Classroom 'chaos' leaves UK pupils trailing

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The Independent Online
JUDITH JUDD

Education Editor

British teaching methods are too complicated and there is not enough whole-class teaching, an important international study shows.

A paper on the study of nine countries suggests that teaching methods are one of the main reasons why British pupils lag behind some of their overseas counterparts. They can cause "educational chaos" with teachers switching constantly from group work to whole-class teaching and from mixed-ability groups to set ability. Too much teachers' time is spent coping with groups of different abilities.

The research will give fresh impetus to growing demands from both school inspectors and traditionalists for teachers to spend more time teaching the whole class and less devoted to small groups. In countries such as Taiwan, teachers spend between 70 and 80 per cent of the time teaching the whole class. In Britain whole-class teaching takes up between 25 and 30 per cent of the time.

The International School Effectiveness Research Project shows that eight-year-olds in the Pacific Rim countries far outstrip their counterparts in Britain and other Western countries in maths.

Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, one of the study's architects and author of the paper, said: "None of the other countries in the study spends as much time teaching children in groups as we do. We are not talking about didactic whole-class instruction in countries such as Taiwan, but about high-quality interaction between teacher and pupils during whole-class teaching." Prof Reynolds says the complex techniques used in British classrooms can only be used by the best teachers; in the hands of the weakest they generate "educational chaos".

He argues that the complexity of British and American teaching methods is the outstanding difference between these two countries and the rest. He paints a vivid picture of a British teacher of a class of nine-year- olds who may have reading ages varying from four to 12. Several adults, perhaps parents, are also in the room and the teacher has to manage them as well as the children.

Because much of the work is in groups, which are expected to collaborate, some noise has to be allowed but the teacher must be constantly alert to make sure that it is not too distracting. During a single day, the teacher will switch from whole class teaching to groups based on ability in one subject to a mixed ability group in another subject.

The project researchers also found that the gap between the worst and best schools was wider in Britain than in any other country apart from the United States.

They concluded that English-speaking countries relied on good teachers to prop up a weak system and good schools tended to be those with good head- teachers. In non-English-speaking countries, the system, teaching methods and classroom organisation were so strong that the effect of a weak headteacher was much less important. Prof Reynolds says British educationalists should change their attitudes and accept they can learn from foreign teaching practices.

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