Published and damned

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Educational publishers are not taking their responsibilities seriously, argues Anne Pirrie, and teacher training institutions may need to sharpen up their act, too

was browsing through the university library accession list recently when a couple of book titles in the education section caught my eye. Nothing unusual in that, you may think. After all, that is what academics - if contract researchers can be so described - are supposed to do in their constant quest for the advancement of knowledge.

You would be wrong on both counts, however. For one thing, this quick glance through the list of recent acquisitions to the faculty library represented a displacement activity rather than a genuine thirst for scholarship.

Two titles attracted my attention for all the wrong reasons. I wasn't the least bit tempted to read them. Indeed, I felt rather like burning them, or at the very least writing a stiff letter of complaint to the university librarian.

Just what are we doing acquiring books with titles such as Getting the Buggers into Languages, Getting the Buggers to Draw and Getting the Buggers to Add Up? There are several others with equally tacky, quick-fix titles, and I do not for a moment wish to suggest that the university in which I work is the only one snapping them up. I'd put money on there being several in every teacher training institution in the country.

My curiosity finally got the better of me and I had a quick look at a copy (in another university library). I was dismayed - no, I was just downright angry - to read in the author's note that "the title seemed to strike a chord with many people". I have become rather used to being out on a limb, but am I the only one who finds the titles in the series degrading and offensive? It strikes me as very odd that a university is acquiring books that are so dismissive of "academic theory".

I admit this particular book was intended for practitioners, who are "snowed under with reports to write and lessons to plan" and thus do not have the time "to wade through endless theory". (Whatever happened to the reflective practitioner? Stuck there on the library shelf, perhaps?) The author of the behaviour management tome gleefully dispenses "tips and advice" for controlling classes. She assures us that consistency is one of the "basics", and yet she describes school children as "buggers" and as "students" and even as "our children", depending on the circumstances. The former - in case anyone is in any doubt - are those pupils who do not or who cannot behave; students, on the other hand, are those who were asked for their opinion "about what makes a teacher a good or bad manager of behaviour".

I will not dwell on the inadequacies of this as a description of a teacher.

Nor will I expound at length on the limitations of a concept of teaching that does not extend beyond "something that you're free to do and meant to do" once you get the behaviour management right. To argue that is rather like saying there is no difference between sitting alone in a room reading a play (complete with stage directions in italics) and seeing it in a packed theatre.

The real issue turns around the notion of respect, and the relation between respect and equality in particular. In his book Respect - The Formation of Character in a World of Inequality, Richard Sennett explores why respect is in such short supply in modern society. His conclusion is a disquieting one for anyone interested in promoting social inclusion. He observes that people generally (and teachers are no exception) fail to convey respect across boundaries of inequality - boundaries marked by differences of talent, ability, status, prestige, age, experience, and so on. All of these differences loom large in the relationship between pupil and teacher.

Teacher educators have a responsibility to prepare the teachers of the future to meet possibly the biggest challenge that will face them in their career: how, to quote Sennett, "to cross the boundaries of inequality with mutual respect". This is unlikely to be achieved by teaching young dogs old tricks. Call me old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that university was the place to raise fundamental questions about the purposes of education. If not there, where? If not then, when?

Anne Pirrie is a researcher at the SCRE Centre, Glasgow University.

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