Saturday, 11 October 2014

Multitasking does not schools let us down in conditioning us not to focus?

One of the fashionable elements to productivity (and education) over the past twenty years is the concept of multitasking. Multitasking is the supposed ability to get more than one task done at a time: multitasks bask in a personal glory of how efficient they are.

The problem is that the evidence doesn't stack up.

Sitting in my living room or in the kitchen to do work was one of the most unproductive things I did. I had no focus and am easily distracted by family and phones. It's something I'd been warning my pupils about for years - don't study in the kitchen (or on the kitchen floor next to the Aga, Millie!) or in front of the tv...find somewhere quiet. And there was I struggling to get things done! So I moved offices into a relatively undisturbed environment and, hey, productivity has gone up! Less stress too.

I was guilty of trying to multitask and multitasking simply does not work..

As I wrote in an earlier blog, focus requires effort. Focus implies dealing with one thing at a time - preferably until it is done. Trying to focus on two or more things at once is counterproductive and leaves one stressed and relatively unsuccessful in completing tasks and chores.

Research from Stanford University, USA, backed up sceptics intuition that multitasks were not godlike humans completing several tasks at one. The researchers basically stated that multitaskers are fooling themselves. When working, we concentrate and focus on one thing at at time - when we shift that focus, there is a mental effort required to engage in the new task and its requirements. That can take from a few seconds to a few minutes while the brain literally re-orients itself. Shifting back to the original task, or a third task, has another corresponding hit on the mind's energy patterns.

One quick way I like to show this with pupils is to ask them to draw some mirror images of shapes - curly shapes that require a lot of right brain focus; once they are engaged and zoned in to the spatial reasoning task, I ask them a simple maths question such as 'what is 6x4+5'? Their pencil can feel the shifting brain patterns as they dig around for the maths files, they give you an answer and then return to what they were doing. The disturbance or 'task switching' saps their energy.

John Gatto in his famous Dumbing Down book on American education made a pertinent comment. If his lesson were disturbed by an outsider once, he could handle it, twice, it become more awkward to get back into the flow, three times and he lost the plot. It's about the same for me.

Multitaskers may reply, ah, but I can have a conversation while making a coffee. Sure - making a coffee has been internalised and has become such an ingrained habit as to warrant very little conscious brain power. Try the same in someone else's kitchen and you'd be stumbling for things and words.

The research also led to the banning of mobile phone use in the car in many areas. Texting takes up way too much brain capacity and although 'you can drive' at the same time, your driving skills are as severely impaired as if you were drunk! Hyman et al in 2009 did research on people walking while taking on their mobile and not noticing a clown on a unicycle whizz past. Academic fun...but with a serious twist - what if you were on the phone and you didn't notice that kid on the bike...? Poignant. One thing at a time, my friends!

Schools sometimes run on the idea of multitasking. When children are put at tables with their colleagues to learn, they inevitably have to run a multitasking programme of doing their work, conversing with another pupil, engaging in God knows what psychological games with the others at the table (shall I appear a know it all? shall I appear dumb? perhaps I'll stare at that girl opposite to make her squirm...) The old fashioned one or two joined desks facing the front policy were more conducive to productivity: the children's focus was on the lesson, not on their friends.

I've asked several pupils about how well they can concentrate in local primary schools - not very well, is the anecdotal evidence. Not surprising.

Then school curricula jump around from maths to science to geography to French to ... A mixed curriculum is inevitable in a school since we want to expose the pupils to a broad education, as we don't know a priori  what will fire their minds but the overall effect is akin to having to multitask through the day. Imagine as an adult just getting into the algebra and just about to 'click' and go 'ah-hah!' when someone pulls you away to listen to French - with much disruption in between so you forget everything you've just learned. 'What did you do at school today?' 'Not much...' Well, the kids did, they just can't remember it!

Such conditioning can snow ball into a lack of attention and inability to focus academically. Then the kid goes home and watches TV and if you've ever counted the number of scene changes on the telly, you'll find another reasoning why many people can't focus on a task for too long. Then there are online or video games...same problem!

