What Makes a Good Primary School Teacher? Expert Classroom Strategies – GIPPS et al (CSS)

GIPPS, Caroline; McCALLUM, Bet; HARGREAVES, Eleanore. What Makes a Good Primary School Teacher? Expert Classroom Strategies. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2000. 178p. Resenha de: Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.2, 2003.

To turn a research report into a good read, was the challenge taken up by the three British authors of the book, What Makes a Good Primary School Teacher?. By painstakingly examining the teaching practices of nearly two dozen expert elementary educators of Year 2 and Year 6 students, and combining numerous classroom observations with interviews and activities that probed these teachers’ value commitments and philosophical positions, Gipps, McCallum and Hargreaves have provided an insightful set of answers to their guiding question.

We all know that teaching is a highly complex enterprise. Most often, experienced teachers are less able to articulate what they know and to explain what they do than novice and preservice teachers would like (and need) to hear. Planning, strategizing, presenting, explaining, questioning, reinforcing, reviewing and assessing are all instructionally related activities that look seamless, natural, and sometimes nearly effortless in the hands of experienced teachers. Yet these activities form successful practice only to the extent that they are built on solid foundations of content and pedagogical knowledge, ethical principles related to the treatment of others who are under one’s guidance, and commitments to careful observation, clear communication, and continual reflection. The book, What Makes a Good Primary School Teacher?, takes what are often implicit foundations and makes them explicit and therefore examinable. This is the book’s strength as a teaching tool and the main reason I would recommend it to teacher educators at the elementary level, with two cautions that I will mention shortly.

The book is divided into seven parts that focus on various aspects of teaching from planning through evaluation. Classroom vignettes are freshly presented and at the same time represent instantly recognizable events and familiar conversations. Analysis and commentary follow each scenario. The researchers identify popular lesson patterns, highlight successful teacher-student interactions, and describe in vivid detail the ways in which these expert teachers communicate their expectations, respond to individual needs, and keep lessons dynamic and purposeful. One of the potentially useful sections for aspiring teachers concerns formative assessments, those minute-by-minute on the ground judgments, that teachers continually need to make about students’ progress and understandings.

In the main, the book serves as a good example of the role that responsible educational research can play in improving practice. The British educational philosopher, John Chambers, has repeatedly called for just this kind of close and fine-grained study of actual classrooms and teachers in order to make sense of our educational ideals and the realization of them in particular contexts. But here is where my two cautions come in. The first relates to something I wanted to see and did not, and that is an adequate and fully developed synthesis of the many findings; a synthesis that goes beyond commonplace truisms about learners and subject matter. The research itself revealed more nuanced and subtle discoveries than those that are brought together in the final chapter. The second thing I missed was a humble acknowledgement of the limitations of this sort of research into teaching. As painstaking as the researchers’ efforts were to dissect and examine aspects of practice, there is an element of magic and mystery in the best teacher-student relationships, an ineffable quality referred to by writers as diverse as Martin Buber and Maxine Greene. Though teachers’ intentions and motivating reasons for action can and should be probed, in the final analysis the practice of a truly inspiring teacher is even more than the sum of its parts.

Linda Farr Darling – Department of Curriculum Studies. University of British Columbia. Vancouver, British Columbia.

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