Making sense with sensitivity

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Psychology In The Classroom: Reconstructing Teachers and Learners, By Phillida Salmon, Pounds 40, Pounds 12.99. Psychology for Teachers, By David Fontana, Macmillan Pounds 45, Pounds 14.99

Nicholas Tucker on two aids to psychological understanding.

In a government-led atmosphere of less understanding, more condemnation, these are difficult times for psychology in education. With league-table ratings to protect, there is more pressure for schools to exclude difficult pupils as a first rather than final resort. The virtual disappearance of psychology teaching from today's classroom-based teacher training ensures that even willing new teachers have little idea how to make sense of disruptive or otherwise dysfunctional pupils.

Any book on educational psychology now therefore has an extra difficult task to perform. On this account, Phillida Salmon's Psychology in the Classroom must be accounted a modest if flawed success. First published in 1988, it remains the clearest account of George Kelly's important work on construct theory applied to an educational setting. Although he was one of the giants of 20th-century psychology, Kelly never had his due at a popular level. Salmon's monograph should mean that interested teachers come away with a proper understanding of his work useful to them and to their pupils.

For Kelly, it was crucial to make sense of how human beings construct the world around them. While we may all use the same vocabulary, the personal meanings we attribute to language and events vary enormously from one individual to another. While everyone knows this to be true in general terms, it took Kelly to devise a scientific way of revealing the multitude and significance of such personal meanings held by any one individual. This he did through the application of the repertory grid method, by which he will chiefly be remembered.

Salmon does not herself suggest applying such a repertory grid to pupils, since this would take far too long. But she urges teachers to try to understand how pupils may be experiencing what goes on in school as a key to comprehending why they behave in the way they do. This approach offers no immediate panacea to the teacher in difficulties with a class, yet more sensitive understanding can still make a large difference when it comes to presenting topics in a way that can best hope for a positive response.

A visit to the ballet may be a success or disaster to the extent a teacher has previously taken on and if necessary challenged pupils' preconceptions about this much derided art-form. Within the classroom, different subjects lend themselves to varying enthusiasm even before the first lesson has started. Ignoring negative personal constructs will not necessarily mean they will disappear from pupils' minds as the term goes on.

On a more general level, Salmon stresses the importance of the transformative learning that occurs when pupils are able to find a genuinely personal meaning in lessons. The alternative is described as accumulative fragmentation: a collection of teacher-induced but unrelated knowledge, here today but often gone tomorrow because it fails to link up with what is really meaningful to any individual. For Salmon, much of the emphasis in the national curriculum works towards acquiring knowledge simply for its own sake. But at this point of her argument even sympathetic teachers may feel a twinge of impatience.

While Salmon is correct to stress the nature of the best and highest type of learning, she has little to say about the more humdrum aspects of any subject. These too must also be acquired, but usually in less personal,often more mechanical ways. Teachers as well as pupils may prefer exciting lessons of discovery, but routine practice at spelling, grammar, arithmetic and scientific tables is also necessary. Yet for Salmon, education seems to be an end in itself, with the parallel acquisition of job-worthy skills seen as far less important. Finding a bridge between these two attitudes is always necessary, but Salmon's book does not really try. As such, it is a good contribution to a necessary debate, but by no means the last word on the subject.

David Fontana's Psychology for Teachers is the third revised edition of a study which first appeared in 1981. It is based on the cook-book model of psychology, whereby individual topics are described sensibly and helpfully but without necessarily any linkage to each other or to an overall theory of pupil development. This means that issues tend to be seen in a vacuum, with little on the particular contribution a school has to make on how well or badly most of its pupils will fare. The work of Michael Rutter in this regard is ignored, with his name failing to appear at all in the lamentable index. At Pounds 45 a shot, readers could surely expect better than this, although Fontana's hardback version still compares well on cost with the ludicrously high price demanded by Salmon's publishers, working out at just over Pounds 4 a page.

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