Find your own way

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Ted Wragg introduces extracts from his updated Successful Teaching series

Improving the quality of learning in secondary schools and preparing children for a long and complex life in the 21st century requires teaching and professional training of the highest quality.

The Successful Teaching series focuses on the essence of classroom competence, and on the professional skills which make a real difference to children - like the ability to explain clearly, to ask intelligent and thought-provoking questions, to manage classes effectively and to use the assessment of progress to enhance pupils' learning.

Experienced teachers have engaged in hundreds of exchanges every single day of their career, thousands in a year, millions over a professional lifetime. Teaching consists of dozens of favoured strategies that become embedded in deep structures, for there is no time for people to rethink every single move in a busy classroom. Teachers make many decisions within a second so, once these deep structures have been laid down, they are not always amenable to change, even if a school has a well-developed professional development programme. Reflecting on practice alone or with colleagues does allow teachers to think about what they do away from the immediate pressures of rapid interaction.

Rejecting the notion that there is only one way to teach, this series of books explores some of the many strategies available to teachers, as well as the patterns of classroom organisation which best assist pupil learning.

The books try to demonstrate throughout that teachers, even when working to predetermined work schemes and curricula, must forge their own ways of teaching in the light of the context in which they operate and the evidence available to them from different sources.

The series is rooted in classroom observation research over several decades and is designed to help teachers at all stages of their professional development.

The series also contains an element that is unusual in most of the books aimed at helping teachers: some of the activities assume that teaching should not just be something that teachers do to their pupils, but rather with them.

So the activities involve teachers and their classes working together to improve teaching and learning, with pupils acting as partners, not merely as passive recipients of professional wizardry. Thus the books on class management consider such matters as self-discipline; those on questioning and explaining look at pupils interacting with each other; the ones on assessment address how children can learn from being assessed and also how they can appraise their own work.

When children become adults, they will have to act autonomously, so learning early to take more responsibility for their own progress is crucial.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

EXPLAINING IN THE PRIMARY SCHOOL. by E C Wragg and George Brown. Routledge. Falmer pound;9.99

A brilliant explanation, a concept or process can change someone's life. A teacher we once interviewed in a research project described vividly how his own former teacher, explaining the symbiotic relationship between ants and aphids, had awakened an interest in and curiosity about science that had led to him becoming a science graduate and wanting to teach the subject himself. The effects of good explaining can be significant and far reaching.

Explaining is not a single type of activity. The words "explain" and "explanation" can be used in different ways. Consider these four statements:

"Why are you two messing about when I've already told you once not to? I want an explanation."

"Miss, can you explain how to do this sum?"

"You've just been told by the garage that you'll have to buy a new battery? That explains why your car wouldn't start."

"Can you give me an explanation of why water freezes in winter?" In the first statement, the quest for an "explanation" is probably a prelude to a reprimand. The children are not really being asked for an account of personality factors, genetic endowment or environmental influences on their personal and social development. Just imagine the teacher's reaction if the child's "explanation" began: "According to experts on ethnology, rough-and-tumble play is a well-documented feature in the behaviour of young primates." In this context the request for an "explanation" is expected to produce a feeble justification or an apology.

In the second example, the response may be a brief clarification and reminder of a specific technique already learned, like how to solve a maths problem using fractions, or it may involve a fundamental explanation of what a particular mathematical transaction involves, to a pupil who has no understanding whatsoever of it.

The third example, on the other hand, is the identification of a simple relationship between cause and effect: the car would not start owing to a dying battery.

In the fourth case, the "explanation" offered by a pupil could vary enormously in complexity. A satisfactory answer from a six-year-old might be that water freezes "because it's very cold in winter". A 12-year-old might be expected to say: "Because the temperature has dropped below freezing point, which is 0xC."

A Nobel prize-winner, however, might write a treatise on the structure of matter at differing temperatures, which could be incomprehensible to the lay audience.

