Tower blocks of learning;Opinion

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Urban schools are under tremendous pressure. Do they need their own pedagogy? Richard Riddell thinks so, and has some suggestions

Children are the starting point for effective teaching. The debate about raising standards is, or should be, about how we move children from where they are to where they might be.

How teachers achieve this - their choice of approaches, methodologies and so on - is central to any debate we might have about effective teaching.

Whatever legislation, rules or frameworks are in place, teachers must "fit" them to suit the children, parents and communities they serve.

Children start from different points. Take the child I met in a Bristol special school who found it difficult to talk one Monday because he had spent the weekend perched on a joist after his parents had pulled up the floorboards for firewood.

Or take the 10 reception children who had no spoken language when they started school. These need to be brought to learning in quite different ways from five-year-olds with enthusiastic educated parents who have already taken the first steps towards literacy and numeracy.

The extra pressures on the urban school and its teachers are well-known, and we need to be open about them. They include: children with language difficulties, those who do not believe they can achieve, and those whose huge social and psychological needs put great demands on their teachers.

Add to that the families and communities who do not share or understand a school's intentions and aims, and the problems caused by the "laddish" culture. Finally mix in the euphemistically named "challenging behaviour" which means that schools and teachers without a wide repertoire of management and classroom strategies are unable to prevent disruption to the education of other children.

High aspirations need to start in the urban classroom if they are to have any chance of being universal in our country. But this is where teachers and schools are under most pressure, where recruitment and retention are most difficult, and where burn out is earlier. We need a specific urban pedagogy if we are to achieve what is expected of us.

So what might an urban pedagogy include? These are my suggestions - not as another quack nostrum for teachers, but as part of an active agenda for the regeneration of the profession, by the profession, in urban areas: We must make the "reflective practitioner" a reality again, encouraging professional questioning about what works and what does not; We must identify which aspects of the "new learning" we should draw on in the classroom - accelerated learning, for example; learning how to think and use memory; engaging both halves of the brain; and understanding and playing to the various learning styles present in any group of students.

We must be open to new ideas about teaching. Knowledge about what works has developed considerably over the past 10 years - we do know much more about effective whole-class interactive teaching and seating arrangements. Teachers are currently adapting a given pedagogy (the literacy hour) to suit their pupils.

We must use technology and computers to encourage independent learning, and to generate different ways of organising and managing classrooms; We should have an "inclusive intent" towards all children. As Tim Brighouse, chief education officer of Birmingham, says; teachers need explicitly to counteract the processes of social exclusion, and to develop expectations, which are high enough to enable children to want to do better, without destroying their self-confidence. We must talk about, recognise and value positive behaviour, rather than just defining those things which should not be done.

The learning environment needs to be extended - for example, taking the classroom into community - and so does the learning time - through twilight sessions, Saturday mornings, study centre time, informal drop-ins, and all sorts of enrichment activities; The potential teaching role of various members of the community should be recognised.

The "home-school curriculum" needs to develop, not just as a more efficiently organised "family support service", but as an active method of engaging parents in the learning of their children.

Last, there must be teacher champions for urban pedagogy, with the time to disseminate good practice and work alongside other teachers - the most appropriate form of "advanced skills teachers". Simply observing model teachers or lessons does not help staff (or schools) to improve.

Most important for the mental health of anyone (a key issue for a profession under pressure) is taking things one step at a time. We need high aspirations, but must be reasonable and practical about the degree of change which can be safely and securely introduced.

Nor is this list complete; what attributes are required of urban educational leaders, for example, whose job it is to support teachers in being clear about their agenda?

I have my own ideas on this too, but would be delighted to receive ideas from other urban educators.

Richard Riddell is director of education, Bristol City Council

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