Love the lessons, not the teacher;Books

17th September 1999 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh reads an argument for teaching methods that take account of context.

Understanding pedagogy and its impact on learning Edited by Peter Mortimore Paul Chapman pound;45 hardback,pound;16.99 paperback Long ago, I fell in alongside a colleague as we walked towards our classrooms on the first day of the school year. Unlike most of us, he was glad to be back. Rubbing his hands, he exclaimed: "I love teaching!" I have often wondered whether he realised that he was a bully, disliked by all the pupils.

I thought a great deal about him - and about many hundreds of other staffroom colleagues, and above all myself - as I read this book, written and edited by academics from the University of London Institute of Education.

It is important not to be too put off by the word "pedagogy", and Mortimore writes at some length on the problem of definition. The reader, though, can take the book as an absorbing exploration of the dynamics of teaching and learning - a close examination of an area all too often dominated by ideologies, fads and assumptions.

The book re-emphasises the fact that effective teaching is a sophisticated and multi-layered activity because the aim is not that information shall be imparted, but that children shall learn. The business-like setting out of information to well-controlled young listeners can look impressive but - as with the case of my long-ago colleague - it can lead to the phenomenon of the good teacher whose pupils learn nothing. As Susan Hallam and Judith Ireson write in their chapter "Pedagogy in the Secondary School": "Teachers teach. Pupils learn. It is this relationship which bedevils research on teaching and learning."

In "Primary School Learners", Caroline Gipps and Barbara MacGilchrist look at evidence from studies carried out for the Teacher Training Agency at King's College London in 1997 which showed that, in maths lessons at least, neither straight didacticism nor free "discovery" were as good as discursive "connectionist" teaching methods.

There are chapters on early years, further, higher and adult education, special needs and the differences and similarities between pedagogies in these various contexts. A major strength of all the contributions is a common recognition that teaching and learning are not isolated processes - they take place within particular times, places and political constraints.

Most important of all, perhaps, is the book's plea that teachers not be pushed, cajoled or manoeuvred into a simplified pedagogy which it is assumed will produce results. The top-down, general prescription of favoured methods will not provide the thoughtful, creative and flexible citizens of the next century. Those policy makers who would go down that route, Mortimore writes, "appear to have reverted to a 19th-century model which centred on the 'object lesson' - a set piece deemed to have universal application".

Teachers, academics and policy-makers - the dynamics of this triangle are discussed by Mortimore - need to recognise this and acknowledge that we all have a lot to learn about both teaching and learning. But, he argues, the process "must be led by teachers so that the profession will own the debate and will thus be most likely to take the conclusions into its own practice".

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