________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 31. . . .April 12, 2013


Back to Learning: How Research-based Classroom Instruction Can Make the Impossible Possible.

Les Parsons.
Markham, ON: Pembroke, 2012.
96 pp., trade pbk., $24.95.
ISBN 978-1-55138-281-4.

Subject Headings:
Effective teaching.
Classroom management.

K-12 Administrator and Teacher Resource.

Review by Betty Klassen.

** /4



Far from being assured in and empowered by their own expertise and driven by professional commitment, many teachers feel confused, frustrated, and disenfranchised in the current educational climate. The research-based practice they encounter in their training is immediately subsumed by the realities of the work-place. What, when, and how they teach, and with what materials, are usually prescribed. How they evaluate learning and report to parents is also prescribed. Teachers quickly learn to do as they are told and to teach in the manner of their immediate peers.

Dramatic and permanent change in any of these issues seems unattainable. But teachers can alleviate the almost unbearable pressures of doing whatís necessary by doing whatís possible. A return to research-based practice will allow teachers to fulfil their necessary duties and, at the same time, regain their status as professionals. They need to base whatever they do in their classrooms on the best ways to teach and the most effective ways to learn. Empowered by knowledge, they can help shape a new direction and mandate for our schools.


In writing Back to Learning, Les Parsons provides a critique of our current education systems focusing on the unrealistic demands placed on classroom teachers, bullying, the digital universe and why change is difficult.

      The book is divided into four chapters with a detailed table of contents, a short introduction, four blackline masters, a glossary, bibliography and index. Four "Myth or Research" questionnaires effectively engage readers and focus their reading to find information on questions they answered incorrectly. Sections in the chapters address each one of the questions.

     Chapter 1: Doing Whatís Possible opens with a discussion about the effect a "false sense of entitlement" and praise has on students, parents and teachers. Parsons advocates instead for honesty and praising studentsí effort but not their intelligence. Other topics raised in this chapter include differentiating instruction, teaching to gender, brain research, age variation within one grade, split grade classrooms, activity based lessons with flexible groups, learning and language with an effective reading program, cooperative learning, standardized testing, the failure of sanctions and incentives and finally getting back to good programs.

      This is an ambitious list of topics to address within 27 pages, and, as a result, there is a tendency to generalize, to refer to one or two examples, and to mention but not elaborate on the research cited. The audience for this book is North American educators who will find references to studies and statistics for American and Canadian schools. Two generalizations that may be true of some North American schools are: "our current focus is on everyone learning the same thing at the same time, in the same way, and being judged by the same tests," (p. 12) and "another reason for the failure to implement cooperative learning is the confusion created by various formal programs" (p. 19). This reviewer regularly visits some schools in Manitoba and finds these statements do not reflect the practice of many teachers.

      Chapter 2: Solving the Bullying Puzzle includes anonymous bullying assessment questionnaires for junior, intermediate and adults to be administered before creating school specific anti-bullying programs to determine what kind of bullying is going on, where and how often it is occurring. A comprehensive and on-going plan requires actions beyond the initial September classroom agreements and poster creation common in many schools. Parsons states that few schools have taken the step of having all the adults in a school, from the principal to the janitors, complete the survey (p 35). A "whole school" approach may be what has been missing in our attempts to deal with bullying; perhaps what is needed is a "whole community" approach, adding parents and school bus drivers to the list. Recognition is also given to the fact that everyone is susceptible to bullying, including teachers and parents. This chapter recommends viable first steps towards addressing this crucial component in making our schools physically and emotionally safe places for everyone who walks their halls.

      Chapter 3: Literacy in the Digital Universe calls into question the benefits of computer technology in many areas of life, raising concerns that we are sacrificing creative and critical thinking, movement, human interaction, and attention spans for "drown[ing] in a sea of indecipherable data" (p. 55). Parsons main point in this chapter is that we need to be more strategic in our use of computers in schools and ensure that we focus on what they canít do and on what they donít do well and ensure that teachers are equipping students with skills they need in their actual and virtual lives.

      The final chapter, "Tackling Whatís Impossible", opens with a comparison to the education system in Finland and challenges teachers and administrators to encourage personal responses, to learn from reflection, be mindful of the shrinking curriculum that results from teaching to the test, to revitalize our values in our hypocritical world, not confuse "open education" with "open classrooms," and to get back to learning. His discussion of "getting back to learning" looks back at the high aims of educators in the 60s and 70s that were never met and points out that transformative change can happen from the ground up when teachers are allowed to act as professionals.

      Teachers, as professionals, work to overcome all obstacles to ensure that three "Laws of Teaching" apply to all teacher actions. These three laws are to keep students physically and emotionally safe, to offer students interesting and stimulating learning activities, and to keep students feeling good about how theyíre learning. These laws are referred to in every chapter.

      Back to Learning: How Research-based Classroom Instruction Can Make the Impossible Possible is an ambitious book that doesnít quite live up to its title. While there are numerous references to books and a few academic journals, there is no explanation or critical analysis of any specific research. References cited are chosen to support Parsonsí opinions, and often only one source is cited. In the interests of keeping the book relatively short, a section listing additional references for further reading would strengthen the research base. For example, in the sections " "Back to the Future: Rerouting Reading" and "Forward to the Past: Reflecting on Writing", there is an unreferenced quote attributed to Richard Allington and one reference to a book on response journals which Parsons, himself, wrote in 2001. (See Response Journals Revisited.) Some examination of the latest volume of the Handbook on Reading Research could assist the book in living up to its title.

      These observations are not meant to discredit the many valuable and important ideas brought forward in this book. Parsons brings the insight of 30 years of teaching and much related experience to his writing. In concert with, or in juxtaposition to, additional readings, this book could be the impetus for meaningful school staff professional development discussions, about what constitutes a "good program" that benefits all students, whether they are designated as special needs, English language learners, gifted, or one of the range of students found at, below, or above grade level in every classroom.

Recommended with reservations.

Betty Klassen teaches in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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