The truth, the whole-class truth

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Britain must not let the labels 'progressive' and 'traditional' stop it learning from other countries any longer, says David Reynolds, co-author of the research featured on this week's controversial Panorama.

We live in a shrinking world. The information revolution has ensured no part of the globe can remain immune to the ideas and experiences of other parts. The downside of this process is global homogeneity. The upside is the capacity to learn from the achievements - and the mistakes - of others.

In education, we have been far too slow to realise the advantages of looking beyond the white cliffs of Dover. Other countries have processes in their schools and classrooms which we do not have and have different traditions and different ways of organising themselves to generate high-quality outcomes. They also have different economic, social and cultural structures that should make us wary of any direct transplants of practices.

Our own research in the International School Effectiveness Research Project (ISERP) and the review of the international literature on educational achievement reported in part on Panorama this week suggest that English performance at all ages except 16 to 19 is rather poor by comparison with that of other societies, particularly those from the Pacific Rim. While there are numerous problems concerning the validity of the surveys, at the very least they give cause for concern.

Some of the reasons for the success of other societies are undoubtedly not educational. There is no doubt that the stress upon hard work in Pacific Rim societies, teachers' status, the ambitions of parents and the survival of extended family and community networks that routinely transmit respectable attitudes are all factors implicated in their performance.

But it is clear that the educational system also has considerable effects - how else can an excellent performance from older British children be explained? If in Britain the same culture and social structure generates both a poor and an excellent set of results for children of different ages, the explanation must lie in the educational system.

So, looking at the education of other societies may be useful to help us improve. In the Pacific Rim, it is clear that the educational system has a limited number of clear goals. There is a widespread belief that all children can learn, and that the role of early-years education is to ensure all children have the basic skills on which later learning depends.

Within schools, teacher collaboration is made possible by having a fifth of time as "frees". Mixed-ability classes, in which more able children help slower learners, only move on from a topic when all children have grasped it. Frequent testing makes it possible for teachers to know where children have got to.

Within classes no "trailing edge" of children is permitted, extra work in lesson breaks and lunchtimes being the remedy. Lessons are of high-quality direct instruction from the teacher, facilitated by work from common textbooks and workbooks.

Looking at other countries that may be more educationally successful than we are can generate, then, ideas for us to use. Given the differences in context, though, between the Pacific Rim and Britain, it would be unacceptable to propose anything other than initial experiment with some of the most important factors. High-quality interactive whole-class instruction and additional work with the trailing edge, would seem to be obvious candidates.

Looking at other countries can give us even more. One can use the lens of their systems and experiences to look back at our own culture and system with profit. Seen from this perspective, the continued problems in Britain with key stage 2 and ages 7 to 11 may be understandable. Where have we gone wrong?

First, when faced with a range of achievement on entry to primary school it is possible that our fondness for differentiation in such areas as mathematics has increased the range of achievement. Other countries act directly to reduce the range - by extra work in Taiwan, or holding pupils down in countries like Switzerland and Germany. We, by contrast, systematically vary our pupils' opportunities for learning.

Second, in Britain we have systematically reduced the constant of the teacher to maybe 20 per cent of total lesson time, and shifted the burden of learning to children and their achievement-differentiated groups. It is not surprising then that children may both receive less knowledge and show a greater range.

High-quality whole-class interactive teaching - not the whole-class teaching that is the mantra of some - gives children their teacher. We give children mostly themselves.

Looking at other countries does more than make one doubt the wisdom of some of our practices. It makes one doubt the value of conventional discussions of "progressive" and traditional" as used within the current anodyne wrangle that has characterised British discussions of primary education.

Taiwan, for example, holds back the clever until the less able are ready to move on, believes that all children from all backgrounds can learn and gives all children a similar opportunity to learn. Yet Taiwan is called "traditional" and Britain, which leaves children more to work on their own, streams the able within lessons, and systematically withholds knowledge from some children, is called "progressive" or "trendy". Labels like these simply no longer accord with any reality, save only the mental strait-jackets and limitations of their proponents.

It should be no surprise, then, that I believe that studies of other nations can do considerable good. They can alert us to practices that appear to work in other contexts, for us to try in our own. They can help us understand our own problems. They can indeed help us be aware of ethnocentricity and labels which are long past their shelf life.

At their best, they can help us in the task of generating new sets of policies that are not so much philosophically as practically based. Through looking at the best of our own and other countries' practices, we can envisage synergistic blends of practice, for example of whole-class interactive teaching when there is knowledge to inculcate, and groupindividual work when there is knowledge to access. By so doing we can create primary schools that may not be pure in terms of educational philosophy but may be more potent in terms of achievement.

Blending elements together in these ways is under discussion in many societies. The tragedy for Britain is that one will hear more of this in other societies than in ours.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. His report "Worlds Apart? - a review of international surveys of educational achievement involving England", written with Shaun Farrell of University of Wales, Cardiff, is to be published by the Office for Standards in Education.

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