Category Archives: education

Bird Brains

In his huge, extraordinary book The Master and His Emissary Iain McGilchrist writes this:

“If you are a bird…you solve the conundrum of how to eat and stay alive by employing different strategies with either eye: the right eye for getting and feeding , the left eye for vigilant awareness of the environment. More generally , chicks prioritise local information with the right eye and global information with the left eye.”

Information from the right eye is relayed to the left brain, and the left eye to the right.  The left brain is responsible for focused attention, and the left brain for more or less everything else but particularly, vigilance.

The more focused your attention, almost by definition, the more likely you are able to ignore the world around you.

In Syracuse in 212BCE Archimedes, concentrating on the geometry of conic sections, failed to hear the approach of Roman soldiers, who killed him moments later. Concentration can block the world out. Focused thinking, particularly when we’re trying to solve a problem, obliterates everything else.

Intelligence is a measure of focused thinking. The testing and examination regime of the English and Welsh education systems rewards the focused thinker at the expense of the mind that is more open, less able to follow a line of thinking, more likely to wander off into a daydream. Yet the daydreamers are often the creative thinkers, the ones who need time, not pressure, to succeed.

Liam Hudson, writing in 1966, grasped this in his book Contrary Imaginations. He developed a series of tests to show that the focused thinker, (he used the term convergent thinker) although able to solve mathematical and closed problems, was not so able to find creative solutions. Very often, the vigilant thinker (Hudson calls these divergent) those whose brains, for whatever reason, are more likely to wander, can provide endless solutions when the focused thinker, the one on the hunt, can find very few.  The convergent thinker, says Hudson, tends towards maths and sciences, the divergent towards the arts.

Guy Claxton, in his 1998 book Hare Brain Turtle Mind suggests that the regimented learning model of recent times prevents the unconscious mind from finding answers. Creativity is blocked.  And as Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary elucidates, what is at stake is of paramount importance.

In the test driven school system, the focused thinker is the winner. In turn, these students achieve results, gain university places, the higher paid jobs.  Think of the terms ‘target’ ‘aim’ objective’ – which mode of thinking do these suggest? It’s obvious. The education system has built in prejudice.

It follows that positions of authority and power are often filled by the focused, convergent, target driven thinker, who assumes that the way he or she learnt must be the only way, and so the process is continued.

Meanwhile, the creative thinkers, the vigilant, divergent daydreamers and creators, are squashed, their talents exiled to the remote and undervalued regions of the education system. It’s a waste, and it’s damaging, and as I hope to explore in a later blog, one contribution to the growing epidemic of mental illness.

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Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult

A recent Radio 4 programme ( ‘Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult’ ) looked at a study conducted in the USA that suggests acute childhood experiences (ACEs) are a major cause of serious illness in later life.  The criteria for what constitutes an ‘acute childhood experience’ are listed here  – but briefly it means abuse and neglect.  The study showed that 50% of 69 year olds with no ACEs are free from serious disease. Of those with 4 or more ACEs only 20% are without serious disease.

This is fascinating enough. And also deeply worrying. Childhood poverty is increasing dramatically in the UK, and whilst we can’t assume that poverty causes abuse and neglect, only an idiot would imagine it plays no part.

But what the programme revealed next was even more incredible.  When the data was explored in more detail the researchers were astonished to discover that the very act of completing the ACE questionnaire reduced a subject’s likelihood of visiting a doctor the following year by a dramatic 35%.

The study suggests the importance of early intervention.  Even the most hard headed capitalist can see how early intervention will reduce costs to the health service in later years. But even more significantly the study suggests that exploring early childhood experiences with adults will decrease their need to see their doctor at all.

Stress makes us ill and for some of us talking about our lives helps us heal. How long will it take for these messages to reach the policy makers?

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Hare Brain, Turtle Mind

Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Turtle Mind revolutionised the way I saw the world. I was a primary school teacher when I read it and everything he wrote in that book made sense. Certainly it made much more sense than the rubbish I was bombarded with from successive education ministers.  Claxton’s essential message is this: that the mind is more absorbent, more elastic when it is not stressed, tested, questioned, or rebuked. We don’t know what we know. That by being relaxed and not uptight we can access knowledge denied to us when agitated.

Since the book was published education policy has moved in completely the opposite direction than Claxton advocates. Testing children has become the most important weapon in the English and Welsh education armoury.  And if a subject cannot be easily tested, then it is considered, almost by definition, peripheral. Meanwhile those children who are good at tests continue to do well, those that have strengths that are maybe not so easily testable, fail.

When the tests are reported to parents, used as a means to assess schools and teachers, then the pressure exerted makes it almost impossible for pupils to learn in the manner Caxton advocates.

