It's about learning (and it's about time) - 'What's in it for schools?' series

Author(s) Louise Stoll, Dean Fink, Lorna M. Earl
Publisher Routledge Falmer
Published 2003
Pages 240
Price £17.99
ISBN 0415227895
Reviewed by Mr Paul Adams
University of Hull
Review published 24 January 2007

For some time, learning has taken a back seat in the drive for school improvement. I say this, not because the term is never used in educational or political parlance, but rather because the mechanisms by which schools are judged to be effective adopts a particular, and in my view overly simplistic perspective. Whilst it is disingenuous to deny that testing, league tables and inspection reports tell us nothing about education, to attempt to advocate that learning, with all its complexities and nuances can be captured and examined solely in such mechanistic and narrow ways is naïve. Learning is an extremely difficult thing to identify and pin down; it is subject to an array of (often) conflicting and contradictory influences. More importantly, learning itself can be contradictory: that which seems to identify and signal that learning has occurred or indeed identify that which learning possibly is, can change from moment to moment, context to context.

It was against this backdrop that the title of the book drew my attention. I was expecting to read how current educational policy has positioned teachers, leaders, advisers and others and how they have found ways of keeping alive the core values that underpin the need for education in the 21st century. I was also expecting to read a text that presented a case for halting the seemingly inexorable drive for narrow conceptions of learning and associated prescriptions for teaching. In many respects this is what the book is about. Certainly it is replete with messages about learning which chime perfectly with my personal values and the reasons why I entered teaching in the first place. Some of the chapter headings are extremely appealing: ‘Why learning?’; ‘Learning about learning’; ‘Pupil learning at the centre’; and, ‘Enhancing capacity for learning’ for example. I should say at the outset that I do not think that it is a bad book, or indeed that it is not worth buying; it is and it will certainly support and extend the knowledge and thinking of many. However, at times the book left me somewhat dissatisfied.

The book appears to be one of about seven in the ‘What’s in it for schools?’ series. The preface by the series editors, Myers and MacBeath sets a tone that chimed with my initial expectations.

At the same time, there appears to be an increasing trend towards approaching changes in education through a controlling, rational and technical framework. This framework tends to concentrate on educational content and delivery and ignores the human-resource perspective and the complexity of how human beings live, work and interact with one another. It overemphasises linearity and pays insufficient attention to how people respond to change and either support or subvert it. (op cit: xi)

From this and the book title, then, one understands that this book is about change and more specifically how people work together to facilitate this within the learning process. This is well supported by the introduction which locates this direction within the context of the fast and frenetic pace of contemporary and future living. As the authors put it, ‘In a fast-changing world, if you can’t learn, unlearn and relearn, you’re lost’ (xv).

The ensuing chapters are all highly readable and relatively easy going. In chapter one the authors weave a narrative around five forces of globalisation and their affects on education: economic and work; technological; social; environmental; and, political. This sets the scene well and provides the reader with both an insight into the authors’ values and the organisation of, and tone for what follows. Coupling this to Delors et al’s four fundamental types of learning (learning to know, to do, to live together and to be) is both timely and important, for it sends an oft forgotten signal that learning, and therefore by default education, are not solely about the ‘stuff’ of subjects. Similarly, the chapter’s second theme, time, was interesting. However, I felt that this element was dealt with far too quickly and if, as is maintained, time is such an important aspect both in terms of the need for change and also how the pressures of time management etc. ameliorate or facilitate school improvement, I would have expected more.

Chapter two was somewhat of a disappointment. Although much that is presented is interesting and will certainly assist student teachers new to the field, I wonder how much it will offer those with knowledge of the field. Certainly, the ideas and research outlined is worthy of mention and the work of individuals such as Csikszentmihalyi is relatively new, but this is not my concern: I felt that too much was taken at face-value. Whilst I do not doubt that scientific breakthroughs are advancing our understanding of the brain and how it learns (c.f. Greenfield, 1997) and that ideas such as Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1996) have refocused educational attention, there is much written elsewhere that challenges such ideas and their applicability to education. For example, to present Multiple Intelligences as simply ‘learning is different for everyone’ (op cit: 39) is a disservice to the fundamental changes Gardner’s work has made to educational thinking and an obviation of the important critiques provided by the likes of John White (1998). Similarly, throughout this chapter I found myself asking the question ‘so what about time?’ It is not that the authors do not address time as an issue but the aforementioned lack of critique meant that issues which require fundamental consideration are left out: how, for example, have policy initiatives made it possible for ideas such as Multiple Intelligences to take root in educational thinking through the guise of, often seemingly prescriptive mechanisms such as Smith’s ‘Accelerated Learning’ (1996, 1998)?

