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A strange thing used to happen once a child started school: suddenly the person asking the questions was the one who already knew ‘the answer’ (and there was only one). The ever-curious child had to sit still and listen. Teachers now tend to use their skills to direct learning with the children’s interests as drivers. Reading – and other – skills improve when children develop critical thinking skills, when they are personally engaged with the work and when they share their thoughts with others. There is much evidence to show that children who start formal education at 6 or 7 learn to read with greater enjoyment and ease than those who are constrained by a formal curriculum at 4 or 5. Many children are not ready for the symbolic learning necessary for acquiring literacy if they start formal lessons at this age. Those who are will read anyway. Those who aren’t may acquire some literacy skills but may never be real readers: those who take delight and pleasure as well as information, novel viewpoints and new ideas from reading. And if we want our children and young people to be critical thinkers, then we, as professionals, need to apply judicious thinking to our practice too.

Teachers have been demoralised by demands from on high and often doubt our own capacities as autonomous, creative experts in our field: that of understanding how people learn. There are many examples of interesting, innovative practice in neighbouring classrooms, on chat rooms and school blogs, on the LTS and HMIE sites. If we work collaboratively, share successes as well as failures (how bad we are at acknowledging when we do things well!), talk about education and think about what works and what doesn’t – yet – then we might develop the confidence to throw out the proscriptions from on high. What a wonderful thing it would be to hear the word ‘work’ replaced by ‘learning’ as a matter of course in our classrooms. And how marvellous it is to see quiet spaces made available for young people, particularly those reticent ones, to tell each other stories and to develop thinking without the pressure of performance to a crowd.

news report  from last year describes how ‘a group of experts gathered .. to pool their research knowledge and grapple towards a definition of a “good teacher”.’ An important dimension is that the discussions were informed by evidence rather than opinion. The ‘experts’ stress the role of active, collaborative learning, a child-centred approach in which teachers create positive, respectful atmospheres, make learning interesting and explain things clearly – and also act reflectively and proactively. This news item reflects much of the debate around the opening up of the curriculum through a Curriculum for Excellence, applauded by many classroom practitioners.

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