Tell me what you have been reading lately

7th August 2009 at 01:00

I used to have a colleague who was an avid reader of all sorts of books and journals - so much so that she often exceeded the number of texts she was entitled to borrow from the library. A tighter regime of checking was introduced and it was found that more than 200 items were out in her name.

Far from showing due contrition and promising to mend her ways, she went on the offensive. She argued that, instead of pursuing staff who showed a high level of commitment by reading extensively, the library authorities should name and shame those colleagues who failed to borrow a single book from one year to the next. Although it would be hard to justify her stance, since clearly she could not be actively using all the texts she had borrowed, she did have a point. A good indicator of professional engagement, of openness to new ideas and a continuing desire to update knowledge, is regular reading of a range of sources.

It is surprising, then, that when the work of teachers is being reviewed, they are rarely asked what they have been reading and how it has influenced their thinking and practice. Instead, the focus tends to be on such things as targets and achievements, examination results, preparation for inspection and a predictable checklist of performance indicators.

I have never found such exercises useful or motivating. Their main purpose seems to be to feed the educational bureaucracy and give the illusion of effective management.

When I think about my own reading and how it has affected my views on education, I am struck by several things. First, some of the texts that have made the most impact are those outside the mainstream of educational thinking: for example, AS Neill's Summerhill, Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society. That is not to say that I agreed with everything these writers said - simply that they offered a framework of ideas that posed fundamental questions about the rationale for conventional schooling.

Second, within mainstream Scottish education, some texts have stayed with me as outstanding work: notably, McPherson and Raab's Governing Education and Gow and McPherson's Tell Them from Me. Andrew McPherson remains, for me, the most impressive educational researcher in Scotland over the last 50 years.

Third, I have gained many insights into human behaviour and social trends, not from academic studies, but from works of fiction. For example, some of my previous articles for The TESS have been stimulated by novels by Ian McEwan and JG Ballard. The notion that only books dealing explicitly with education are professionally relevant is mistaken. The ability to see connections between disparate contexts is a good indicator of intellectual flexibility and creative engagement.

Acceptance of this principle could lead to a revolution in attitudes to continuing professional development which, at present, are often narrow and unimaginative.

If a question about reading were to become a regular part of the professional review of teachers, I would make one important stipulation. Reading of official documents, such as curricular guidelines or inspectorate reports, would not count. With few exceptions, these merely serve to reinforce conventional thinking and confine teachers within the tramlines of educational orthodoxy.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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