Book Review: New Perspectives in Primary Education: Meaning and Purpose in Learning and Teaching, by Susan Cox
Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2011. Pp. 206. Pb. £22.99.
Reviewed by Jean Conteh
Both the foreword and the blurb on the back cover suggest that this book is ‘timely’. Both also emphasise Sue Cox’s key purpose which, in the words of one, is to ‘empower primary teachers’ and of the other to ‘promote professional autonomy over pedagogy’. Interestingly, the writer of the foreword states his role as ‘HMI (ret)’ and that of the back-cover blurb as ‘Emeritus Professor of Education’. This reinforces my feeling that this book has perhaps missed its time and could best be regarded as a historical document, recording hopes and dreams that now – in February 2015 – echo from a fast-fading golden age (albeit a very recent one) in primary education. It is unfortunate in some ways that the book was published in 2011, just as the Coalition were settling into their seats for their five-year white-knuckle ride through the social fabric of England, the outcomes of which for education we are now all too aware. But Cox clearly holds the deeply heartfelt desire to empower primary teachers to ‘lead transformation in learning and teaching’ (p. 1) in their classrooms, and it could be argued that her goal transcends time in that it is (almost) universally recognised as positive and desirable. In the introduction, she outlines the ways in which policies introduced by Labour between 1997 and 2010 began to lift the ‘burdens of prescription’ and offer greater freedom to teachers. Her hope that this trend would continue is fed by the 2010 White Paper, but it now seems rather fond and futile, at least from where I have been positioned for the past five years – as an increasingly frustrated and now reluctantly former initial teacher educator in a university School of Education, definitely part of Gove’s reviled ‘blob’.
Despite this, there is much in this book of value to primary teachers. But it is not altogether easy to see how they might access it. From my recent experience of ITE courses, it would be difficult to find a place for a book such as this, which attempts – and succeeds in many ways – to provide a philosophically reasoned and value-informed justification for a socioculturally-orientated primary pedagogy that promotes teacher empowerment and transformation, and of its implications for their relationships with their pupils. The chapter overviews and ‘issues for teachers’ boxes that frame each chapter offer guidance to teachers in navigating the book’s content and reflecting on their professional roles. After the introduction, which raises the very broad issues to be covered in the book, the eight chapters provide a great wealth of material, falling into three sections: Chapters One and Two develop the theoretically-informed model of teaching and learning that underpins the book and outline the risks to it in its current political and ideological contexts; Chapters Three to Six, which form the main body of the book, illustrate how change can be promoted in primary classrooms through constructing interaction that develops ‘communities of learning’, leading to empowerment for both teachers and learners. Finally, Chapters Seven and Eight consider the curriculum and assessment, the two aspects most at the mercy of the politicians.
Chapter One maps out the well-known social constructivist models that foreground the importance of language and interaction. While familiar territory for many, this chapter is well written and, through its reference to philosophy, it clarifies some of the Plowden-inspired confusions about ‘learning by experience’ and the like that can make pedagogy such an ideological battlefield. The following chapter offers a critical consideration of the political and philosophical contexts in which education in England is situated; the market-driven ethos in which an outcomes-led curriculum is judged by performance-driven testing regimes, pointing out the implications for the relationships between teachers and pupils. Cox effectively illustrates the limitations of this approach with several pertinent and fine-gained examples, such as that on page 44 of the life cycle of a frog, raising the question of what understandings children may actually have that remain hidden behind their assessed ‘performance’. This leads to the articulation of two of the central concerns of the book: the importance of processes as well as outcomes, and of valuing children. Cox argues passionately that the heavy ‘focus on the end result seems to devalue children themselves’ marginalising their well-being as the ‘school pursues its goals of success and survival in the marketplace’ (p. 47).
