Open wide - to examine the mind
By Dennis Child
Imagine going to a dentist who lets slip that she hasn't really studied many aspects of the mouth, or a chiropodist who admits to only a passing knowledge of feet. Unthinkable and disturbing? Well, as teachers, many of us have until recently had only a cursory knowledge of the brain and, at best, perhaps just a vague grasp of half-remembered Piaget. Yet the brain is surely a key part of what we as educators need to know about - how it works, how to make it work more effectively, and how to do that most intangible task: help its owner to learn better.
Dennis Child's book was first published in 1973, long before such notions as multiple intelligence, learning styles and brain-based learning became voguish. Now in its seventh edition, it is a formidable compendium of current thinking on a huge range of issues, including the nervous system, perception, concept formation, language and thought, intelligence, learning theory - in other words, the stuff all teachers should know about.
To have so much knowledge brought together in one place by so lucid a writer is truly impressive. While the book isn't always an easy read, it has a reassuring and confident tone and a sense of clarity and precision, which, in combination, make it seem pretty invaluable. All parts of the book are invaluable, but I was particularly taken with the overview of theories about the brain, cognition and language acquisition. It gives a readable introduction to a range of theories, quoting the key research, and often showing how our thinking has developed over time.
Take this randomly chosen section on the nervous system: "The two bodily control systems of particular interest are the nervous and endocrine systems. The nervous system has been classified in several ways, the classifications depending on the location or function of the various portions of the system. Common to all these classifications is the central nervous system, comprising the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system." Here we have - for this reader at least - one of the most difficult and unfamiliar concepts in the book. What is striking is the reassuring authority of the prose, the sense of being in the company of an expert.
In this latest edition, the author also provides a summary of main ideas, a list of implications for teachers and some suggestions for tutorial enquiry and further discussion. All of these are useful. But perhaps at times the book's comprehensiveness promises too much. For example, I have my reservations about Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. The more I hear people trotting them out (there are currently 10, including linguistic intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, musical intelligence, and so on), the more I wonder where they actually get us. Is it really much more than saying we all have certain talents in certain areas? And if we interpret them too strictly, aren't we in danger of limiting rather than liberating students' potential?
But chances are I'm a confused, naive enthusiast wandering through a world of new ideas. So I turn to Dennis Child. He has a short account of multiple intelligences and promises that "more will be said of Gardner's views" later on. The reference proves to be one sentence: "Gardner's work on multiple intelligences is another potential source for defining and testing specific talents." Now that's a disappointment. I'd hoped for some evaluative illumination, some guidance as to whether I should labour on with Gardner, take him seriously, accept the word of those who tell me his work is ground-breaking, or follow my instincts and focus on the classroom impact of varied teaching strategies instead? But this is a minor quibble given the scale of the book.
I learned much from these pages about IQ tests, the relationship between social background and achievement (depressing reading, of course), plus a host of practical implications for how and where we teach. So I can see why Dennis Child's book has reached its seventh edition. I have a feeling it will become a source of regular reference in my own work.
The sections on special needs, gifted and talented children and human intelligence are likely to be particularly pertinent. But this is not intended as a simple tips-for-teachers book. It's richer and more impressive than that. If I were running a training course for new teachers, I'd want them all to have a copy, just as I hope my dentist has read one or two key works about teeth.
Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk