Get your thinking cap ready

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Jenny Des Fountain recommends a series of research papers to schools and teachers at any stage of their careers

THE LEARNING TEACHER. by Ian Smith and Hilda de Felice. Seven booklets: How does the brain learn? Changing our minds about intelligence. Building Strong Motivation. Positive Thinking. Boys are different I or are they? Can schools get beyond discipline? Self-Esteem: not soft and not an option. pound;60 from Ian Smith, 1 Craigton Gardens, Glasgow G62 7AS. e-mail

Those who have listened to educational consultant Ian Smith talk about learning - and seen his slightly alarming "thinking cap" ( a lurid pink and grey brain design) - will know that this is a man fired with enthusiasm about the insights provided by recent research on the brain. In a series of seven slim papers under the title The Learning Teacher, he brings some of that research to classroom teachers in a clear, highly accessible format.

Mr Smith's foreword to the first booklet reminds us that a large percentage of the teachers in Scotland have been in post for more than 20 years and many have not had much opportunity to update their knowledge about research into learning and teaching in that time.

The first paper, "How does the brain learn?", kicks off with one of the memorable quotations which illustrate and enliven these booklets. Woody Allen's "The brain is my second favourite organ" puts a human perspective on the scientific summary which follows. Mr Smith contextualises facts with a brief outline of their theoretical basis to explain, for example, the functions of left and right brain and their different rates of development in children. He relates theory to recent debate; in this case, about teaching reading and writing in the early years of education.

He quotes Carla Hanniford's work on movement and learning, which is critical of the current system in the USA and UK. "The Danish school system I does not start teaching children in school until six or seven years of age. They teach reading and writing in a holistic way and move to the details later, around the age of eight, when the left hemisphere is able to handle it. Reading is not taught until the age of eight - and Denmark boasts 100 per cent literacy."

"Changing our minds about intelligence" argues for a view of intelligence which is "less simplistic and less narrow, less limiting and more optimistic and based on empirical evidence". A clear table, adapted from David Perkins's book Smart Schools, summarises opposing models of achievement. The effects of traditional views of intelligence are explored, along with the work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligence and Daniel Goleman on emotional intelligence. This booklet could provide a good starting point for a group considering ways of improving a school's ethos of achievement.

"Building Strong Motivation" and "Positive Thinking" could also feed ideas to such a working group. Again, an inspiring selection of quotations remind us that "persuading young people to behave in what is considered an appropriate way and stimulating their interest in learning (in school at any rate) has always been a problem". The concept of self-esteem and the extent to which it can help build strong motivation is examined.

In "Positive Thinking", specific exercises help to put the theory of neurolinguistic programming into a school context. The paper explains ways to overcome negative thinking habits and ends with "implications for teachers", a practical list of points for action in classrooms.

Educational consultant Hilda de Felice co-authors "Boys are different I or are they?". This thought-provoking booklet examines facts, side-steps simplistic solutions and offers suggestions for action at national, school and classroom levels.

"Self-Esteem: not soft and not an option" is the challenging title of the final paper, in which Mr Smith examines notions of self-esteem and its place in schools' planning for learning in more detail. He concludes: "It is precisely because it is no soft option that self-esteem needs to be promoted so strongly in a society which is sold on quick fixes and easy solutions."

At Tobermory High in Mull, we found paper 5, "Can schools get beyond discipline?" useful in discussions on behaviour. The key question the booklet aims to answer is: "How can schools create order and discipline while at the same time helping young people to develop self-motivation?" The advice on effective use of praise with pupils, adapted from Robert Martin, is directly helpful. A discussion of behaviourist and cognitive approaches to discipline is followed by a summary of advice from Bill McPhillimy on six ways to "get them to behave first". How I wish someone had shown me this page when I was starting out on my teaching career.

These booklets are an excellent investment for a staff library; five of the seven were out on loan within two weeks of arriving at Tobermory High. On the whole, they don't tell us how to teach, but they do help us to become better informed, they help us to think through issues and they offer some practical suggestions.

The papers are essential reading for anyone interested in achieving a better understanding of the reasons why some pupils blossom in school while others struggle. They are useful for individual teachers at whatever stage of their career, for staff in-service education and for working groups aiming to make schools better places for learning for all.

Jenny Des Fountain is headteacher at Tobermory High School, Mull

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