He fired from both barrels

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Ted Wragg's insight had the power of a shotgun loaded with the data of rigorous research, and with a deep sense of the realities of the classroom.

Gerald Haigh reads his final gift and mourns the loss of the teachers' champion

The Art and Science of Teaching and Learning: the selected works of Ted Wragg

By EC Wragg; Routledge pound;22.99

It's a fact that some people, knowing Ted Wragg through the back page of The TES, have been to hear him speak, only to feel let down when instead of delicious lollipops they got the solid gold of educational research. He writes here: "There are teachers who think I spend all my time writing satire, or even that there are two of us: EC Wragg, the straight academic who writes sober books, and his reprobate brother, Ted Wragg."

Did he mind? Surely not. To him, his writing, whether from Ted or the Professor, was all of a piece: a continuum, running from discovering the truth at one end to telling people about it at the other. In fact, on the internal evidence of this book (for give or take a couple of phone calls and a casual word at a gathering, I knew Ted Wragg no better than anyone else) he was quite proud of his mastery of both genres.

For those who are less familiar with the Professor than with Ted the tearaway twin, this collection, which consists of his personal choice of texts sampled from his 40 books and around a thousand articles, might well come as a surprise. By far the bulk of it, reflecting the balance of his professional life, consists of excerpts based on his considerable body of academic research.

That's not to say the serious stuff is any more difficult to read than any of the lighter pieces he includes. Ted Wragg was a born communicator, and to read him on, say, the statistical principles underpinning his work on student teachers in the classroom, a paper originally published by the National Foundation for Educational Research, is to wish that every academic could make their scholarly writing so lucid.

He revelled in the technicalities of research. "There is something addictive about research," he writes in his introduction to this book, and goes on to tell of an ad hoc experiment he carried out aged 16 among his classmates, to see if their comparative judgment of two poems, one supposedly by Gerard Manley Hopkins, was affected by prior knowledge of their authorship ("The truth was, I had made up both versions"). From then on, he tells us, he was hooked, and the introduction traces the career that progressed to his leadership of Exeter University's School of Education.

His preferred focus was always on what happens between teachers and children in the classroom, and the first five chapters of the book are gathered into a section called "Classroom Teaching and Learning". They draw on three major research projects involving, between them, the observation of 2,000 lessons, over a period of 20 years, in primary and secondary schools.

"Sitting in classrooms is endlessly fascinating," he writes. "Managing a class, asking questions, explaining concepts, are fundamental teaching skills, and there is no shortage of events to study."

His descriptions are enlivened by recognisable vignettes: "Teacher: (in a loud public voice, sounding shocked) 'Stop!' (The class falls quiet.

Pause.) 'All the children in the home corner come out!' (Children playing in the far corner of the classroom come forward sheepishly.) 'Why do you think I've asked you to come out?' Pupil: 'Because we're shouting'."

It's an ordinary enough event, but the point is that here it's seen in the context of many other events, in a range of settings, and analysed as a strategy against such criteria as "effective", "skilful" and "acceptable".

Work like this, digging down to the detail, not only illuminates the work of the teacher, but provides evidence and credibility upon which to build programmes of teacher training.

The second of the five sections in this collection focuses on "Training New and Experienced Teachers" and contains two chapters on "explaining" in primary and secondary classrooms. Again, it's a matter of taking an apparently standard skill and subjecting it to exhaustive analysis, discovering why some strategies work and others don't.

Following this closely focused work, Professor Wragg has chosen, in the third and fourth sections, to give us examples of his broader-brush writing on curriculum and national educational policy. Here we see the beginnings of his concern at some of the developments which became his celebrated targets: central prescription, the philosophy of the market, performance related pay.

And so, in the final section, the Professor stands back and naughty Ted comes out to take his place, with two chapters made up of pieces aimed at an audience beyond his academic peers.

Introducing these, he writes: "This collection of articles from the national newspapers shows how I have conveyed my own research and enquiry to a wide professional and lay audience, sometimes syndicated on all over the world."

It's beyond mere communication, of course. This was a man whose insight into the true condition of our education system had the power of a shotgun: one barrel loaded with the hard-won data of rigorous research, the other with a deep understanding of the day-to-day realities of the classroom.

He was no radical, you understand: no de-schooler, no slave to ideology. He admired the good intentions of governments, but felt that too often they were damaged by a compulsion to micro-manage, mistrustfully, the work of the teacher. So in 2000 he writes: "I like the literacy and numeracy initiatives, but not the detailed prescription."

Faced with that, he considered that, at times, to fire off both barrels in an explosion of ridicule wasn't just acceptable, but entirely necessary.

Hence his articles, reproduced here, on "Mad Curriculum Disease", "Spiffy"

(the "parachuted in" superhead) and "Tony Zoffis", who "believes that attacking teachers pushes you up the opinion polls".

So, in this broad-based collection of his writing, all of it consistently fresh and relevant, whether written in the 1970s or last year, Ted Wragg offers us a gracious and worthy final gift. I read it with mixed feelings.

Not just because its publication so closely coincides with Ted's untimely death, but because you realise that what it so well demonstrates - a very particular combination of academic credibility and staunch support for good classroom teachers - is going to be dauntingly difficult to find anywhere else.

Education, Education, Education: the best bits of Ted Wragg (Routledge Pounds 12.99) is available from the TES bookshop at www.tes.co.uk

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