Review by Terry Freedman

Education writer and former head of computing

22 Sep 2019, 5:00


Book review: Practical Pedagogy. 40 new ways to teach and learn.

By Mike Sharples



As we near the end of the first two decades of the 21st century, one can’t help but reflect that this is a fascinating period to be in education. Our practices are defined by change and uncertainty, but also by tension between old and new, experimental and tried-and-tested.

Are new technologies useful or merely a distraction? How do we give pupils the skills they need to navigate the world when they leave school when we’re not sure what that world will be like? What is the proper place for evidence-informed education and educational research? How do we respond to the Department for Education’s continuing interest in “innovation” and Ofsted’s new spotlight on curriculum?

If ever there was a time conducive to experimentation, that time is surely now. The question is: where to start? Practical Pedagogy: 40 new ways to teach and learn, based on the annual Innovating Pedagogy reports from the Open University, provides just the right place.

This is a highly structured book – as a whole and at chapter level – organised into six themes: personalisation, connectivity, reflection, extension, embodiment and scale. Each chapter is short, typically around four or five pages, and comprises an overview of the subject, discussion of the principles, how the pedagogy under scrutiny has been applied in practice, conclusions, and further reading and resources.

If ever there was a time to experiment, that time is now.

Some of the topics will be familiar to many teachers, such as assessment for learning, learning by explaining what you’ve been taught, and learning from animations. Others, however, may surprise you. There are those, such as reputation management and the use of fitness trackers, that originate from outside education. Others simply don’t tend to be discussed in popular articles. Examples of these include translanguaging, rhizomatic learning and spaced learning (not to be confused with spaced practice).

Practical Pedagogy can be read through from beginning to end, providing a comprehensive survey of the range of pedagogies that have been tried and researched. It can also be read by theme as a primer to the teaching strategies under that umbrella. Like so many education books, it also very much lends itself to “dipping into” for stimulating reflection and inspiration. (You could be forgiven for concluding that publishers think teachers and school leaders are busy people.)

To get the best out of it, my recommendation is to map out a series of chapters that, although placed within different themes, have or could have some connection with each other, like bricolage, enquiry-based learning and learning by making.

For school and subject leaders looking to familiarise themselves with interesting educational research and/or to inject something different in their schools and classrooms, Practical Pedagogy is a good choice. It covers the ideas succinctly, while the lists of resources and a comprehensive index provide a road map to further exploration.

However, in some respects that very succinctness is a disadvantage, and the book lacks in critical evaluation. The tool for the automatic analysis of lexical sophistication (TAALES) is mentioned, for example, as a way of assessing academic writing and improving essay-writing skills. TAALES is a word-analysis application that seems to be based on the notion that less frequently used words are more academic than everyday words. But is it commendable or educationally desirable to use difficult words when simpler ones would do? And as for essay-writing skills, which ones?

Some topics will be familiar. Others may surprise you.

Elsewhere, mention is made of software that detects whether or not a pupil is paying attention. Given the controversy around recent product launches, critique of this idea doesn’t seem too hard to fathom.

There are also curious omissions. Gaming, maker culture and bricolage are covered, yet not explicitly linked, although they certainly are. The chapter on adaptive teaching fails to mention integrated learning systems, and the chapter on stealth assessment makes no mention of the work of the now- departed Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Nevertheless, the book provides a useful primer for a raft of pedagogical practices, and as a resource for discovering new ideas to try (or avoid, as appropriate), it deserves a place on any leader’s bookshelf.

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