limits By Susan Hart, Annabelle Dixon, Mary Jane Drummond and Donald McIntyre Open University Press pound;20.99

Here's a book that could change the world. The title says it all.

Significantly different from the other great works on education, the book explains not the theory or thinking of one visionary individual (as in John Holt's How Children Fail, for example) but the painstakingly argued and agreed conclusions of a team of distinguished educators based on their team research. It deserves to be at least as influential as any other on education.

Susan Hart, Annabelle Dixon, Mary Jane Drummond and Donald McIntyre start with an assumption that views of ability as a predictor and determinant of future pupil performance are so pervasive, at least in England, among policymakers, teachers - and, indeed, pupils and parents - that they inevitably influence what happens in schools. The outcomes are often noxious and damaging.

I share that analysis; often I've cringed as a head has thrown open a classroom door while taking me on a tour of the school and confided: "This is the bottom set." Sometimes I've plucked up the courage to boom back, "Goodness, they look very clever to me. You must have a school full of stars." More often, in my embarrassment, I've smiled weakly while silently pitying the children who have the misfortune to attend a school that has so unthinkingly downgraded their chances in life.

So the first part of this book analyses the plethora of evidence about the corrosive impact of ability thinking and its provenance. Of course, until relatively recently, the demands of agricultural, industrial and service economies for millions of people prepared to grind out a meagre living in unskilled jobs encouraged policymakers to organise the system to limit pupil success, so, in fairness, teachers were hard pushed to reject fixed-ability thinking.

Indeed, the work of psychologists such as Cyril Burt, who legitimised the 11-plus, ensured that "ability" thinking penetrated like a virus almost every aspect of the educational system. Moreover, as the authors point out, so many of the features of current government policies haven't yet been changed to help those who, like these researchers, want no limits put on a pupil's journey of learning and growing competence and confidence.

So the authors clear the ground, calling in evidence such as David Hargreaves's research in Lumley secondary modern in the 1970s and Stephen Bull's Beachside comprehensive in the 1980s. Modern heads should read the passage on the dangerous limitations of the cognitive ability tests. It reminded me of the difficulty of having a staffroom conversation without falling into the trap of talking about "bright", "average" and "less able" pupils. The book makes crystal clear the damage that labelling by ability does to behaviour, to many pupils' life chances and to any ideals of equity, social cohesion and collective economic prosperity.

Courageously, the authors turn their faces against theorising about alternatives, although they review the literature and offer impartial critiques of alternatives to the ability-based approach. Instead, they set about finding nine teachers from more than 100 applicants who claim their classroom practice is not based on or coloured by ability theories. The scrupulously thorough screening process that leads to the nine case studies is explained. The subsequent expert descriptions of eight of the nine teachers' daily practice are vividly illuminating and finely focused in a way that's worlds apart from the arid accounts of Ofsted reports. The classrooms come to life. Each account is accompanied by the teacher's own theories and thinking: each is also the product of a meticulous piece of research involving a variety of methods clearly laid out and leading to a remarkable authenticity. The ninth teacher writes a vivid journal of her own teaching methods - its many successes and few setbacks.

The book is worth reading for the diaries of the nine teachers alone, for each allows a glimpse of the subtle magic that passionate and successful teachers weave for their fortunate pupils. But there's more to follow.

Having collected and laid out the evidence, the researchers succeed in mapping similarities and subtle differences and see how they fit with the theories of scholars such as Benjamin Bloom, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Pierre Bourdieu and the practical "success for all" programme of Robert Slavin, which shows such promising results in the United States and some schools here. They also illustrate approvingly the growing influence of the Italian Reggio Emilia movement. Finally, the authors emerge with their own persuasive framework for successful teaching. They draw a vivid contrast between a teacher's mindset which is fixed as a belief in ability on the one hand and what they call "transformability" on the other.

A growing number of teachers, including the nine here, passionately believe in the limitless potential of the youngsters they teach. Of course they care about their pupils, but they also care (with a sincerity that communicates itself to their students) about the pupils they might become, and are never resigned to them achieving less than their potential.

This book provides a framework for such teachers to learn from each other and extend their own learning as they work simultaneously on the emotional, social and intellectual fronts to unlock young minds. So we learn about the team approach in successful classrooms and the clear, urgent purposes of the successful teacher. They build confidence and emotional security; they strengthen feelings of competence and control; they increase enjoyment and purposefulness; they honour and grow pupils' identities as learners; they increase hope and confidence in their pupils' fortunes; they help the individual to know the role as part of a community - and in doing all that they can provide access for all young people to knowledge, understanding and skills of significance to the learner's future.

Finally, they increase relevance, reveal meaning and enable thinking, reasoning and explanations. That's what this book is about. In the end, teachers are the bedrock of social justice and political freedom and the enemies of mental and economic slavery. Every teacher, policymaker and school manager should read this book, or a summary of it.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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