As an alternative to this, Chapters Three to Six make a convincing case for the idea of primary classrooms as ‘communities of learning’ that value the participation of both teachers and learners without the coercive effects of power. As part of this, Cox re-interprets Vygotsky’s ZPD which – as she rightly surmises – is one theoretical construct that is familiar to many teachers, arguing that it is often translated into practice in a diluted form that reduces its potential for learning and for contributing to the communities of learning that she is advocating. Chapters Four and Five then provide a full account of the nature of classroom interaction that underpins this model of learning, stressing the importance of children’s voices and contrasting it with the kinds of communicative practices that prevail in the current performance-driven system. In the course of this, she flies the flag for the well-known gurus of ‘exploratory talk’ such as Douglas Barnes and Neil Mercer and critiques the current impoverished, mainstream interpretations of Alexander’s model of ‘dialogic teaching’ with some interesting examples drawn from her own research. These could perhaps have been afforded greater space in the book, especially with its intended audience in mind.
Finally, Chapter Six concludes this main section of the book by mapping out the kinds of ‘communities for learning’ that could lead to the participative learning that Cox advocates. She emphasises the need to understand and value children’s out-of-school learning experiences, suggesting that early years settings, though increasingly at risk, may offer some of the best models of continuity between home and school. Here she raises a paradox: teachers do seem to recognise the importance of participation in the ways in which it is developed in the book, but do not practise it in their own classrooms. This is nothing new; contradictions of this type appear in research in many aspects of primary education. In my own field of language diversity and EAL, for example, we see how teachers often speak in genuinely positive terms about their pupils, valuing and celebrating their cultural diversity, but then construct their bilingualism as a ‘problem’ that needs to be overcome (e.g. Conteh, 2003, pp. 102-106). One of the reasons for this is clearly the persistence of the ‘deficit view’ of diversity, which Cox goes on to identify (pp. 126-127).
By this point in the book I was beginning to suspect that an opportunity was being missed, and I finally came to understand what it was. It related to the way that the realities of social and cultural diversity were being addressed – or, more correctly, not addressed – in the book. Despite the strong arguments developed from the introduction onwards for understanding teaching and learning in context and for the need to consider how teachers ‘are involved in the changes that take place in children’s lives’ (p. 1), nowhere does Cox address the vital point, with its profound implications for classroom ‘communities for learning’, that we live in a rapidly-changing and increasingly diverse and complex society. Social change over the past ten years or so has been huge, not just in terms of ethnicity but also socio-economic class, with implications for social roles and family relationships – as true, surely, in Norfolk as it is in West Yorkshire. Moreover, Coalition responses to diversity are having profound effects on education, for example with the incorporation of ‘British values’ into the teachers’ standards. When I reached page 127 and read Cox’s very reductive discussion of the concept of ‘funds of knowledge’ I saw this as a yawning gap in the book, and one which could have been addressed through reference to the rich literature about this area (e.g. Gonzalez et al., 2005).
And so we reach the final two chapters, which address in turn the curriculum and assessment – perhaps the two biggest elephants in the primary classroom. Cox develops a rich discussion about the potential of the curriculum, defined as ‘the practices through which knowledge is generated’ (p. 137), to become a tool for transformative learning. She raises many interesting points such as the ways in which children can be inducted through participation into the discourses of particular academic subjects, which could provide food for thought for primary teachers who have the time to think. But she does not address what might be thought of as the bulk of the elephant – the ways in which prescriptive models of literacy and numeracy still fill much of the available space, not just in terms of the curriculum but also of assessment. Here, again, the problematic issue of the timing of the book becomes apparent. The coverage of Assessment for Learning feels rather dated, and the Coalition’s changes to the SATs are, of course, not taken into account. While I fully sympathise with Cox’s desire for primary classrooms where – as her final sentence puts it – children can ‘make up their story of what they learn and how they are’ (p. 186), regretfully, at this point in time, I cannot share her hopeful vision for the future of primary education.
Conteh, J. (2003) Succeeding in Diversity: Culture, Language and Learning in Primary Classrooms. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.
Gonzalez, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (eds.) (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities and classrooms. New York: Routledge.
Correspondence: Jean Conteh, School of Education, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT