Magnetised by Mr Enthusiasm

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Sue Palmer will never forget that magical science lesson - which is why she believes that at the heart of education lies the teacher.

Tom Spears was a brilliant teacher. He was head of science at the Scottish training college I attended in the early Seventies, and passionate about his subject. On one memorable occasion he hurtled into the lecture theatre in an even more enthusiastic state than usual, carting a high-performance amplification system and explaining how he was going to try to use it to demonstrate magnetism. We all sat in silence and absolute concentration while Tom magnetised a steel needle near the amplifier. Eventually, strange, fluttery, squeaking noises emanated from the speakers.

"Listen! Listen!" he intoned, his face alight with excitement. "It's the little group of atoms - they're called domains. They're all lining up north to south!"

I still remember the awe of that moment. It was the sort of thing that could turn you on to science for a lifetime. Maybe a few more lessons from Tom would have inspired even a hopeless non-scientist such as me to pick up a Bunsen burner and set out in pursuit of the fair test. Unfortunately, however, this was the early Seventies, and great teachers like Tom Spears were committed to Piagetian theory I and discovery learning.

In Scottish colleges our bible was a document known as The Primary Memorandum, published a couple of years before Plowden, with the same methodological message. It told us that the teacher's job was not merely to impart knowledge, but to "create situations which provide opportunities for activity and discovery". Since Tom Spears was a committed teacher, he took this to heart and kept primary science lectures to a minimum. Instead, the vast majority of the syllabus was activity-based.

We students would turn up at the science labs to find a wide selection of experiments set up around the room. In groups, we would progress from one "station" to another, reading the instructions, performing the experiments and learning through activity about the particular topic of the day. A member of the science department staff was there to lend a hand when we needed it. At least, that's the way it was supposed to happen. As a non-scientist, I spent a great deal of my time in aimless wandering. Insecure about the subject and unfamiliar with its vocabulary, I often found the instructions bewildering and the experiments pointless. Like insecure students the world over, I didn't like to admit my inadequacy, so I seldom asked for help (with 40 of us in the room, there wasn't much chance of getting near the teacher anyway).

Sometimes I latched on to someone who knew what he or she was doing and used them as a personal tutor. More often than not I just did what I could, copying the rest from someone else's book. This wasn't very enjoyable, so some Fridays I stayed down the pub instead.

By the end of the course, I was not feverishly excited by the idea of science. I was interested in magnetism (having heard for myself those domains lining up north to south) and, thanks one week to a fellow-student who'd worked in industry and who answered all my questions with patience and clarity, I was really good at air pressure. Otherwise, I just had a set of neatly copied activity lesson plans and a terrible impression that primary science involved little or no introductory teaching, mixed-ability groups and lots of different activities, all going on at the same time.

Once in the classroom, it seemed sensible to avoid doing science, but even in those unstructured days you couldn't avoid it forever. When I did try to teach it, the results were all too familiar. As the children milled about my "stations", I recognised them all: the few who knew enough to be making a decent stab at the experiments; the odd keen one trying to learn from the cognoscenti; the majority, without the faintest idea of what they were up to and "discovering" goodness knows what; and those who'd rather be down the primary age equivalent of the pub.

Gradually, I started to cheat. Although the books said that "real study is not passive absorption of facts from teacher and textbook" (Primary Memorandum) and "activity and experience I are often the best means of gaining knowledge and absorbing facts" (Plowden), it seemed clear to me that most children needed a lot more direction to get anything worthwhile out of all this activity.

My fall from grace began with air pressure. That fellow-student had left me feeling quite authoritative on this, so one day, before my pupils got going, I started telling them about it. Then I demonstrated several of the experiments to illustrate my points. The children watched with interest. I asked questions. So did they. When eventually they got on to the activities, everything seemed much more purposeful. Armed with some background knowledge, and a clearer idea of the sort of thing to do, they discovered some of the things I wanted them to discover.

Then one girl brought in a book featuring a wonderful air pressure experiment. It involved bits of burning paper, boiled eggs and a milk bottle, and was far too dangerous for children to do themselves. So we made it the grand finale, conducted with the help of volunteers at the front of the class. There were lots of "oohs" and "ahs" and we all went home feeling well disposed to scientific discovery in general and air pressure in particular.

After that I made sure to do a good stint of class teaching before letting children loose on activities, and kept an eye open for exciting set pieces with which to celebrate the glory of scientific investigation.

Like most teachers, I learned my craft by discovery methods. My most important discovery was that activity without teaching can be just as arid and damaging as teaching without activity. I also learned that in a room with 30 nine-year-olds, an entirely child-centred model simply doesn't work.

Re-reading the Primary Memorandum and Plowden after all these years, I don't think the authors of either document would disagree with these conclusions. In an educational culture which had previously been high on instruction and low on activity, they obviously had to emphasise the importance of children's learning as opposed to teachers' teaching, but the need for balance is nevertheless understood throughout the pages of both.

However, I do fear that their claim that the child lies always at the heart of the educational process has led over the years to teachers under-estimating and undervaluing the contribution we make to children's learning. If you think of yourself as a mere facilitator, you're reluctant to notice that the most successful lessons are the ones brought to life by your own teaching skills. And if we teachers don't acknowledge our own importance, how can we expect others to recognise it?

The lessons that made the most impact on me as a learner often had at their heart a teacher - someone who took something ordinary, such as magnetising a steel needle, and, through a mixture of enthusiasm, understanding and sheer talent, made it live in my memory forever. I only hope Tom Spears didn't go home that day feeling guilty because he didn't have enough amplifiers to share among his students one between two.

* Sue Palmer, a former primary headteacher, is general editor ofthe Longman Book Project

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