Give it some thought

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Barbara MacGilchrist on how children become 'effective thinkers and learners'.

Teaching the Primary Curriculum for Constructive Learning Edited by Michael Littledyke and Laura Huxford David Fulton Pounds 13.99 Thinking through the Curriculum Edited by Robert Burden and Marion WilliamsRoutledge Pounds 13.99 How much sense do pupils make of what they are taught at school? Will the children we are teaching now develop into flexible, life-long learners able to meet the challenges they will face in the 21st century?

In all the deliberations about the overall content of the national curriculum and about the specific content of literacy and numeracy hours, there is a danger these fundamentally important questions will be overlooked. For this reason, I welcome these two books. Both focus on the ways in which young people can become effective thinkers and learners.

Teaching the Primary Curriculum for Constructive Learning is based on the premise that teaching should reflect what we know about how children learn.All the contributors subscribe to a constructivist theory of learning: they believe that, for meaningful learning to take place, teachers need to take account of children's previous experiences and present the curriculum in a way that enables them to construct their own understanding of it.

Cynics will claim this is harping back to the ideological days of the sixties. This is not what this book is about. The authors recognise that there are important objectives in the national curriculum that children need to come to terms with. They argue, however, that unless children are able to internalise and construct their own meaning in relation to what is being taught, then the chances of that learning being meaningful, lasting and transferable to other contexts are limited.

This is a useful book for trainee teachers. It will help them reflect on their practice and develop teaching that best matches the type of learning they want to bring about. It is also a useful book for practising teachers,although I suspect that some would find the theoretical chapters at the beginning rather hard going.

The 12 chapters examine how constructive learning can be promoted through the core and foundation subjects - a range of examples translates theory into practical teaching. There is also a chapter which focuses on how a constructive approach to teaching can support pupils with learning difficulties.

Thinking through the Curriculum is about whether thinking should be taught as part of the school curriculum. It certainly made me think. The style is accessible and jargon is kept to a minimum.

But as the authors acknowledge, there will be those who will claim that it is an absurd topic. How can thinking be disassociated from learning? The authors point out, however, that thinking can take many forms and argue that we can learn a great deal from successful thinkers and problem- solvers. They do not subscribe to the view that the provision of separate thinking skills lessons is the answer. Instead, they argue that the challenge is to incorporate our knowledge about successful thinkers and problem-solvers into each area of the curriculum.

Practical ways of promoting cognitive development in, for example, history, art, music, foreign language learning, science, mathematical thinking, language arts and reading are provided. Many of the chapters offer good examples of how to promote young people's thinking through day-to-day practice in the classroom. The book provides insights into how to develop generic cognitive skills as well as those skills which are specific to different subjects within the nationalcurriculum.

Policy-makers should read this book because of the gauntlet laid down in the last chapter. If learning to think is a key educational aim, then there is a need to re-assess the curriculum as a whole.

Barbara MacGilchrist is dean of the Initial Teacher Education Programme at the University of London Instituteof Education

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