This lack of challenge was also evident in chapter three. Once again the authors identified a series of ideas and thoughts without debate or acknowledgement of the work of others such as Pollard and Triggs (2000) which highlights the stultifying effects of a performativity discourse on the ways in which children position themselves in relation to the educational process. Once again, the information presented was sound and would be of interest to those new to education, but the lack of deep reflection left me frustrated. For example, whilst the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies are mentioned, any real critique is avoided. This is problematic given their position in the globalised marketplace into which education now fits.

In contrast, chapter four ‘Teachers on a learning curve’ was interesting and challenging. In effect, it was from this point on that the book came alive. Although this chapter presented well-known information, it did so in a critical way. The need for a new professionalism was well-explored and placing this in the context of the differences between adult- and child-learning necessitates more than superficial reflection on the part of the reader. Similarly, addressing the need to consider what influences teachers to learn and then highlight how their learning can be enhanced through a research-based process were, although not ground-breaking, certainly timely and erudite. If I have criticisms of this chapter, it is that, once again, the notion of time was dealt with all-too-quickly and that work undertaken by the likes of Jeffrey (2002) and Jeffrey and Woods (1998) into the views and ideas of teachers working in contemporary education would have added a great deal.

Chapters five and six were also of interest. I mention these together as the latter seemed to follow seamlessly. Both were concerned with ‘community’ issues: the first at the level of the school; the second with wider social contexts that help define that which schools can and do undertake to improve and enhance learning for all. Through the ideas of collective learning and dialogue, the authors develop clearly their thesis that in order to improve, schools need to understand their context, both internally and with respect to the wider communities they serve. Again, if I have a criticism it would be the omission of a debate stemming from communities of practice as advocated by the likes of Lave and Wenger (1991). I feel the chapter would have been strengthened had it discussed the ways that schools, through the positions they adopt in relation to wider political forces, have increasingly required pupils to adopt certain ways of talking and acting, ways that, perhaps, ameliorate the adoption of a learning culture. Perhaps too, John Macmurray’s (1968, 1991) ideas on community would add something to this debate.

The final chapter was, once again an interesting read. Although it did not seem to pull together the strands as well as I would have liked, it did pose some interesting questions regarding school improvement with learning at its heart. The first part, ‘enhancing learning from the inside’ was, for me, the best, dealing as it did with the ways in which teachers, pupils and all those involved in the running of schools might develop and facilitate a learning agenda. The second part however was less enjoyable, written it seemed for LEA inspectors or indeed school governors. Whilst it is the case that both groups need to engage with the debates in this book, I am unsure that it fitted as part of a final, concluding chapter.

Overall though, I have a larger concern. Although it purports to focus on time, I question whether that is truly at the heart of this text; for me it seemed somewhat of an addendum to each chapter. To finish on a negative note would be unfair however, for this is an interesting book that has a great deal to offer. Notwithstanding my personal criticisms, it is clearly timely and certainly readable and should assist in the development of those entering training and those new to the profession. Whether it is of interest to those with experience or indeed whether it becomes seen as an important contribution to the debate about policy and its effects on learning remains to be seen. Certainly it has the potential to inform but I question whether it is sufficiently critical; this is a question others probably will want to answer though.

  • Jeffrey, B. (2002) Performativity and primary teacher relations, Journal of Education Policy, 17(5), 531-546
  • Jeffrey, B. and Woods, P. (1998) Testing teachers: the effects of school inspections on primary teachers, London: Falmer Press
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press
  • Macmurray, J (1968) Lectures/Papers on Education; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Gen 2162/2
  • Macmurray, J (1991) Persons in Relation [Volume 2 of The Form of the Personal]: Introduction by Frank G Kirkpatrick; London: Faber
  • Pollard, A. & Triggs, P. with Broadfoot, P., McNess, E. & Osborn, M. (2000) What pupils say: changing policy and practice in primary education, London: Continuum
  • Smith, A. (1996) Accelerated learning in the classroom. Stafford: Network Educational Press
  • Smith, A. (1998) Accelerated learning in practice: brain-based methods for accelerating motivation and achievement. Stafford: Network Educational Press
  • White, J. (1998) Do Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences add up? London: Institute of Education, University of London