Think before you follow tradition

11th February 2000 at 00:00
SCHOOLS HAVE received a mountain of printed New Year presents bearing the logo of the Scottish Executive and covering a range of topics from science 5-14 to financial education. The ever-growing pile seems designed to strike terror into the hearts of its readers. It would be regrettable if schools lost sight of the most fascinating of recent documents, however.

Interchange 60 is entitled "Practices and Interactions in the Primary Classroom" and contains summaries of two small-scale studies of how teachers and pupils use their time. It is the first Scottish description of what happens to some of the advice provided in well-known documents when they hit the classroom floor.

The authors are refreshingly honest about the restrictions of their research and present their findings as pointers for further consideration by individual schools. All their work is relevant to the current key issues of the 5-14 curriculum, target-setting, attainment and learning styles.

With 10 years of 5-14 behind us and some education authorities thinking of bending the time provisions of the guidelines, Interchange 60 shows that in real classes time spent on different curriculum areas does not agree with official recommendations anyway. Language eats up the lion's share at 33 per cent rather than the official 15 per cent, but environmental studies, often criticised for its suggested 25 per cent, only takes up 11 per cent.

The researchers also recognise that more than 10 per cent of a day is given to administrative activities such as registers and collecting money. The loss of 2.5 hours in a teaching week makes us pause and think.

There is a section on furniture arrangement. It is not a lesson in feng shui but a look at the effects of the great taboo of the primary classroom. After the 1960s any teacher who sat children in rows was regarded as out of touch. The Primary Memorandum photographs showed children working in small groups and emphasised learning as a social activity wih the teacher as facilitator. Only the brave would argue for any other form of organisation. So group seating has become traditional but like any tradition has to be questioned.

Interchange 60 poses the question, "How might classroom seating arrangements be better used to support pupils' learning?" The authors show that pupils are most likely to be "on task" when working collaboratively with other pupils or working one to one with the teacher. However, such learning styles rarely occur. Working alone and working with the teacher as part of a whole class are much more common but fortunately both give high levels of working "on task". The poorest "on task" levels are found when pupils are working in a situation in which they can socialise with others.

Are we surprised? Children seated in groups are easily handicapped as their concentration is broken by close eye contact with others and the ease of exchanging pencil sharpeners and rubbers.

The ideal may be that children spend most of their time on collaborative learning but if we accept that lone working is more likely, there is evidence that seating in groups will result in poor learning.

Interchange 60 questions other orthodoxies. Our own school runs a maths setting arrangement which I have difficulty in evaluating adequately. Teachers, pupils and parents like it, but it uses extra human resources and I wonder if our increased attainment would have happened anyway.

Interchange 60 finds no evidence that setting brings a higher level of "on task" activity. There are signs that teachers in "setting classes" adopted an approach which used more "up-front whole-class teaching" but the jury is still out on whether setting leads to improved attainment.

The document is packed with good things about our classroom practices. It is an easy read and the thought-provoking questions make it ideal as the basis for school-based in-service work. If you have missed it, seek it out. You won't regret it.

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