The publication of OFSTED's Worlds Apart report this week is bound to enrich the debate about teaching quality. Unfortunately, this study of research on international comparisons, which was featured in a well-publicised Panorama programme looking at the benefits of whole-class teaching, is also likely to perpetuate the tendency to take sides, favouring either more whole-class teaching, or pupil differentiation through group teaching.
Most teachers want a combination of the two, using the "fitness for purpose" principle outlined by the Three Wise Men in their 1992 report Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools. We need to work towards a new philosophy of primary practice, synthesising different approaches rather than polarising.
Whole-class teaching will form an aspect of this philosophy of practice because it has at least six distinct advantages: * It is eminently manageable. One learning programme can be prepared for the whole class. The use of interactive methods by good teachers will ensure that all children take part, and that each child's progress is effectively monitored. It enables teachers to focus their minds on one learning task and on helping all pupils to learn.
* It enhances pupils' concentration through the reinforcing effect of a social situation in which their achievements and difficulties are shared by the whole group. The good teacher will create an atmosphere of sympathy with those having difficulties, rather than one of disdain for slow learners.
* It makes for speedier coverage of curriculum content. The teacher becomes not only co-ordinator and facilitator, but director and highly active pedagogue.
* It encourages children whose motivation under ability grouping or setting has been poor to feel part of the whole, and to surprise themselves by their ability to solve problems.
* It allows the whole class to be introduced to new experiences at once; the teacher can employ her own gift of enthusiasm, knowledge, and skills of communication to best effect. The pupils can respond in their own way, perhaps raising questions and having insights which could not be foreseen. Further, the focus can be upon the object of enquiry rather than the ladder of achievement to be climbed.
* Finally, it pre-empts many behavioural problems which can occur when the teacher is engaged for long periods with another group.
This does not mean that group and individual teaching do not have crucial places. Special needs and other causes of poor achievement are less likely to be identified under a predominantly whole-class approach. Even minor brain damage can elude the learning-quality-obsessed traditionalist. Individual attention by the teacher is, therefore, crucial to the progress of the whole class.
It is also true that some children cannot interact in a large class context: they are afraid to respond. They work more effectively in a small group - it is no good trying to argue that the good teacher will inspire them to be confident in the whole-class setting.
Furthermore, how can we best cater for our most talented pupils? In the whole class set-up they can be frustrated by having to work beneath their capabilities.
Yes, demanding homework, or special schools can be an answer, but not a complete or realistic one. It becomes apparent that pupil differentiation is indispensable.
It is also no luxury to include personalised learning projects. Children all have interests that they are passionate about or excel in. Developing these can enable children's progress in other areas of knowledge and skill.
But there is another argument for retaining more individualised methods. Eastern countries tend to reflect an authoritarianism no longer acceptable here: children do what is expected of them. We, by contrast, have become highly individualistic: subservience to a system and tradition is not acceptable to our children. We are, at least for the present, unable to enforce the group conformity essential to whole-class teaching.
It is also important to note that, even when the excessive individualism of post-modern life is tamed, people are still likely to prize the creativity of mind essential to fulfilment in life. If we are right to imagine that such creativity is best fostered in childhood, it would be foolish indeed not to balance the acquisition of conventional qualities with a personalised curriculum. Above all, we must allow learning to be a living, risky, process through which children can find themselves.
Dr Mike Newby worked for many years in teacher training and is now a consultant and writer