Inside the zones of development

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Former Jordanhill lecturer Robin Frame continues his account of life on the Additional Teaching Qualification (Primary) course

A few weeks into last term's course for an additional teaching qualification in primary education, we trainees were already sent out to school. We even had a friendly supportive tutorial visit.

Nine of us invaded Caldercuilt Primary in Glasgow for four days. Our welcome was remarkable. Our cars were allowed in the car park, we filled the staff room and were let loose upon the children.

It was a far cry from my dad's first experience. He arrived promptly at his placement school near Edinburgh's Haymarket straight from the Kirkcaldy train with all his luggage, including golf clubs, ready to spend a week in digs. Seeing the janitor, he introduced himself and asked for the headmaster. The gentleman frostily replied: "I'm the headmaster and this school starts at five to nine, and you didn't come here to play golf."

Seventy years on, it still rankles.

Our first day was the Tuesday of the second week of the session. Things can't be settled in schools by then and I find it hard to believe that the teachers can have faced our arrival with equanimity. Yet, there we were, welcomed and invited into the classrooms.

We were to get stuck in. Observation was to be done at close quarters and that meant working with the children, all the while knowing we would soon be teaching them, with our tutor present.

My abiding impression is of the children, as diverse in their own ways as the student teachers sent to scrutinise them. We prepared, we over-prepared and we created unnecessarily elaborate visual aids and materials. We worried and allowed our stress into our private lives.

Then came the big day when we got to take the classes ourselves. We survived, we gained from the experience and we hoped to learn from our mistakes.

But what was going on in the children's heads? The only certainty I know is that there was a completely different lesson going on in each little head.

Anecdotes retold on the course reinforce this perception. I like the one about the rectangle: the intended teaching was stymied by a child's persistence in asking who broke it. (Wrecked angle!) I pine for some of the theories and philosophies of education. I feel a need for some scaffolding, perhaps the gentle Jerry Bruner with his "make it talk-about-able" or even L.S. Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.

I need support if I am to make some connection between an assembly of activities that seem to work or are officially sanctioned and the unanswerable question of how do children learn? If I do not have access to a working model of learning, then I am not sure I can predict - or even develop - my understanding. I fear I can't help.

I am old enough to have been entranced by the visions of behaviourist B.F.

Skinner's programmed learning, with its small and manageable steps and its remedial loops. Skinner assumed we taught by spotting when things went wrong during the course of the learning and making appropriate provision.

If it was a bit mechanistic, forgive it, for it was designed to be built into machines. If anything could be taught by a machine it would be, saving the vital teacher-learner relationship for anything which a machine can't handle.

We may laugh now at these incredible efforts, but we shouldn't think we have progressed. We may have been a bit fixated on measurable learning but at least it really was the learning we tried to measure. Attainment wasn't in the lexicon. It had no measurable meaning. The notion that an unmeasurable attainment could become the crux of a supposedly accountable system of education was wholly unthinkable then.

Oh well, back to practicality. Among the lots of advice I've been known to offer others is that the new teacher needs to remember three things. First, be recognised by the children as being within the accepted teacher spectrum. Second, make sure the children are busy doing what you meant them to do, lest the Devil sees their idle hands. Third, and this only later, come up with some educational justification for it all.

Why can't I just take this advice? Why can't I just get on with it and set the children to the mundane tasks so readily available from the myriad sources?

So that's the challenge: do a placement according to the structures of 5-14 and try to add in a little of the diagnostic approaches while simultaneously generating a context that is not just talk-about-able but also do-about-able.

"Philosophy," said someone in class. "Look it up," we joked. "It's under F." Our good humoured tutor said: "There's no F in philosophy; there is no effin philosophy!"

It's more subtle when you say it.

Robin Frame has now completed the course and is looking for supply work

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