Sorry, cabbie, there's method in the madness

29th June 2007 at 01:00
Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited

It's not a good idea to strike up a conversation with a taxi driver when you have jet lag. The driver in question had two sons, one at primary and one at secondary. Not only was he obviously a caring parent, but he got involved in helping out on the odd school trip during the week.

He was one of the few dads to do so, he said, but was interested and, indeed, enjoyed doing it. He thought schools and teachers did a good job and weren't given enough credit for it.

So far so good. But a few miles from our destination, he suddenly recalled a report that he wanted my opinion on. Apparently teachers in Leicester have been given "a new rule": they are not to require pupils to put their hands up when asking questions. Instead, they must allow time to think, so the "slower ones" get a chance.

Talk about political correctness gone mad, he sneered. What about the keen or bright ones who could answer quickly? (By implication, his children.) Wouldn't they get fed up? What did I think?

You're expecting me to report that I challenged him. That I said teachers all over Scotland were using such a tactic. That it was all part of an extremely successful national initiative, Assessment is for Learning, which had improved classroom methodology more than any other I had seen in 30 years in education. That I then explained the rationale behind "no hands up" and why it works, drawing on his experiences of school. (This is, in fact, something I did when writing a parents' leaflet on assessment, which has been used by nearly half the local authorities in Scotland and has sold 130,000 copies.) Finally, of course, you would expect that I reassured him there should be no "rules" about topics such as "no hands up" and teachers should not be doing it all the time. It should be just one of many strategies to help all pupils, both quick and slow.

I'm ashamed to say that a combination of jet lag and the fact that we were by now close to home are my excuses for passing up this excellent chance to shoot the tabloid spin down in flames and inform an interested and reasonable parent about one aspect of Assessment is for Learning.

Informing parents about what classroom methodologies are used and why is a big issue. I never actually saw the articles on "no hands up", as I was away at the time, but I imagine they were a little like a piece in the Daily Mail that I use with teachers. Headlined "Pupils who face the blackboard learn more", it claimed that a 20-year-old study confirmed "what those who favour traditional methods have long suspected" - that pupils who sit in groups are at a massive disadvantage compared with those who face the blackboard.

Those who went on to read the report would find that it quoted the head of the research team as saying: "We are looking at schools where they can change the classroom around when appropriate".

So the report was actually advocating a mix of methodologies. But that, of course, didn't make a good headline.

It's very difficult to communicate the methodologies that good teachers and good schools promote these days. It cannot be done through headlines and sound-bites. But when you take the time to discuss with parents what good teaching and learning actually look, sound and feel like, they recognise it.

I'm sure my taxi driver would have done so, had I felt up to engaging him in conversation.

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