Now, I'll raise my hand and plead guilty of attempting multitasking - I'm just so damned interested in everything that's going on around me, so I'm building up new habits to drop some tasks I do daily to focus on 'The One Thing' - great book by the way. I work on my weaknesses daily and tell my pupils how distracted I can get with the world's libraries at my finger tips or six different articles to write while trading the stock market and home tutoring. So, guilty .... but I'm doing something about it!

Wow, I've been able to write undisturbed for twenty minutes, but now the phone's ringing and I'm on call, so I'd shift attentional patterns and see who it is. Bye!

Dr Alex Moseley

Monday, 7 July 2014

The benefits of one to one mentoring and tutoring

This is an older post from last year - I'm moving them from my old website over to the Blogger.

What is the difference between going to school and having a private tutor?

It's a bit like going to a gym: if you wander in by yourself you may feel intimidated and either lose heart or fall into classes and do what everyone else is doing... but having someone their to guide you and encourage you, to push you and to lay off when appropriate - that's how we get the best out of learning!

I invest in the services of Guy Baker, PT working from Nottingham (he's also on facebook!). During the sessions, I'm the learner rather than the guide and it's good for a tutor to put him or herself in the learning seat (or on the bench in my case) and feel how tough learning can be! The focus is 100% on what I can do and what I have to potential to do and that's how learning should be!

At the top universities in the world, tutorial time is based on a one-to-one or very small seminars: in our one to one sessions, the pupil is gaining that wonderful focus that is offered in the highest academic places in the world!

The greatest businessmen and women often refer to their mentors - one-to-one tuition in how to proceed and run a business.

No distractions from other people, no mass produced material imposed on the mind - one-to-one offers pure learning at its best.

In a class, the pupil is a fraction (one in twenty, say, but it can be one in thirty) which means the pupil only gets a fraction of the teacher's attention at the best of times.

In a lecture hall - and for several years I was an academic lecturer - the pupil is merely a sound board: the lecturer broadcasts the information with the hope that some of the attendees are paying attention some of the time. It may be a great ego boost for the deliver and there's certainly economies of scale in sharing knowledge with so many people all at one, but it's not an effective way of learning. Most of the audience is not engaged 100% all of the time. Indeed, it is very difficult to pay attention for longer than ten minutes at a time, although we can stay "one the job" by coming in and out of focus regularly.

With one-to-one, our attention is undivided and we can concentrate on what the pupil knows and what he or she needs to learn. From a teaching perspective, one-to-one cannot be beat - whether you're pushing weights, learning dance steps, improving calculus, advancing piano skills, practising comprehension - the intensity is 100%. And when the focus wanes, we can adapt swiftly and either take a break for a few moments or change what is being learned. 

At school - even the best of them - cannot always deal with the individual in the way that personal mentorship can. I've learned so much under Guy's supervision but I've also learned so much with my pupils. I say to ours tutors - don't forget to learn with your pupil. It's a mutual and mutually beneficial process - it's great fun too!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Seasonality and education: why summer holidays should be sacred to our children's development

It's been a while since my last posting - it's been the season of summer term exams and we have worked beyond our normal hours to cater for our students needs: we're alway happy to try and accommodate last minute panickers to ease their worries and provide some useful input but it has been a joy to see our regular pupils take the exams in their stride. Just like running a farm, you can't cram a harvest!

Indeed, like farming, our learning often goes through cycles. Moreover, it is because of farming that our learning is somewhat conditioned to go through cycles: we have a long summer holiday off from schools precisely because that was when the children of farming families were needed to work on the farm and prepare for the summer harvests. But as we have moved into a post-industrial age, the summer vacation has become a routine for all families with children to enjoy.

Not surprisingly, there are moves afoot to abandon the long holiday - and while the original reason for giving children a summer has gone, it would be inappropriate and unhealthy to take away one of childhood's last bastions of freedom.

A discussion between anthropology, psychology, and sociology may elicit a theory that we don't just shape the world around us but that the institutions we create similarly shape us. It's certainly true in my life as my work follows the school terms - I feel the surge to research and write more in  the autumn and winter months when the academic terms recommence and the need to shut down my academic side in July and August. Children and families with school aged children follow the same rhythm, and while we can always alter the institutional frameworks and abandon the long summer holiday as a redundant vestige of the agricultural age, there are deeper reasons for not tying our children to institutional learning all year around.

