John Bald is a former teacher, educational adviser and Ofsted lead inspector. He now works as an independent consultant and offers free help to people with educational problems.
Asked last month for advice on educational books to read, I had to think hard. Most writing on education is very poor, usually because it starts from a political rather than educational perspective, and so does not get to the nuts and bolts of how children learn. A trip to Cambridge University Library – a most friendly and efficient organisation – to read a recent book on the languages debate, was a typical waste of time. I looked, as always, for evidence of the effectiveness of teaching methods in enabling children to make progress, and found none at all. How these authors, who are not lefties, can have got into a mode of thinking in which they can cut out the issues of progress and learning, continues to baffle me.
So, what could I recommend? Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion is probably first on the list, as a guide to planning and managing learning in the modern classroom. It answers the teacher’s old question, “What will I do on Monday morning?” with an array of practical examples covering everything from lesson design to the best way to give out books and get the chairs put away afterwards. Illustrated with video clips of outstanding teachers, the book is a mainstay of Teach First, and most of us will find something new in it, as well as confirmation of what we know to work.
I said probably, because we also need something deeper on the processes of learning taking place for each child, and my recommendation here is Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory, published only in the US, but easily available over the internet – I use www.bookfinder.com. Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his discovery of the ways in which brain cells make connections with others that are not immediately adjacent, and his book is both a personal document and an illuminating history of brain research since the late nineteenth century – beginning, surprisingly enough, with Sigmund Freud.
The Spanish scientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his isolation and drawing of brain cells through his microscope, and his description of them as seeming to reach out and try to make contact with each other is the most persuasive description of learning I´ve heard. Nearly everything we do as teachers is designed to promote this process, which builds memory and knowledge, integrating these with our immediate thoughts. Very few teachers have heard of it, and I was delighted with the response of the young Teach First participants when I presented it at their conference in Leeds. Kandel´s work is as important as the discovery of DNA in enabling us to understand the basis of human life, and it will revolutionise education once it becomes more widely known. If not first book on the list, it is the most important.
The work has serious implications for ourselves and Labour. Educated parents pour their own education into their children from birth, fostering neural connections and networks that can’t develop in children who do not have such stimulus. Tristram Hunt, who remains Labour’s education spokesman, has offered a guesstimate that children in his constituency are two years behind by the time they start school. This makes Labour´s goal of promoting equality impossible, and they have no alternative.
Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed return to the old ways is based on the illusion that Academies have failed. They haven’t. Mossbourne is reality, and so is the successful Academy in his constituency, Highbury Grove. Conservatives, committed to an ideal of equity rather than equality, have a lot of work to do to make this a reality. Getting rid of Labour´s folly of fake “vocational” qualifications is a start, but we have to develop and deliver an honest and valid alternative. The new apprenticeships need to be made to work, and should be integrated with options in the last two years of school. I’ve seen successful courses involving bricklaying, plumbing, electrical installation and driving , and we need more of them, alongside, of course, improved teaching of basic skills.
Some existing educational writing is consistent with the brain research evidence. Montessori’s planned intellectual development for young children, and L.S Vygotsky’s description of the transition from spoken to written language in Thought and Language are both examples of the growth and development of neural networks. Grace Fernald’s approach to a range of problems with literacy and maths in her classic Remedial Techniques in Basic School Subjects in which she developed understanding by finding the right starting point for each child and then building from there, has similar foundations.
I offer an example of the approach in the form of a result in French GCSE this summer. A bright pupil was being “taught” French by the current method of exposing her and her classmates to language they didn’t understand, having them copy things out, and making them try to learn everything parrot fashion. These practices, including the chopping back and forth in copying, could be calculated to prevent the formation of neural connections, and hence understanding. They were very effective – this bright young person was in distress and could seen no way forward.
I’d helped her mother, a primary teacher, with a reading problem in her class, and she asked me for help with French. In just three lessons over the internet, I showed her daughter how French spoken and written language work, how and why they use grammatical markers that we no longer use in English, and how to use the shared features of both languages. I introduced some features of French usage that went beyond the obvious, but always with full explanation. Languages are human constructs, with human weaknesses as well as strengths. We say we have other fish to fry, whether or not we fry fish, and the French that they have other cats to whip, though I’ve never seen a Frenchman whip a cat. The goal was to bring her fragments of knowledge together to build understanding, and so to give her a degree of control. I’d forgotten all about it until she sent me an email on Thursday night, thanking me for helping her get an A.