LEARNING: PRINCIPLES, PROCESSES AND PRACTICES, By Rosemary J Stevenson and Joy A Palmer, Cassell pound;40, 0 304 325619, pound;12.99. 0 304 32563 5. Tony Edwards on the importance of building on prior knowledge
The editor's prospectus for the series of which this book is part describes teachers as busy people who deserve "material which is stimulating, useful, and free of jargon". He also reflects that educational research is rarely used, and that research on children's learning has been especially disappointing.
The authors of this book are more optimistic, however. They seek to provide a "basic guide to what is currently understood about principles of learning so that these can be used to inform choices about teaching and learning in the classroom".
Appropriately, given their emphasis on understanding, that guidance is not a matter of prescribing practice from what research has "shown" to work, but rather of exploring the implications of fundamentally different approaches to learning. A main theme is the importance of encouraging learners to make explicit what they know, and how that knowledge is being added to and re-evaluated.
Another main theme, highly relevant to current arguments about "progressive" teaching and the competence-model of learning, is the tension which can exist between problem-solving and understanding. In mathematics, for example, one of the core areas which are examined in detail, repeated practice in solving problems may become so much an end in itself that it appears to be what mathematics "is" and crowds out understanding of how and why procedures work.
The book is research based, free from jargon, and firmly focused on practice. Its authors draw their evidence from learners of all ages, on the assumption that the differences between young and old lies in the extent of the prior knowledge rather than the learning processes themselves.
Most of the evidence is Western, though with some apt cross-cultural examples. Some of it is from psychological laboratories, and not always easy to take "out" into classrooms, but the work of Galton, Bennett and other classroom researchers is prominent. In places, there is an uneasy mixing of quite advanced theory with relatively elementary guides to recent changes in curriculum and assessment which readers might reasonably have been credited with knowing already.
A more serious occasional weakness, because it contradicts the book's main message, is a tendency to summarise particular studies at length without critical evaluation and without explicit comparison with other evidence. It would sometimes have been helpful to know why the research reported had been selected as especially significant, and the occasional use of classroom transcript to illustrate learning processes also reflects too much confidence that what can be "seen" in each extract is unmistakable. In these respects, the book is not the "ideal text" which the publishers claim.
It is however a lucid account of "first principles" which challenge a great deal of common practice. The phonic approach to reading gets a cautious commendation. The persistent abstraction of school mathematics from "natural purposes" is sharply criticised. The greater benefits of knowledge-transforming compared with knowledge-telling strategies in writing are sensitively explored.
More generally, the final chapters are about how prior knowledge and intuitive theories may interfere with new learning but must nevertheless be activated. In this way what is new can be evaluated against what is known already and what is old can be re-evaluated. They are also about children's and others' perceptions of themselves as learners, their consequent strategies for dealing with "difficult" tasks, and how teachers can sustain in their students an incremental view of their abilities rather than one in which further progress is simply written off.
Tony Edwards is professor of education at Newcastle upon Tyne University.