The 'I' in learning

5th May 2006 at 01:00
GETTING THE BUGGERS TO DO THEIR HOMEWORK. By Julian Stern. Continuum Pounds 12.99

GETTING THE BUGGERS TO LEARN. By Duncan Grey. Continuum pound;12.99

How do you get students to take responsibility for their own study? Rachel Wainwright reads two declarations for pupil independence

My first impression on picking up Julian Stern's book was of relief: at 120 pages, my own homework wasn't going to take too long. Stern tells us that my hostility to homework is not unusual. Homework causes stress to parents, pupils and teachers alike; faced with its abolition or a pay rise, most teachers would forgo the extra cash. It is hated primarily for the time it is perceived to take, although Stern lists an impressive 20 homework "hates", should you want to count them (unless that sounds too much like homework).

At times, Stern, with wry humour, makes homework sound like the educational equivalent of an unstable peace accord. It "bridges" the "island" of school and the "mainland" of home, he says, and "can spoil both sets of relationships and create mistrust between all three groups". While Stern reports that 50 per cent of pupils will admit to liking school, only 2 per cent claim to enjoy homework.

So, if homework has the educational cachet of Dan Quayle at a spelling bee, why do we bother? Having acknowledged, with refreshing honesty, that, "There is little solid evidence of any impact of homework on pupil exam results," Stern offers many compelling reasons in its defence. He makes a robust case for out-of-school learning as the time when real learning, as opposed to teaching, takes place. Of the 140,000 hours that make up the first 16 years of life, only 15,000 are spent at school: "Learning out of school, at home, is therefore an everyday activity," Stern says. Having lured the sceptical reader in with the "homework hates", he turns gamekeeper and becomes an enthusiastic advocate of the opportunities to "capture (the) world of the pupil" and make homework a valuable part of the child's wider education, offering a range of useful and easily practicable ways to achieve this.

He balances the pragmatic and easily digestible advice that has made the "Getting the Buggers to..." series a staple resource for teachers with a more idealistic vision about the role of homework in improving pupils' educational opportunities. Getting the Buggers to do their Homework won't help you squeeze coursework out of recalcitrant Year 11s, for whom "homework" is itself an oxymoron. However, this is a small gripe in a book which combines an engaging and readable style and an impressive scope in its 120 pages.

Getting the Buggers to Learn by Duncan Grey should be titled Getting the Buggers to Learn to Learn. Its main aim is to persuade teachers to give up centre stage in the classroom in favour of students becoming equipped as independent and effective learners. Grey rightly suggests that much of what is perceived to be good teaching may involve minimal learning. Classes sitting quietly and copying from the blackboard or listening to their teacher look good to prospective parents, but how are these activities helping "our pupils to cope by themselves with future change"? Answer: probably poorly.

For Grey, the big question is: "How do we introduce effective learning into a modern curriculum crammed with attainment targets and a classroom crammed with restless children?" He doesn't manage to answer it in this book, although he does provide an excellent synopsis of a range of different aspects of student learning. Surely most contemporary teachers do not fit the Victorian Gradgrindian model, obsessed with "filling the little pitchers up with knowledge"? Yet, how do you deliver the curriculum in the way that Grey suggests, without the time or resources he sometimes seems to take for granted? While I would love to be responsible for such a memorable learning experience as the author's colleague who "had the children build a life-size camel in the classroom", I can't help wondering (in the ghostly voice of Ofsted), "What exactly are they learning here?"

Despite my scepticism, I like the iconoclastic edge to this book and appreciate Grey's desire to counter the one-size-fits-all model of modern education in favour of an educational Utopia where, "individuality is identified and celebrated, where the needs of every child are met and where every child achieves according to their capabilities".

However, where Grey is acute in identifying problems, he is less successful on solutions: there is plenty of food for thought here, but only a snack pack of suggestions that the average teacher could use. Nonetheless, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, which goes further than some of the other titles in this series to address wider issues in contemporary education.

Rachel Wainwright is assistant head of English at Biddenham upper school, Bedford

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