Scratching posts for every itch

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Huw Thomas applauds handbooks that save trees while making themselves useful

Talking, Listening, Learning: effective talk in the primary classroom

By Debra Myhill, Susan Jones and Rosemary Hopper

Open University Press pound;18.99

Another Spanner in the Works: challenging prejudice and racism in mainly white schools

By Eleanor Knowles and Wendy Ridley

Trentham Books pound;15.99

101 Essential Lists for Primary Teachers

By Fred Sedgwick

Continuum Books pound;8.99

Given that time is at a premium, for any education book to be worth reading it has to scratch where I itch. The development of speaking and listening is an itch many primary schools need to alleviate and Talking, Listening, Learning makes a contribution. Its opening observation is that, with the advent of model lessons and downloaded planning, there is an emphasis on curriculum delivery that can lead to teachers hogging all the talk.

The rest of the book explores the nature of interaction, presenting just the right amount of research material and a background chapter that creates a historical and cultural context. Here you will find insightful observations, such as: "In England, children talk to the teacher and wait their turn... whereas in Russia... children talk to the rest of the class".

Throughout the book there is a welcome degree of practicality. When research is presented, it is put forward in a way that encourages readers to investigate the subject matter for themselves. There is also an accessible presentation of some interesting concepts, such as "dialogic interaction" and "schema theory". These are unpacked through demonstrating how we experience them in the classroom, and how an understanding of them can improve practice.

One valuable section covers questioning, with a classification of question types that prompts analysis of how we structure that aspect of our teaching. Academic research titles can be so dull: rather than scratch, they anaesthetise. So it is refreshing to read good quality material useful to any school developing this vital strand of learning.

Another Spanner in the Works approaches the issue of racial prejudice from the perspective of virtually monocultural schools. It stems from work undertaken in Cumbria and opens with a chilling appraisal of the region from the British National Party, in which the BNP celebrates the lack of diversity in the area. The title covers a lot of material, including some excellent ideas for engaging children in an exploration of identity. Within this section I found some of the best ideas I've encountered for exploring "them and us" thinking and how that builds into prejudice: materials that will have an application in all schools, whether mono or multicultural.

As with many such books stemming from school projects, readers will find points where the subject matter is stretched beyond usefulness. I personally found a write-up of an art project interesting, but the links to healthy schools policies felt like an odd diversion. However, it is the eclectic nature of such publications that can lead to them offering some real gems; in this case, the section on the place of philosophical inquiry and another on relating to traveller families were both welcome stretches of the subject matter. The authors have sold themselves short by pitching the book to "mainly white schools". This book is about exploring identity and tackling prejudice and is a practical resource for all schools.

If the first book is the fruit of academic research and the second of work in a local authority, the final book reads like something that sprang from the most coffee-sodden corner of a staffroom. In 101 Essential Lists for Primary Teachers, Fred Sedgwick, a former primary head who regularly visits schools as a consultant, presents a series of lists with no rhyme or reason to account for what is included and in what order. It's part practical advice, part hackneyed rant.

We get a section on "Drink", another on "Preparing for an Interview" and one on "Preparing for Ofsted". The lists have a roguish quality: if I tell you that the latter list includes offerings such as "Remember you are almost certainly more vigorous mentally than the inspector", and presents the idea that children can raise their right hand if they know the answer and left hand if they don't, you may get the picture.

It's a miscellany through which a likeable, experienced colleague scatters observations on various areas of school life. It is weak on curriculum coverage, with random stabs at creativity and some useful, quick maths games, but strong on thought provocation. At times inspiring, at others curmudgeonly, this is one book that any primary teacher will find quickly scratches some itch, somewhere.

On which note, all three titles reviewed here have another feature in common. They are all brief: they all make their points, but they don't waste paper.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of Emmaus primary school, Sheffield

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