Learning to teach is a career-long task

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Tony Edwards welcomes a work of theoretical guidance to accompany teaching practice in secondary education.

The government has promoted school-based teacher training so as to make it more "practical". The assumption is that "theory" is dispensable and is what is done elsewhere. But as Sir William Taylor argues in his foreword to this "companion" to practice, the best training partnerships between schools and higher education are based on a far more subtle and productive division of labour. The book is therefore intended to support programmes which are properly integrated. In particular, it offers student teachers "an entry to ways of understanding" what they observe and do in schools. Its main authors insist at the outset that the complexity of those processes requires education rather than training, and that the search for understanding them is a career-long task.

At a notably low cost for 390 pages of well-presented and well-illustrated text, the book will be a substantial resource for student teachers hard pressed for time and money. It is a compendium of useful information and advice on (for example) classroom management, pupil differences, and assessing and recording pupils' progress. These are the fullest and most persuasive units, and contain a great deal of clearly presented research evidence, outlines of different theoretical approaches, and sensible advice. The advice is all the better for the authors' careful avoidance of recipe knowledge. Diversity in how pupils learn and teachers teach is recognised throughout the text as an immovable obstacle to simple prescription.

The reader is addressed directly, in a style made familiar by Open University, and observational and other tasks are interspersed with exposition. The presentation is commendably consistent for a book which has, in addition to its three primary authors, ten other contributors from three institutions of higher education. That it is much more than a collection of loosely linked episodes seems to reflect the book's origins in the writers' intention of translating for supported self-study purposes material they have found helpful and stimulating in direct interaction with student teachers.

The task creates a dilemma. Especially in the opening units on "becoming a teacher" and "beginning to teach", much of the guidance is of a kind normally provided in initial teacher education (ITE) programmes and by both sides of the ITE partnership. Thus advice on "getting your first post" may be both sensible and redundant. Here and in some other sections, the book reads as though the student teacher had no other source of authoritative advice, so that the complementary function of the book is somewhat lost. Although definitely not presented as a self-sufficient course of self-instruction, there may therefore be some unhelpful overlapping with ITE programmes and the requirements of tutors and mentors. This is not likely to come from different views of good professional practice because of the book's avoidance of any "one best way", but it may arise from students' attempts to carry out more or less simultaneously differently framed tasks in (for example) classroom observation and other kinds of school-based fact-finding, or from duplicated requirements to consider (for example) "what kind of teacher I want to be". The book will be most useful as a coherent, well-documented source book - and the writers themselves indicate the benefits of dipping into it rather than reading it through - in which the many suggested tasks are an aid to active reading and critical reflection rather than a duplication of course requirements.

In that guise, it is certainly commendable. Theory and research findings are cited as extending the range and quality of professional judgment, not as simply pointing the way. The content is partly cyclical, so that otherwise unsatisfactory sketches of cognitive development or ability testing are followed later by much fuller exploration of theories of learning and an excellent unit on assessment.

The emphasis throughout is on professional knowledge and professional judgment, on teaching as "a continually creative and a problem-solving activity", and on the consequent commitment of the best teachers to a continuing search for improvement.

Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Next week: First Appointments supplement and Special Pages on Books about Education.

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