Re-thinking Active Learning 8-16
Norman Beswick 1987
London: Falmer Press
144pp., paperback £6.75 ISBN 1-85000-160-X.
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 1988
I have to admit that, when I first saw the title of Norman Beswick's book, I imagined it would prove to be a revisiting of some fairly uninteresting (probably American) educational fad of yesteryear.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a book about learning per se, though learning in the context of today's rapidly widening use of information systems. What it has to say about learning is not new, but here it is stated in a refreshingly vital and clear way (I commend it particularly to Mr Baker). What it has to say about the use of information technologies may be new - I am not sufficiently expert on the subject to know, though I can appreciate the good sense of what it says.
The book provides ample evidence of Beswick's wide experience in education, for, while it is firmly based on sound educational philosophy, it speaks clearly to those of us 'at the chalk face'. The author first surveys some of the developments in information technology relevant to education but suggests that predicting the future is much less easy than some have imagined. One of his key points is that 'What we know about learning theory is less secure than we would like, but it is not suddenly invalidated by the coming of the microchip' (p.15-16). He goes on to suggest that the ways in which computers are used in schools today - mainly for drill and programmed learning functions - are 'relatively pedestrian' and that 'prophecies of their widespread adoption seem unrealistic' (p.32). We should see the computer as an interactive 'tool for the learner' rather than as a 'teaching aid' (p.32).
I found Chapter 3 the most thought-provoking and useful in the book (but then, remember, I'm not a computer expert). It concerns the use of project work in schools and, in my opinion, it should be compulsory reading for all teachers working in this way. In it, Beswick discusses the aims and objectives of project work, the 'discovery' method, teacher preparation, the use of computers, the question of participation ('the use of knowing' - the key to the whole book) and assessment. In just over twenty pages, Norman Beswick presents an incredibly clear and sound rationale for the project method. The book is worth having for this chapter alone. He goes on to consider literacy, or rather, literacies, for here he discusses three: reading, computer literacy and media literacy. He disagrees strongly with those who suggest that the new technologies will render the book obsolete, and stresses the importance of children reading at length and in depth.
He then presents a view of a possible school of the future, in which computers are just one part of 'the school as a library' (p.92). He identifies a number of problems relating to the increasing pace of technological change, not the least of which are cost and teacher stress.
The final chapter considers the next steps we should be taking in relation to the primary school, the secondary school, the school management team, local authorities, professional training and national initiatives.
Beswick concludes by quoting from a number of educational writers and reports. For example, from Case and Parsons:
Adaptation to such a fast changing culture requires not facts and findings, but procedures and process, not organisational data but organisational skills, not storage but processing' (p.138).The 'use of knowing' (p.114) is what it is all about.
I warmly commend this very readable book both to computer buffs for what it says about learning, and to computer-illiterate teachers like myself for its ability to broaden our horizons.
This review was first published in Forum 30(3) Summer 1988 94-95.