And those children who are good at tests go on to become the bureaucrats of the future and uphold the regime in which they have succeeded. Often these very same people are the least able to consider any other means of running an education system.

Claxton’s book led me to other writers who have explored a similar theme. There are many of them whose books are read by teachers and parents and whose message brings hope.  There’s Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings , David Eagleman’s  Incognito, Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These are all significant people whose books are a summary of a life’s work. But do minister’s take notice? Nope.

Despite the growing evidence to suggest that education policy is utterly misguided, the same philosophy of education predominates. As I write the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is embarking on introducing tests in Scottish primary schools. Even in Scotland, a country the ONS describes as the best educated in Europe, the government is concerned over international comparisons. In Wales, the former education minister, Leighton Andrews, staked his reputation on reforms (largely based on a dreary an unimaginative diet of testing and comparisons) but then resigned on a trumped up unrelated matter ‘of principle’ before he could be held to account when those same reforms failed to work.

International comparisons (for example the PISA tests) put pressure on administrations. Ministers don’t want to be seen to fail. They want to maintain their lucrative positions and their power. They panic. The panic is contagious. Schools are inundated with new policies, new curricula, new tests. Heads panic. Teachers get stressed and panic. Pupils get stressed and panic.  And this, according to Claxton is the perfect recipe for failure.

The system itself is failing.  There are those students for whom the testing system works. But for many, and these are often the creative thinkers, the dreamers, the innovators, it is not just failing them, it is actively undermining them. Claxton’s book, and the message it carries, should be read by everyone with a stake in the future.

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Extreme Babbulary

Wednesday June 10th: I presented a series of eight workshops at St Thomas Cantilupe School in Hereford.  Eight Babbulary workshops, one after another. It was a challenge, and one that I accepted in order to determine whether the core content of the workshop could extend across the primary age range. The answer is that, with a few tweaks, it can. The nursery pupils laughed at the silly sound effects and slapstick mime, but bobbed about to the rhythm and syllable sequences and were genuinely very nice to me. Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, the Year 6 pupils were almost as keen to submit to the nonsense, and once they realised this was a joint exploration, were quite gleeful. They were happy to launch the Pencil of Destiny into the Balloon of Nastybad, and restore peace. They seemed fascinated by the presentation I gave on my favourite words – for example, the word turkey (the animal) is dinde (of India) in French, and simply peru in Portuguese. Perhaps the pupils in the middle, the seven and eight year olds, were the most reluctant to accept the lunacy of the enterprise, one child declaring, right at the end of the day ‘what was that all about?’ A question I took as the highest compliment.  I’ve always thought experience is the best means of learning anything, (how do we learn to talk?)  so I want the workshops to be sensory as well as conceptually challenging. I don’t tell the children what it is they are going to learn because each will take away something different, or, in the case of the child who asked the question at the end, go away wondering what it was all about.

There was one major flaw in the proceedings, however, and that was my tendency, later in the day, to confuse one workshop with the next (they were in thirty minute slots, one after another) so I often forgot to include something because, mistakenly, I thought we’d just done it. (Not realising it was covered in the previous workshop!) It got very hairy towards the last two sessions, when my head was beginning to spin, and the children (having spent the day in other workshops) were spinning too.

But a hugely positive experience, and wonderful, lively, interesting children.

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Subliminal

Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal details research that demonstrates how susceptible we are to unconscious messages. Perhaps the most astonishing example he gives is of the power teachers’ expectation: when a teacher is told a certain group of average pupils are brilliant, after eight months 80% of these pupils show an increase of 10 IQ points, with 20% of this group gaining an incredible 30 or more IQ points.  Therefore labelling pupils as gifted is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When we consider how, in Wales, for example, the education minister has decided that all pupils from Y2 onwards will sit literacy and numeracy tests, the results of which will be reported to parents, it is likely that many low achieving pupils will stagnate, as their disappointed mums or dads confirm to their children that they are not that clever after all.  Furthermore, after reading G for Genes (see review) I am convinced that reporting test scores to parents on such a narrow range of accomplishments (ie literacy and numeracy) rather than emphasizing a child’s potential, is extremely destructive.

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G is for Genes

G is for Genes, by Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin, makes a very strong case for something most teachers, and probably many parents, know already. Children are not blank slates.  Young people inherit as much as 60 – 70% of their aptitude for maths, for example.  Asbury and Plomin’s book makes a nonsense of successive education ministers’ attempts to expect state schools to compete with public schools when the latter are able to select pupils by ability.  Furthermore some pupils achieve despite attending a poor school, and some will never achieve even if with the very best teaching.  So what is the answer? A more diverse curriculum, one that does not expect the same from every pupil.

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