The summer break can give children of all ages a magical time free of responsibilities and adult-led demands on their minds and personalities. For thirty six weeks - with intermittent tastes of freedom, children are jostled into institutionalised learning or what we call schooling. For many no doubt this is appropriate as these days both parents are economically obliged (by the state induced inflated costs of living) to work, and most people do see schooling as a necessary element to education: but during their time at school pupils are in turn conditioned to follow the rhythms of the school - proceeding from one class to another, one subject to another, learning the skills or knowledge that the somebody else far away (i.e. the committee members defining school curricula in state schools) believes that all children should learn. Sounds rather contrived when put like that ... and of course it is.

Summer holidays give children the time to be themselves and to pursue their own interests, hobbies, and sports - and it is amazing what many get up to in the holidays that then may become an essential passion in their lives: working with parents, gardening, reading for pleasure, going to outdoor concerts, exploring the coast or hills, playing sports all day in the local parks, building with construction kits, visiting museums, or just hanging out with friends and relaxing. It is a time when children turn to educate themselves.

I make a distinction between schooling and education. Schools impart knowledge through some form or other; education comes from the student - educere (Latin) means to lead out rather than to put in. Education revolves around our self-education, which can only truly take place when we are free to learn, free to discover and explore.

Education best takes place when you leave the children to run around on the beach discovering rock pools; schooling takes place when you ask them to write a report on what they did. For adults, our education is continuous and open-ended: I want to learn more about something, so I look it up, research it, and where appropriate, apply it to my life. That's education. If I need to prove I have completed a course in something for some reason or other, then I have to return to being schooled.

In a world (well, our culture in the UK) in which accountability and paper audits have become an integral part of schooling, it's not surprising that children's free time - the open-ended freedom of exploration and self-directed learning - is considered somehow suspect or dangerous. That children should be seen and reported on, tested and invigilated at all levels is the hidden premise of much of our present schooling - so young children are given homework: not to improve their particular minds and weaknesses, say, but just to keep them busy. Otherwise, they may run off and do their own thing, heaven forbid.

The same minds that encourage homework for all ages demand the incorporation of younger and younger children into institutions (childcare centres, pre-school)...and we must pause and ask why? But that's for another blog.

The other important reason for maintaining the long school breaks - apart from the magic of true education it can bring - is the health benefits of being outdoors. Solar medicine, as I call it, keeps away diseases of many forms according to researchers. In the northern climes, we suffer from a lack of sunlight during the late autumnal and winter months, so we particularly need spring and summer to recharge our vitamin D and to fill the lungs with fresh air and exercise!

I read a lot of research on health and nutrition but I'm not going to stray into the area of whether x and y supplements are good for your health or whether children should be wearing x factor sunscreen (no pun intended on becoming famous); but evolutionary biology and anthropology certainly indicate that our ancestors lived most of their days outdoors, using their muscles and exerting themselves regularly. It is said that the typical hunter-gatherer walks around 20 miles a day. We evolved outdoors and we need to get outside as much as possible. Despite modern civilisation's tendency to keep us indoors (work, gym, entertainment, travel), our bodies still need to get out there.

So on health and pedagogical grounds, let's defend those long summers!

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The power of labelling - and a note on smiling!

Educationally labelling another individual is one of the most insidious things we can do. By labelling, I mean providing an adjectival description of the educational ability or potential of the pupil. However, as we'll see, the label rarely creates potential and progression, it creates regression.

Many students come to us for one-to-one attention with a label that is cast out by their parents or themselves before we have even assessed their skills. It's quite unnerving at times when a young person sits down and says, "I'm dyslexic," or "I've got ADHD," or "I'm not good at exams," or the worst - usually proferred by a parent: "He's (or she's) really clever," or "gifted and talented."

Labels smother the child's abilities - just as pernicious sexist and racist labelling has undermine people's chances, educational labels diminish the individual's ability to progress. A label freezes the brain - it tells the pupil that he or she is irrevocably handicapped and cannot improve.

The proposition is literally chaining our students to artificial posts and leaving them slaves to a label.

