Possibilities are Unlimited

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
He can't promise to change your life in an afternoon but Ian Smith is still a wizard to some, writes John Cairney.

While not in the Harry Potter league in terms of sales, an educational publication on teaching and learning which sells 14,000 copies in Scotland and more than 8,000 abroad must have some magic of its own.

The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum's Teaching for Effective Learning, first published in 1996 and reprinted three times since, owes a lot to the contribution of one of its main authors, Ian Smith.

Since leaving the SCCC and setting up his own education consultancy, Learning Unlimited, Mr Smith appears to have displayed some of the wizardry of JK Rowling's eponymous young hero, judging by the comments of some of the teachers who have undergone the Learning Unlimited experience.

"Ian was brilliant." "Ian is both motivational and realistic - a rare combination." "It gave me a shot in the arm." And from a headteacher: "It's been a wonderful session, I wish all my staff could have been here."

Before setting up his consultancy in 1998 Ian Smith had been an adviser for 10 years with the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, and then spent three years as a development fellow with the SCCC working on its teaching and learning programme. Before that he taught history and modern studies for 14 years, mostly in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. He has also been an assessor and external verifier for Scotvec in the area of training and development.

He has a particular interest in flexible learning, but eschews the description as jargon or a buzz phrase because the ideas which lie behind it get distorted or marginalised: "I welcome the trend away from labels towards an emphasis on the quality or effectiveness of learning and teaching in general," he says.

A number of visits to the United States, including a period as one of two British contributors to an educational think-tank set up to produce a statement on the future of education for world leaders, has convinced Mr Smith that Scotland could learn a lot from American educational culture.

"There is some great thinking and writing in the States in the area of personal development, even if the practice sometimes falls short of the ideal. Scottish teachers could learn the lessons of being more positive and emphasising self-esteem," he says.

Despite teachers' compliments he doesn't regard himself as a motivational speaker or a guru. His business card identifies him simply as "eacher", and he aims to help teachers to get up to date with what has been learned about learning in the last 20 years.

"Teachers see my sessions as giving them back their enthusiasm and energy. All I do is put other people's ideas together. It is the message that's important, not me. I am greatly distrustful of people who offer a quick fix to change your life in an afternoon."

He has been "overwhelmed" by the response from local authorities, headteachers and classroom teachers since he established Learning Unlimited, and is in no doubt about the main concerns of most teachers.

"My experience of working with so many teachers has helped me to identify their priorities, and the greatest concern is motivation, both their own and their pupils.

"Teachers know that the job is not getting any easier, and morale is not high because of continuous criticism of schools and teachers in the press. It is also generally acknowledged that motivating children is not getting any easier.

"Teachers also need reassurance. On many occasions staff have said that what they want is confirmation that at least something they are doing is good They need a chance to reflect and get back to the 'big questions' and in addition want more practical help in the classroom."

Mr Smith endorses the McCrone committee's proposals for extended staff development, but appreciates why teachers are wary: "I have thought for ages that teachers need quality time each week and also annually. They need time to themselves, so they are nervous about McCrone and think that the time may all be dictated by someone else."

He feels that in the past a large amount of in-service has been of poor quality and that teachers become frustrated because it doesn't help them with the real problems they face in the classroom. More in-service needs to take place in the classroom and, perhaps predictably, he believes that more independent providers would also help: "Staff development must get into the school. We need to get teachers into one another's classrooms for improvement, not appraisal.

"It doesn't matter who does the in-service as long as it is good and schools should have a choice of providers, one of which should be the local authority.

"There should also be more independent consultants involved because when you are out on your own, if you are not good enough, you don't get invited back."

Contact Learning Unlimited at: ian.m.smith@btinternet.co.uk website: www.learningunlimited.co.uk

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