Review by Sonia Thompson

Headteacher, St Matthew’s C of E Primary School

21 Jan 2024, 5:00


The Review: Initium by Emma Turner

By Emma Turner


John Catt




29 Sep 2023

At St Matthew’s, we strive to be suited, booted and rooted in all things, ‘science of learning’. As a research school, evidence-informed practice is the way we support educators to realise the EEF mission – to break the link between income and attainment. So I was excited to read Emma Turner’s latest book. The roll call of experts offering praise for Initum is a veritable who’s who, which itself says a lot about its credentials.

Initium is the third book in Turner’s series focused on the primary curriculum. I loved the other two (Simplicitus and Simplictus Altium) and it felt to me as if she had covered all the key principle of primary curriculum design. So it was interesting to see her tackle one of the most under-researched yet currently most influential areas for primary leaders: cognitive science.

And tackle it she does! Turner is a seasoned primary practitioner and within each chapter there is a real sense that the work has been done and the questions have been asked. What emerges is a concise compendium of cognitive science as it applies specifically (but not exclusively) to primary schools.

In many ways, little in this book is new. If you have read any cognitive science-themed book or been to a ResearchEd conference, you will have read/heard much of the content. However, this is not cog-sci lite! What makes Initium stand out is its absolute laser focus on the nuances of the principles of cognitive sciences as they apply to younger students. Turner eloquently exposes the unique principles and practices required to deploy these techniques with children whose brains are still developing.

From the start, Turner articulates the powerful possibilities that knowing more about ‘the wonders of science’ offers to educators. From the preface onwards, the book is permeated with a sense of purpose and ‘privilege’ involved in growing our ‘understanding of the learning business for younger children’.

Turner begins by locating Geary’s ‘biologically primary and secondary knowledge’ at the heart of the practice for primary provision. She lays out the points and then asks the reader to consider their own settings and edicts, in light of the evidence, particularly for their youngest learners. As she states, ‘understanding this knowledge is fundamental to understanding cognitive load’.

The book is permeated with a sense of purpose and ‘privilege’

The subsequent chapters – inevitably laced with Latin – lay out cognitive concepts and interprets them in light of what we know about a child’s brain. Turner uses each concept to cement her certainty that the uniqueness of primary can and must be preserved, no matter what.

Nowhere is this clearer that in Chapter 10, ‘Play, playfulness and primary pedagogy’. The science of play in unpicked and positioned as absolutely necessary ‘to develop the cognitive, we must therefore be cognisant and conversant in how to harness the power of play and playful pedagogy’. It is a thought-provoking read for any knowledge-rich die-hard.

Make no mistake,  there is no compromise on the fiercely primary-centred thread that runs through Turners’ trilogy of books. It is summed up in her section on ‘Task Design and Assessment’: “When we plan progression models for subjects with a similar fidelity and singular level of detail to those of a secondary subject department we can run the risk of fragmenting the beauty of the interconnected primary offer.”

To this end, Turner extends her celebration of primary practice in her conclusion. She begins by writing that ‘Teaching is legacy. Legacy is therefore duty… what we ensure is not forgotten will help shape the world…’.

She goes on to consider the position of education in some children’s lives. She challenges the reader to consider their part in the ‘legacy and beyond’. Will it be merely to ‘sculpt a brain’, or will it be to play a part in the ‘celebration of craftsmanship, human endeavour and beauty’ that research-informed approaches affords us, within the backdrop of the unique primary preserve we inhabit?

After reading Initium, I am certain that I and many others will continue to work on our evidence-informed ‘legacy and beyond’ with a newly re-focused ‘primary-rich’ lens.

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