We're all together now

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Co-operative Learning: the social and intellectual outcomes of learning in groups. Edited by Robyn M Gilliesand Adrian F Ashman. RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50.

Teaching Without Disruption in the Secondary School: a model for managing pupil behaviour. By Roland Chaplain. RoutledgeFalmer pound;19.99.

Handbook for Learning Mentors in Primary and Secondary Schools. By Margaret Roberts and Dot Constable. David Fulton pound;16.

The language of education periodically shifts. "You'll need to learn this," a teacher would say, and it meant memorising things. We now know that the concept is more slippery: learning can even happen - heaven help us - without the presence of teachers. Thus a new education industry is opening up, rightly, to get teachers thinking more analytically not just about what they are teaching, but more crucially about what our pupils might be learning.

Robyn Gillies and Adrian Ashman work in education at the University of Queensland. They start by reminding us that the concept of collaboration in learning is relatively new. For example, it was the early development of the social sciences from the 1920s onwards that began to explore the notion of teamwork: Gordon Allport in 1924 found that "there was a distinct increase in the quantity and quality of individuals' work when they were able to see and hear others working". Co-operative Learning provides similar insights into important issues. It makes a revealing contribution to debates about how we group students in class. For example, the authors found that in a Dutch experiment: "Low-achieving students appeared to be better off in heterogeneous classes at the Yssel (mixed ability), while high-achieving students did a better job at the Linge (setted groups)."

This is important because many schools, prompted by the media response to GCSE results, will be go7ing through more convulsions about how best to provide a curriculum and assessment system that can cater for the full range of abilities. The book is no easy read, nor an absolute must for the staffroom library, but it does strike me as a powerful and cogent collection of research which will help those of us trying to develop an assessment for learning strategy in which students work collaboratively to support each other's learning. Or, more bluntly, getting students to do more of the work and teachers to do less.

Of course, co-operative learning is unlikely to happen if we have not got the ethos of high expectations and good behaviour right. Roland Chaplain's Teaching Without Disruption in the Secondary School (there is a companion volume for primary schools) is another book to add to the tottering pile of guidance on classroom management. It begins with a chapter on teacher stress which has the reassuring message "there is little clear evidence that teaching is likely to damage your health". It seems odd, however, that a book providing a supposedly positive approach to behaviour management should begin with this topic.

Roland Chaplain offers an unusual mix of theoretical and practical perspectives, from talk of an "integrative multilevel model of behaviour management" to advice on the arrangement of desks in the classroom.

There is much here that is helpful. Chaplain highlights the essential ingredients in a good behaviour policy and suggests how the policy can be put into practice. He shows the importance of a consistent whole-school approach to behaviour management, one which leaves teachers feeling supported but also empowered to tackle their own problems. Yet the format suggests a book that doesn't quite know its audience. It is not written from direct experience (the author is a senior lecturer in the psychology of education at the University of Cambridge) and cannot speak with the classroom credibility of, for example, Sue Cowley, whose Getting the Buggers to Behave books (Continuum) are surely the benchmark in the practical handbook market. Nor does it seem to be the more research-based kind of text that aims at the academic market or, for example, teachers doing masters degrees.

Margaret Roberts's and Dot Constable's large-format, practical guide for developing a mentoring system is very secure in its audience. Mentoring is sometimes presented as an instant remedy for everything from disaffection to shyness. The authors are much more realistic, acknowledging that the weekly withdrawal of a student from a French lesson to meet a mentor can, "far from removing barriers to learning, create extra ones".

The book starts by setting out the range of support mechanisms possible for students in schools (learning support assistants, personal assistants, business mentors, volunteer mentors, community mentors, and more). There's also padding that most readers won't need, such as a summary of the education system and the qualification framework. It's stronger where it provides some genuine working documents for recording discussions between students and learning mentors. For me, there isn't enough emphasis on the "learning" part of the role: many students become demotivated not because of difficult backgrounds or stressful relationships, but because they do not know how to learn. Learning mentors could play a key role in coaching them to success.

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

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