We don't have to hold out for the superheroes
edited by Paul Croll Nigel Hastings
David Fulton, Pounds 13.99
How do you make sure that your teaching is effective, that you get the message across, that those on the receiving end of your teaching actually learn something?
I once thought that brilliant teachers might hold the key to this problem but Superman and Wonderwoman usually turn out to be individuals whose performances cannot readily be mimicked. When you have tried and failed a dozen times to teach Kylie about the food chain and you feel as if you are encased in kryptonite, I suggest that you look elsewhere for help - to research, for example.
Research can help us to become more effective teachers, and it does so by providing the data on which our judgments can be based. Research in the social sciences will always find it hard to come up with yesno, black and white answers to problems because of the number of variables involved in experiments, not all of them susceptible to control, and the consequent difficulty in allocating causality.
But because it is difficult does not mean that it is impossible and if you need convincing that educational research has value then read these splendidly accessible summaries collected by Paul Croll and Nigel Hastings.
Here, albeit in tightly-wrapped digestible form, is the current research thinking on, among other things, the teaching of reading, special educational needs and the motivation of pupils. The authors focus on what they term "middle-range" classroom strategies, and to this purpose they have set aside research which focuses on the minutia of specific teaching actions and also that which deals with ideologically-loaded global classifications such as "progressive" and "formal". As a result the book is well-balanced and relevant, the authors managing the neat trick of bringing the ivory tower into the classroom and making it fit.
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was asked on a school visit how she would teach something to a class of six-year-olds. Without a nanosecond's hesitation, she fixed her subversive questioner with a stare that might ignite water, and hurled back the reply: "I would TELL them!" Not surprisingly, Croll and Hastings suggest that teaching is not that simple.
In their view, there is no single best approach, instead they support the idea that there should be a range of workable strategies, tested and assessed by research, available to teachers. It is for the teachers to make the decision about what is best in any particular situation. Hence the book will tell you what light research throws on class seating arrangements, group work and the best ways to manage pupil behaviour, but how you use the information is up to you.
The writing is generally pithy and functional, the contributors not only try to put research into perspective but usually go on to ask those questions that remain when the ink has dried on the research paper.
When the research evidence overwhelmingly points to the superiority of rows over groups in the arrangement of desks in the classroom, the writers wonder whether we should rush out immediately and move the furniture. They suggest that the majority of us, who use group seating arrangements, should either change this to match our teaching strategies, or change our strategies to match our seating. The real lesson being that we should never accept any practice unquestioningly and should constantly check what we do against the measure of fitness for purpose.
The book has a boring cover and a title that is indistinguishable from the crowd but it is nevertheless a gem. You may find the contents of the introductory chapter "Teachers Matter", somewhat intoxicating so don't drive down the motorway for a few hours after reading.
Every head should read this book and every thinking teacher will wish to. Find time between national curriculum tests and Sports Day, it will not be wasted.
* Paul Noble is head of Blunsdon St Andrew Primary School, Swindon