Question time

11th December 1998 at 00:00
A new series on teaching skills is packed with helpful advice, writes Michael Duffy

EFFECTIVE TEACHING SKILLS SERIES. Questioning and Explaining in Classrooms. By Trevor Kerry. EFFECTIVE VERBAL COMMUNICATION. By Denis Hayes. EFFECTIVE CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT. By John Bryson. Hodder Stoughton. Pounds 9.99 each.

The authors of this new series have little time for the narrow competence-based view of teaching adopted by the Teacher Training Agency and its political masters. Teaching is at a crossroads, they say, and traditional teaching skills have to be revisited and reconsidered in the light of new expectations and new ways of working. Every teacher is affected; all of them can (indeed must) learn, reflect and improve. These first three titles promise to help them through that process.

Significantly, the series starts with the oldest skill of all. The average teacher, researchers say, asks 43.6 questions every teaching hour, but few of these, especially in secondary school exam classes, are designed to develop thinking and learning skills. Their key purpose, according to Questioning and Explaining in Classrooms, has to be to stimulate curiosity and to get pupils to think and to talk. How often in your school do teachers make that happen? If the answer is "not often enough" this short book is packed with activities and suggestions that will help you, together, to redress the balance. Strongly recommended.

Number two in the series, Effective Verbal Communication, covers some of the same ground but deals as well with the mechanics of good clear speech and with the pitfalls that await even its most confident classroom exponents. Again, it's full of practical advice, not just on voice production, register and tone but also on topics like your first meeting with an unknown class and dealing with unwanted interruptions. How you talk to pupils, the author says, has a lot to do with how they listen; how you listen to them has a lot to do with the way they learn. This books is positive, straightforward and down-to-earth, with lots of good suggestions for observation and discussion.

Student teachers, especially, will be tempted to overlook these first two volumes in favour of the promise of Effective Classroom Management. There is something of the bran tub, though, about John Bryson's book. It's good in parts, but it ranges too widely (school visits, letters to parents, worksheets, bereavement counselling and job applications are all included) and depends too heavily on the quasi-certainties of bullet points and lists to address the real needs of the many teachers who are still uncertain in this area.

Sometimes, too, it strikes a note that jars with the tone of the first two titles, as in the advice (to the new teacher), "Don't smile till Christmas" or (to all teachers, when questioning their pupils), "Adopt a Jeremy Paxman persona". One hears too many teachers saying, "Come On! Come On! Come On!" A final quibble. In spite of the enjoyable, "The curfew tolls the nell of parting day", there are too many misprints and errors in this series. It deserves better.

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