Reflections on the best way to do the job

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Neil Munro reports on the response from the profession to a new paper from the SCCC. "It's probably the finest publication I have ever come across in terms of getting to the heart of learning and teaching with my staff."

This is not the sort of tribute to which the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum has become accustomed. But Lindsay Matheson, the head of Milne's High in Fochabers, is in no doubt that the SCCC's paper on "Teaching for Effective Learning" is a model of its kind.

Meanwhile Danny Stevenson, the principal teacher of physical education at Renfrew High, has handed the paper to various people in the school. "They've been lining up to photocopy parts of it before waiting for the full document, " he says.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which is the major organisation in its field in the United States, also seems to agree. In something of a coup for the SCCC, the Association has purchased 8,000 copies of the paper for distribution in the USA and entered it in its catalogue - the first time any publication from another country has been included.

The SCCC is signalling in its paper an attempt to get schools thinking again about the way children learn and teachers teach, after many years where management issues have appeared to take precedence. In so doing the Council has deliberately avoided prescriptive approaches, a point particularly stressed by Cameron Harrison, the SCCC's chief executive.

In his foreword he writes: "The reader will find in this paper no ringing endorsement of any one single best way to teach. The paper, and indeed the SCCC's whole initiative in this field is at pains to recognise that teaching is a complex, difficult and challenging task, and that there are no easy answers. It is, however, an optimistic paper, premised upon the professional commitment of teachers to their vocation."

This is precisely what has made the paper so appealing. Mr Matheson observes: "There is no such thing as the way to teach a class and teachers have to take account of a variety of styles. What hits one person between the eyes as effective will not necessarily work for everybody.

"Nobody can be taught to teach. It can only be learned and the SCCC paper's open-mindedness helps that process. I'm more and more convinced that good teaching is open-minded teaching and someone who pulls something out of a file because it worked 20 years ago is a dodo - or should be retired."

The lack of preaching also wins glowing praise from Brian Armstrong, assistant principal at the Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. It is a particularly refreshing stance given the Government's attitudes to education, he says. "As soon as you say teachers should do this or shouldn't do that, it can easily be misinterpreted as 'teachers are doing it wrong.' " Lorna Ferry, head of Gowriehill Primary in Dundee, agrees that "when people look at a lot of these documents, there's a tendency to think 'Oh no I'm not doing it properly, ' whereas this approach is much more positive."

Elaine Grieve, the head of Stromness Primary in Orkney, says "teachers and children need considerable support at a very confusing time when there are national guidelines for this and national guidelines for that. It's often difficult for schools to know whether what we're doing is right : we can't always see the wood for the trees. This paper helps us to cut through the philosophy to what's happening in the classroom."

Although Mrs Ferry is grateful for all the help she can get in making such a huge topic as learning and teaching more "manageable and accessible," the SCCC paper acknowledges the danger that "as teaching is described and analysed in greater detail, it is seen to be an impossibly complex activity."

It is the linking together of research, policy and practice which Louise Hayward, assistant principal at St Andrew's College of Education, finds attractive. "And this is done without offering off-the-shelf solutions or simple solutions," she says.

The balancing act between complex and simple messages also appeals to Danny Stevenson who was impressed by sections in the paper such as "learning is messy" and "learning involves developing our emotions and feelings along with our ability to think and act."

Bob Murdoch, the head of Earnock High in Hamilton, believes the application of research findings to what goes on in the classroom is of key importance. "The majority of Scottish teachers are good and do want to be better," he says. "They are interested in psychology, in learning theory and in research - more so probably than when they were students.

"The answer to improved learning and teaching lies in the perceptive teacher, the sort of person who can develop the skill to understand what it is like to be a particular pupil."

Those who want to contribute ideas, information and discussion on these learning and teaching issues can now do so via a forum which the SCCC has just set up on the Internet.

Ian Smith, development fellow at the Council who is responsible for the programme, believes it could be the first time such an "electronic forum" for teachers has been tried successfully in Britain outside the ranks of IT and computer specialists.

The SCCC has also set up a "paper network" on learning and teaching for the technologically less well-equipped and those who join will receive a mailing three times a year.

Meanwhile a publicity leaflet on the "Teaching for Effective Learning" paper will be sent to all schools in the SCCC's autumn curriculum file.

Questions that the effective teacher should ask

Classroom practice

Do I regularly review my practice to identify aspects which could be developed?

How do I collect data about my current practice which will be helpful in developing it?

What perspectives other than my own do I get on my practice?

Do I have a "right answer" approach?

Do I accept that learners have to think things through for themselves?

What are the implications for me as a teacher?

How often do I encourage learners to think things through for themselves and to try out new ideas?

How can I be adaptable and responsive to the needs of individuals?

What techniques do I use to help learners to be more aware of how they learn best and why?

Do I give learners opportunities to co-operate and work together for a variety of purposes in groups of different sizes and compositions?

Do I demonstrate to young people that I respect and trust them?

What assumptions do I make about individual learners whom I teach and on what are these assumptions based?

How do I identify when individuals have learning difficulties and diagnose the reasons?

How would I describe the climate I am seeking to establish in the classroom?

What do I do and say to go about establishing this climate?

How do I take account of how different people prefer to learn?

What single thing could Iwe do now that would help meus get more satisfaction and enjoyment from teaching?

Personal beliefs and values Why did I come into teaching?

What commits me to teaching at the moment?

What do I want to achieve in the job?

What aspects of the job give me most satisfaction and enjoyment?

How do I develop my ideas and what I want to achieve?

Whole school issues What are the skills and qualities that we want young people in this school to develop?

What do we understand by the term 'achievement' in this school?

How do we promote, recognise and value the achievement of pupils?

What are the key skills, qualities and attitudes which make for an effective teacher in this school?

What makes an effective school in this area?

What opportunities do teachers have in this school to share their thinking and practice in an open and honest way?

Extracts from the SCCC paper

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