Trivialised pursuit of knowledge

20th September 1996 at 01:00
Chief inspector Chris Woodhead called for a focus on the "complex of beliefs which is encapsulated in the phrase how children learn" (TES, September 6).

We should not be talking simply about beliefs about learning. Modern educational psychology has been tested in classrooms and offers a sound and developing knowledge base on how children acquire conceptual understanding and how teachers can support that learning. Unfortunately it was written out of teacher training programmes by Department of Education and Science directives.

Chris Woodhead rightly criticises time-wasting colouring, cutting and pasting in primary classrooms. But we have to ask why this happens. My own research into teacher training in the North-west of England with Jill Collison suggests these activities occur for three reasons when students teach. Students seem to lack curricular knowledge across the full curriculum range; they rarely attend to pupils as learners and therefore mismatch tasks and they feel they need to be seen as accomplished performers regardless of what the pupils are learning.

We must place children's learning at the centre of the initial teacher-training curriculum and train new teachers not only how to plan for it but how to support it. Ideally this emphasis would run alongside further reductions in the breadth of the primary curriculum.

In the work I am currently undertaking with colleagues at Leeds I'm consistently impressed by how expert teachers describe how they support pupil learning. But as Anthea Millett of the Teacher Training Agency put it in her King's College lecture in July, they are offering "privately arrived-at pedagogies". As an education profession we must offer new teachers and pupils more than that.

We should stop debate which emphasises knowledge over development and vice versa. We need to listen to Bruner, who back in 1966 in Towards a Theory of Instruction warned us that unless we bring our theories of knowledge, development and instruction together education is doomed to triviality. Policy-makers, teachers and university-based specialists owe it to pupils to work together in the refinement and use of an informed and developing theory of instruction which allows our children to become people who learn.

ANNE EDWARDS Professor of primary education The School of Education University of Leeds Leeds

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