Thoughtful ways

27th April 2007 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh selects books that point teachers towards effective learning for children and themselves

Learning and Teaching in the Primary Classroom By Maurice Galton; Sage Pounds 18.99 paperback, pound;60 hardback

Like the late and much missed Ted Wragg, Maurice Galton is an academic of stature whose work is firmly rooted in years of classroom observation. And, again like Ted Wragg, he's not slow to warn of the effect that quick-fix government policy has on teacher professionalism and children's learning.

But primarily, this book, by the emeritus professor of education and associate director of research at Cambridge University, is for teachers about what works and what doesn't.

It deals, essentially, with three elements of good practice: instruction, enquiry and what we've come to know as "scaffolding", which Professor Galton describes as: "(Providing) appropriate frameworks or scaffolds in which children can attempt to work things out for themselves".

Scaffolding is particularly important, he argues, because it provides children with a controlled opportunity to start thinking like learners or, in Professor Galton's term, to become "metacognitively wise".

"Evidence suggests," he says, "that if pupils transfer to secondary school without beginning to develop this kind of control over their own learning, they will experience a considerable handicap."

He provides a telling example from a science lesson when children were asked, in groups, to brainstorm explanations and to test why it was possible to hear vibrations from the traffic outside through the floorboards.

The teacher felt the lesson was unsatisfactory because the children came up with unrealistic solutions and "impossible" tests: dig a hole under the floorboards, for example, to see if there was an underground tunnel.

What was needed, says Professor Galton, was a scaffold within which the brainstorm could take place and work to a satisfactory conclusion. The scaffold would be a threefold process of first collecting all ideas, putting aside the ones that couldn't be tested and, in the final stage, leaving aside those that couldn't be tested with the apparatus to hand in the room. (Experienced scientists go through the same process, the author suggests.) The pupils would have in the end conducted a fair test, plus, as he says:

"Perhaps more importantly, pupils have been presented with one strategy for solving problems in science."

Equally founded in Professor Galton's commitment to the possible is his notion of working theory. So, for example, research tells us that when a teacher asks a question, children need time to think before they answer.

Which is fine, but an inexperienced teacher who tries to give pupils the time will lose pace and invite shouting out. A more experienced colleague will replace the doomed attempt at silent reflection by giving the children time to discuss possible answers among themselves. Both methods take the theory on board, but one works and the other doesn't.

It is this belief in matching the theory to the task that makes Professor Galton so doubtful about one-size-fits-all, slogan-based solutions. His section on personalised learning, for example, is forensic in its attempt to get at what the term means.

He's equally questioning about the too-easy adoption of the idea of fixed learning styles. The evidence is, he tells us, that children change their learning preferences according to the task and also over time; that "effective learning is situated within the demands of the task so that pupils therefore need to develop a range of styles for solving different kinds of problems".

Which is, as he points out, back to the notion of becoming metacognitively wise

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