Finding a common goal

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Tim Brighouse is inspired by three approaches to teaching and learning

The Power of Diversity: new ways of learning and teaching through learning styles By Barbara Prashnig Network Educational Press pound;14.95. PO Box 635, Stafford ST16 1BF; tel: 01785 225515

The Good Teacher: dominant discourses in teaching and teacher education By Alex Moore RoutledgeFalmer pound;21.99

The Routledge Falmer Reader in Teaching and Learning Edited by EC Wragg RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99

These three books about learning and teaching could not be more different from each other.

The UK reissue of Barbara Prashnig's The Power of Diversity, originally published in New Zealand, will appeal to those eager to get their hands on useful slides or overhead transparencies. As in The Learning Revolution by her mentor, Gordon Dryden, each facing page contains a quotation, picture or diagram meant for easy copying while the accompanying text is presented with headings and subheadings for those who need a quick revision of theory or practice. There's much to make a teacher or learner pause and think.

Prashnig is a fan of the learning styles approach, which has recently come in for some trenchant criticism as a result of research by Frank Coffield for the Learning and Skills Research Centre (TES, May 21). But schools will be wise to remember that Coffield believes we all have a variety of learning styles, but that expensive psychometric tests aren't a remotely reliable guide to a dominant preferred learning style. So Prashnig's book is useful to those teachers who want to extend their repertoire of techniques.

The meat in the sandwich of these three books is Alex Moore's consideration of the elusive "good teacher". This book is scholarly and accessible, not always an easy combination to achieve. It provides thoughtful insights into what influences our thinking of what makes a good teacher.

Moore examines the conundrum of definition: what appears to be good teaching to one person may not seem the same to another, as any conversation between old school friends will confirm. Moore explores the concept of how we judge teachers' abilities over time, and the second chapter includes a fascinating account of how Victorians, including Matthew Arnold in his schools inspector role, have affected our views to this day.

Hence the notion of dominant discourses - the chatter that influences our thinking.

Moore's account of the impact of films is especially fascinating. It dissects with laser-like accuracy the misleading conclusions any uncritical would-be teachers or, more seriously, their mentors, might take from watching, for example, Robin Williams as Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society, where boys and teachers in an exclusive public school behave in a way that fits the plot rather than reality.

So, too, with Michelle Pfeiffer as Ms Johnson in Dangerous Minds and Sidney Poitier as Mr Thackeray in To Sir, With Love. The choreographed solutions of the films sustain what Moore describes as the "charismatic" model of the good teacher. His other two models - the competent craftsperson and the reflective practitioner - are analysed with a similar appealing mix of scholarly analysis and practical illustration.

This sets Moore up for his emphasis on the importance of context (teachers are affected by the setting n which they work, whether traditional, progressive or pragmatic). Moore finished writing before the appearance of the national prescriptions for "uniform" and "house systems" , which otherwise would doubtless have featured in his perceptive conclusion that it's time to give the control of teaching and much more of what happens in school back to the teachers.

Ted Wragg has many devoted readers within and beyond the pages of The TES.

His back page reduces teachers' stress by its iconoclastic wit while the Dear Ted column in Friday magazine provides down to earth but imaginative inspiration to those seeking worthwhile ideas for the classroom.

Aside too from his sometimes polemical but always searchingly analytical contributions to the broadsheets, Wragg's serious life is as a researcher and teacher, so this reader on learning and teaching edited by him promises much and doesn't disappoint. He chooses his contributors with an eye to style, accessibility and interesting ideas. There's a kaleidoscope of contributions from an analytical investigation of young children's responses to the story of The Three Little Pigs to an illuminating study by Marianne Coleman of the leadership style of female heads and the challenges they face.

Wragg has collected published articles with a view to informing those involved in early learning, issues of equality, teaching and learning strategies and management. So there's something for everyone here whether you are interested in effective questioning techniques - and which teacher isn't? - behaviour management or managing the curriculum.

The chapters I found most disturbing and which made me pause for thought about the complexities of pupil failure, were those about white working-class boys and inadequate, struggling, guilty parents.

These books appeal to separate but overlapping audiences, with a common goal of investigating what goes on in the classroom. Prashnig will be devoured by those keen on in-service presentations; Moore by all involved in teacher education; and Wragg's RoutledgeFalmer reader by both. All three should be additions to the staff library of any school interested in inspiring teachers and improving the quality of teaching and learning.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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