We shall take as our operational definition, therefore, the statement:

"Explaining is giving understanding to another." This definition takes for granted that there are numerous contexts in which this may occur, many forms that explanations may take, and varying degrees of, and criteria for, success.

Cruickshank and Metcalf (1994) put forward three types of explanations, dealing with concepts, procedures, or rules. We take a broader view, believing that an explanation can help someone understand, among other matters:

* concepts - including those which are new or familiar to the learner, like "density" or "prejudice";

* cause and effect - that rain is produced by the cooling of air, that a flat battery causes car-starting problems;

* procedures - classroom rules, homework requirements, how to convert a fraction to a decimal, how to ensure safety during gymnastics;

* purposes and objectives - why children are studying the topic, what they can expect to have learned at the conclusion of a particular task;

* relationships - between people, things or events, such as why footballers and pop stars are both called "entertainers"; why flies and bees are insects, but spiders are not; what are the common features of festivals, like Christmas, Diwali, Passover?;

* processes - how machines work, how animals or people behave.

There are numerous other kinds of explanation, and there are variations of the categories given above. For example, explaining consequences can be similar, but is not necessarily identical to cause and effect explanation. The consequence of putting your hand into scalding water will be intense pain and a visit to the hospital. A cause and effect explanation might concentrate on how intense heat destroys tissue and what causes pain, but an explanation of consequences might look at such matters as the foolishness of an action, its effect on others as well as the victim, and the cost in time and money of treating self-imposed injury. Furthermore, some explanations can cover more than one category. Explaining to a class what the Roman wall is could involve concepts ("aggression", "defence"), cause and effect (what led to the wall being built), processes and procedures (how the wall was built, on whose authority) and purposes (to keep out the enemy).

CLASS MANAGEMENT IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL. by EC Wragg. Routledge Falmer pound;9.99

The word "management" is usually associated with the most senior people in an organisation. Ordinary employees are supposed to carry out the daily business, while their better paid superiors "manage" them. Such managers may live in a remote office, eat in an executive dining room, avoid soiling their hands on machine oil and grease.

Teaching is different from that time-honoured stereotype, because even newly qualified teachers have a lot to "manage". From the beginning to the end of their career teachers are responsible for managing, among other things:

* resources and materials (including quite expensive equipment in some cases);

* time and space (lesson beginning and end, time spent on activities, layout of room);

* teaching and learning strategies (for example, use whole class, small groups, individual learning);

* pupils' behaviour, safety and well-being, interactions with others, progress;

* relationships in and out of school, including with parents, support staff, other agencies.

If ever you watch young children playing together at home or in school, before long someone will suggest playing "school".

At the beginning of this familiar fantasy game, a common ritual is followed. One child steps forward and says, "I'll be the teacher" and from then onwards that person is assumed to be in charge.

There is not usually a rush to say, "Can I be the rather quiet child who sits in a corner getting on obediently with some maths problems", but then children are not prone to use adult language in these matters.

It is fascinating to see what happens next. Most children role-playing as a teacher will immediately move centre stage and start ordering everyone else around: "Right, you sit here, you go over there." It seems to be the element of control that attracts.

Others mimic a more kindly style. In this mirror of classroom life, where the players know the daily reality better than anyone else, some children will start to misbehave and then may be told off or even sometimes whacked about the body or head in a way that would have a real teacher up before the nearest magistrate.

Control over the behaviour of others, however, is only one of the aspects of class management highlighted above. Every day, busy teachers will find they are planning lessons; choosing topics or tasks; making judgments about what they should determine and what children should be encouraged to decide or choose for themselves; supervising movement around the classroom or school; organising a variety of activities by individuals, small groups or the whole class; praising good work or reprimanding pupils who misbehave; making sure the right materials and books are available; selecting from a range of teaching strategies.

The importance of effective class management is well illustrated by the following true story. A few years ago I was external examiner at a college in London. I arrived at one school and was met by the head. She told me that the student had had considerable discipline problems, had not been able to control one or two of the more difficult pupils and, in her view, should not be allowed to pass. I watched the student concerned and was surprised at how orderly the class actually was.

