In search of foreign correspondences

5th December 1997 at 00:00
The core assumptions underpinning the current drive for higher educational + standards and increased school effectiveness are likely to be challenged by the+ findings of a five-country research study. The hugely ambitious study is being+ led by Professor Robin Alexander of Warwick University, one of the "three wise+ men" who produced a seminal report on primary education in 1992. Professor + Alexander's new report on primary schooling in England, France,Russia, India + and the United States, is still some months from completion but he has already + reached some firm conclusions.- It is a mistake to try to raise literacy and + numeracy standards by downgrading the rest of the curriculum. Equally, reading + and writing should not be emphasised at the expense of talk.- Whole-class + teaching is not a guarantor of educational success. It is also associated with + failure worldwide.- Teacher-initiated question and answers is not the only + effective form of classroom interaction.- The importance of time on task has + been over-stres sed. The pace and structure of lessons are actually more + significant.- There is no direct and causal link between pedagogy, attainment + in literacy and national economic competitiveness.Professor Alexander, who has + visited several schools in each of the five countries, said that the dominant + values underlying Britain's current obsession with literacy and numeracy + targets were the same now as they were in the 1870s - economic instrumentalism,+ cultural reproduction and social control. "As sociologists or historians we + can note such continuities as grist to the mill of social theory, but as + educationists we have to challenge them," he told a seminar on comparative + education at Warwick University.Educational researchers had a difficult set of + tasks, too. "We have become adept at dissecting teaching but poor at + reconstructing it: good at isolating factors in 'effective' classroom practice + such as opportunity to learn and time on task, but less able to demonstrate how+ these and other elements are reconstituted by teachers and children as + coherent and successful learning encounters with a beginning, a middle and an + end."Another daunting challenge was to "capture" more of the lesson that was + being studied, but he realised there were limits to what anyone could take away+ from a classroom observation. "You can no more see, hear, record or analyse + everything that happens in classrooms than you can apprehend the universe, for + not only are the dynamics of 30 individuals in interaction immensely complex, + but what is arguably the most important part of the action goes on inside those+ individuals' heads. "The problem of describing a lesson, even with the help of+ translators, video-tapes and copious notes, was also formidable. But + Professor Alexander, who has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust and + the British Council, has found that musical analogies are helping him to + convey what he has seen during his study, which began in 1994. "Tempo, for + example, takes us beyond the familiar variables of 'time for learning', + 'opportunity to learn', and 'pupil time on task'."Professor Alexander will not,+ however, have to reach for his musical dictionary to describe the simplest + aspect of classroom practice he has examined - "wall-mounted teaching + materials", better known in England as "display". For the record, the Russian + classrooms ' wall materials consisted mostly of permanent rules, injunctions + and reminders on issues such as handwriting and posture. The Indians posted + moral messages while the English used the walls as a semi-permanent showcase. + The French had a wider range of uses for their walls - pinning up rules and + reminders as well as work in progress - as did the Americans . "In the US we + tended to find an eclectic mix of children's finished work, work in progress + and exhortations, usually relating to attitudes and relationships and, in every+ classroom, the Stars and Stripes and the Pledge," Professor Alexander said.The+ Warwick University seminar was the second of six that aim to stimulate new + thinking on comparative research. They are being funded by the Economic and + Social Research Council and organised by the universities of Warwick, Bristol + and Oxford. The series began in the summer and will conclude with an + international conference in autumn 1999. The paper presented by Professor + Alexander will be published by Triangle Books next year with other seminar + papers. Further information on the seminars and publications from Professor + Alexander (01203-524443).

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