Weighty, but never heavy going

7th May 2004 at 01:00
ENGAGING SCHOOLS: Fostering high school students' motivation to learn. By the National Research Council Institute of Medicine. National Academies Press pound;32.95

SUPPORTING TEACHERS, SUPPORTING PUPILS. By Diana Fox Wilson. RoutledgeFalmer pound;19.99

TALES FOR CHANGE: Using storytelling to develop people and organisations. By Margaret Parkin. Kogan Page pound;18.99

Remember WH Auden's pre-mail-privatisation comment: "And none will hear the postman's knockWithout a quickening of the heart?" Well, in this house there are times when the postman's knock brings a definite sinking of the heart, and the heavy thump of Engaging Schools as it landed beneath my letter box was one such occasion.

It's a book with an uninviting pedigree: an analysis of US inner-city schooling written by a committee of more than 15 people, called the Committee on Increasing High School Students' Engagement and Motivation to Learn. I wasn't motivated to read on.

But I was wrong. This is a superb, cogently written and important book. Its terms of reference are almost entirely American urban high schools; its research is almost entirely US-based; but its implications are, I suspect, universal. And as a model of research-based analysis and recommendation, it is on a par with my favourite education book, The Intelligent School by Barbara MacGilchrist et al (new edition reviewed in Friday magazine, April 30).

So what makes it so good? First, it is unflinching in its analysis. This is not another watered-down thesis or knee-jerk hypothesis. The authors paint a picture of schools that "fail to meet the needs of too many of their students". Like other recently published books, it identifies the key weakness as motivation: we are failing to find the mechanisms to motivate students to succeed. It shows the significance of this in student drop-out rates, reminding us (with statistics) that in the portfolio world of modern times, the manufacturing jobs that promised good wages for low skills have gone.

Then, based on an extraordinary range of case studies and research programmes, it provides an analysis and suggested solutions. There's the need to re-engage students, helping them to feel "I can", "I want to" and "I belong". It reaffirms the power of the teacher, whose low expectations can too easily undermine and patronise students, and the need to create cultures of peer support, pointing out that "research consistently shows the critical role that positive, supportive peer relationships play in adolescents' mental health and well-being".

The book uses wide-ranging research in an exemplary way, tackling tough issues, making firm recommendations about the curriculum (it needs to change), teaching styles (ditto) and assessment (less of it). Few of the conclusions would not apply to most schools in the UK.

Diana Fox Wilson's Supporting Teachers, Supporting Pupils takes a much more personal stance. The author is a former teacher, education social worker, teacher trainer and field officer. The book is in three sections, the first restating the woes of being a teacher. Even reading it at a high point - the start of the Easter holidays - I was soon yearning for anti-depressants. Fox Wilson's thesis is that education is an emotional business. Indeed, she quotes research to prove this: "Teaching is an emotional business" (student teacher 1995). We also expect too much of our teachers who, therefore, frequently feel frustrated and unloved.

The solution is a proposed "humanistic" view of teaching which, in practice, boils down to more time for teachers to talk, more adults supporting teachers in the classroom, a more relaxed school ethos, a behaviour policy that isn't mechanistic, and so on. Many examples are taken from the secondary school where the author worked some years ago. Much of the research is familiar, if not stale (the Elton report, Kyriakou, Rutter et al - all good stuff, but updated by more recent studies).

I emerged from the book strangely gloomy. Of course we want schools to be happier, friendlier, and more humane, but I didn't find a single concrete proposal in here that would help it happen. The blurb's promise of a text "packed with helpful and practical advice for all teachers" is misleading (and contradicts the author's introduction), as is the suggestion that "it will be reassuring for any teacher finding themselves feeling stranded in the classroom". My main message: don't get stranded with this book.

Margaret Parkin's book is nothing if not original. It is, as the title suggests, a collection of stories designed to help organisations change and develop. Undergoing a major curriculum review? Read the traditional Buddhist tale The Mustard Seed. Moral: "Change is inevitable". Having a stressful time? Read The Fisherman and his Wife. Moral: "Be content with your lot".

I'm hesitant about wheeling these out at our next staff training day, though the book carries heartfelt endorsements from a training manager at the John Lewis department store, and the author certainly has good credentials. True, there are "trigger questions" to encourage reflection, but I'd need more guidance on how to use such stories before I go all Jackanory with the staff. Perhaps that's a sign of my weaknesses rather than the book's. But that's another story.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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