The sequel, however, is interesting. When I spoke to the student, she confessed her surprise at the good behaviour and the relative smoothness of the lesson. Her teaching practice had gone very badly, she explained, because of poor behaviour by the pupils, and she fully expected to fail the course. Indeed, this was the first lesson for weeks that had gone according to plan and in a civilised manner. When I explained to the head what had happened she could not at first believe it. Suddenly she had an idea. "Let me talk to Jane," she said.

Five minutes later she returned and all became clear. Jane was the kind-hearted deputy head who normally taught the student's class. Hearing that an external heavy was coming in to assess her, Jane had gone to the children and told them that, for once in their lives, they should behave themselves, as Miss X's career was on the line. These children would walk 10 miles to feed a poorly pigeon, but not hesitate to torment a nervous student teacher. Now they had done as Jane had asked.

It seemed a pity that a student, who, with the help of a superordinate external authority in the form of an experienced deputy head, could teach with a modest degree of effectiveness, should be so ineffective on her own. It also confirmed that the ability to control behaviour, in whatever manner, is a "threshold" measure - if you have enough of it you are over the threshold and can display the rest of your repertoire of professional skills, but too little of it and these may never become apparent.

Life in schools in the 21st century is much more demanding than in former times. Awareness of possible unemployment, the demands for greater knowledge and skill, as well as the speed of change, have all exerted greater pressure on teachers during the years of compulsory schooling.

The importance attached to results in public examinations, the use of league tables and other means of comparison between secondary schools, high-profile inspections, close attention from print and broadcast mass media, the prominence given to education by politicians, have produced a system of high accountability. Teachers are under constant scrutiny and are expected to be able to manage their classes effectively.

Inability to manage classes skilfully is often the single most common reason for failure on teaching practice and for failing the probationary period. Fear of being unable to control a class is often the greatest anxiety of student teachers before teaching practice. The management of people, time and resources is right at the heart of human skill in a variety of occupations, not just teaching. Those who waste resources, fritter away time or alienate their workmates or their customers are often a source of intense irritation.

In a large-scale study of several hundred teachers alleged to be incompetent, we found that fellow teachers were often the most critical group of those teachers who were regarded as incompetent, feeling that one person's ineptitude brought shame on their department or on the whole school staff.

In teaching, the ability to use time skilfully, to win the support of children and make effective use of what are often scarce resources lies at the heart of competence. Time devoted to improving class management is time well spent.

* Ted Wragg's Successful Teaching series, first published in the early 1990s, has been updated and broadened to include guides for secondary teachers. The original series grew out of primary class lesson observations as part of the Leverhulme Primary Project.

When publishers RoutledgeFalmer decided to update the generic books from this series - Explaining, Questioning, Class Management and Assessment and Learning - it seemed sensible to broaden the series' scope.

The primary and secondary books cover the same themes, as the underlying issues about how to ask questions, explain concepts, manage children and assess their work are fundamental to teaching in both sectors. But specific activities and examples are different where appropriate.

For example, topics such as "the use of an appropriate language register" and "the need for clarity" are covered in both primary and secondary editions of Questioning because they are key issues, but the examples given are different - an A-level science teacher might ask about "the aetiology of dental cavities", whereas a primary teacher would probably ask, "why do sweets rot your teeth?" The books have also been updated to account for recent research into teaching and learning. For example, since the Assessment and Learning book was first published, there has been a new focus on "value-added" issues in assessment. The four co-authored books - primary and secondary versions of Questioning and Explaining - are based on material written by Ted Wragg and George Brown in the original series, and have been updated and expanded by Ted Wragg. The eight books to be published in April are:

* Class Management in the Primary School

* Class Management in the Secondary School

* Assessment and Children's Learning in the Primary School

* Assessment and Children's Learning in the Secondary School

* Explaining in the Primary School

* Explaining in the Secondary School

* Questioning in the Primary School

* Questioning in the Secondary School

A selection of primary titles is reviewed in the April issue of TES Primary magazine

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