Book review: Let our Children Learn
Let Our Children Learn
Tony Brown, Michael Foot and Peter Holt
Education Now, £8.95
There has been a tragic change in primary education in this country since the early seventies. The change is typified by two quotations:- from the Plowden report, 'At the heart of the education process lies the child,' and from literacy consultant Bill Tindall, writing in 1998, 'At the centre of the learning process are the texts.'
Two of the authors of this book are retired primary heads, and the third, also retired, used to be an Education Officer and Senior County Adviser. They went back into a primary school for two days to work with a class in a way that would have been admired by the supposedly discredited Plowden team, and have written up what happened, and what they themselves learnt from it.
The entire two days were spent on a single project. Before they went in they wrote to each of the children, describing their plans, and saying, 'We would like you, please, to choose and to bring to school one natural object which you will study. It has to be natural, not man-made. It may, for example, be a feather, stone, piece of wood, piece of tree bark, grass, berry, blossom, stem ...' It sounds a pleasant enough beginning, but not particularly exciting. In the hands of this class and these teachers it became inspiring.
The book is illustrated with full colour reproductions of some of the children's drawings and paintings, and scattered with examples of their writing. There are examples of narrative, research and poetry. By the end of the two days the children were supposed to have bound their work into individual books, but many were still too involved in what they were doing to reach this stage. The twenty-eight children in the class were asked whether they thought the two days had been the right length of time. One child said it was too long, six said it was about right, and twenty-one said it was too short.
Each brief chapter of the book makes a fresh point about the approach these teachers were using. Some decisions were made by the children collectively, for example. There is a discussion of the implications of the staff-pupil ratio – six to twenty-eight. The teachers made an illuminating mistake, which you must read the book to discover. There are comments on particular children's difficulties and successes, and the problem one of adults had when he found he was expected to draw.
Modern views are quoted which are made plainly absurd by their context, for instance, from Chris Woodhead himself, 'Many teachers have been encouraged to believe that children learn best when they find things out for themselves, and that didactic teaching is inappropriate and inefficient. ... The practical consequence of such beliefs is tedium and triviality.' The practical consequence these teachers found was absorption and significant learning.
There are many positive quotations from other sources, including the Norwegian Core Curriculum for Primary, Secondary and Adult Education, which is described as inspirational, and a sad comment from a German teacher in the early nineties: 'Only a few years ago we used to come to England to see how you do things. What happened?'
This one short book is not going to correct twenty years of damage, but if enough people read it that will be a good start. Buy it and give it to everyone you know in primary education.