Skills for thinking on your tired feet

27th October 1995 at 00:00

Research into teachers' thinking in action has been developing rapidly, prompted by the evident gulf between the complexity of their work and the lack of readily articulated theories of how that work is done. Potentially, such research carries a risk that theorising about reflective practice will seem to practitioners themselves too removed from the hectic environments they know.

Gary Borich tries to avoid that detachment by introducing new teachers to the challenges ahead through "the natural dialogue" of those experienced in meeting them. His book is explicitly about what can be passed down to beginners to ease their way.

But the format is off-putting. A young journalist (referred to as "the girl") is writing an article about effective schools and effective teachers. Readers are invited to follow her into a principal's room at a particular effective school and then meet the staff. Invitations to reflect and engage in various "field activities" interrupt the text, as do some unprepossessing drawings.

The approach would seem stilted in a children's book. In this context, it seems so patronising that even the more illuminating reflections are hard to take. By the start of chapter 12, our guide "felt she had discovered a lot about effective schools and effective teachers, and it was time to bring her visit to a close". But she is not allowed to escape before being instructed by temporary residents of the staffroom in why good teachers are true leaders.

The Induction of New Teachers took very much longer to read per page, but was a great relief. This may betray a convergent reader, grown too used to academic texts to appreciate Borich's storytelling mode.

Les Tickle attempts to remedy what has been as serious an omission in research as it has in national provision for teachers' professional development. In particular, how new teachers cope with the abrupt transition to qualified status and how they manage their own learning at the beginning of their careers are areas that have been neglected.

Since so little was known already, except that the first year is difficult and memorable, the project he describes takes the form of action research intended to improve practice.

The research is clearly located in recent reforms of teacher education, the author noting the inability of some Government advisers to extend their advocacy of apprenticeship to considering the unlikelihood of schools being able to treat newly qualified teachers as anything less than full members of staff.

He also comments on the failure to apply to the teaching profession, from which radical changes in practice have been and are being demanded, that recognition of how quickly trained competences can become obsolete which has marked other occupations.

Most of the book is about an induction programme for 16 teachers which the author directed. Lessons learned there were applied to providing more effective support for 150 new teachers. It has much to say, often in the new teachers' own words, about shared professional dilemmas, the extent and quality of colleagues' backing, and particularly about the "testing" and "understanding" of "reflective professional practice", to take two chapter headings.

Valuable insights into the processes of action research are provided. The main professional theme is about teaching as a learning profession, and about how the hectic and stressful circumstances of first posts often militate against extending the teacher's range of methods and evaluating their effectiveness.

Too sudden a plunge into a very deep end certainly emerges as a common experience. Among the more specific and tangible reasons is a frequent contrast between the appointees who have made few if any preparatory visits before taking up that first post, and student teachers' often extended in-school preparation for a professional placement.

More general failures are described, and remedies suggested, in a clear, accessible account which constructively challenges existing practice in schools, LEAs and higher education Tony Edwards is professor of education at Newcastle upon Tyne University

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