Research has shown that labelling children "smart" creates fear, and thwarts the possibility of improvement. The label acts against the pupil's ability to act and can even become a life long scar that hinders potentiality. The smart, it has been shown, when faced with a difficult task prefer to engage in displacement activity. They suddenly find the task "boring" or effect no interest in it. In reality, they are realise that they are not that smart, or not so smart in all areas, or that what they once found easy they no longer do ... and they panic, avoid the more difficult work in case their results undermine the pretence, or they cheat. More often, smart students are more concerned with how they are faring against others rather than with the task at hand. Their motivation is to have others pleased with them - after all, the label came from without, so it is from without that they look for guidance and acknowledgement. In other words, their values come from without, rather than from within themselves. The pupil looks to the teacher, to the parent, to the peers - and thus for bribes, for money, for recognition.

Psychologists call seeking external approval having an "external locus of control" and is used to describe when a person looks outside of themselves for some form of validation, either intellectual or moral. In contrast, the healthier "internal locus of control" reflects the ability of an individual to be self-motivating, strong in their personal values, confident in their ability to develop, learn, and grow, and strong enough to ignore peer pressure of what other people think of them. In terms of educational techniques, students who have a greater sense of internal strength are more likely to stick to a task, use their own mind, and, thereby, improve steadily. They can rely on their inner strength - their innere Fuehrung - as the modern German Wehrmacht calls it (inner leadership).

In one-to-one work, dealing with the smart can be challenging for the tutor! The smart are severely handicapped in their ability to think for themselves: they have trouble focusing and often demand the reasons why they should do a certain task (which looks hard at first glance, say). They are saying to themselves, "Why do I need to put myself through this pain?" or perhaps "What would I really be if I failed to do this properly?" Their work tends to be minimalistic, as I call it - a few pen marks on the paper to solve a maths question (i.e., no working out, no process, just a hurried answer). And their English skills are often lacking - writing a sentence is painful, spelling can be too challenging ... their calligraphy is small to hide the burgeoning errors in their work. They are locked in an early skill set and cannot get out - because they were called "smart" or "gifted."

Well, we're all gifted. We're alive, and that's one heaven of a gift to enjoy. But we can make life even more impressive if we work at it. Strangling a young person with a label is no gift - it's a chain.

There are no rewards in our tutorials - no praise, no "oh, you're so smart!" comments, no chocolates or money or promises of dvds or computer games. Just sheer mental exercising. Slowly, we take the "smart" and teach them that they too can struggle, that it's normal to struggle, that there is a great sense of achievement and pleasure in actually working at problems rather than just getting them (or not). It's the same with those who come in with the negative labels such as dyslexia. Truth be told, we're all weak at some things in life and great at others - and the weak things, we can always work harder at and improve with the right tools and great motivation.

We love working with pupils of all ages and abilities - and it's tragic how some get labelled early and how that affects them as adults.

Now, I promised to leave my posts on a positive light: rip off the label and get your own personality back; own yourself and your thoughts rather than let other people tell you what's wrong with you. We're all great and lovely and fun and we can all improve what we do! It's fun too to stretch the brain - and the brain can be stretched in more ways than what our educational curricula offer: see the article I wrote on the multiple intelligences.

Another parting ditty:

Over the past few days I've been testing the mirror nerves our brains possesses: smiling at strangers wherever I go - and yep, those who catch my gaze smile back. Just a small step for making the planet a little more beautiful! Try it - it's great fun - so many return the smile! Takes a second, but boosts our feel-good chemicals!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Zorro and the circle of focus...

Something I've been explaining to pupils recently: when we focus, we get more done, we got it done more effectively, and that means we have more time to do other things and enjoy life.

In the film, The Mask of Zorro with Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas, a young, wayward man, Alejandro Mullieta, full of revenge for his brother's death is taken to train by Don Diego de la Vega (the original Zorro). His training involves bowing to discipline and, most interestingly, to learn to fight within a circle. Nothing outside the circle exists, "unless I say it does," says Don Diego.

The circle is an excellent metaphor for focus. Everything outside the focal point becomes irrelevant and should be disregarded.

When we do not focus, we are tempted into doing many things at once - and we do them all poorly. (There is no such thing as effective multi-tasking - unless, one of the tasks is menial and does not require attention - e.g., ironing or cleaning: then we could be listening to an audio book!)

When we try to read book with the tv on, when we try to do our budget while having a conversation, while we try to play with our children while our attention is diverted by inner thoughts ... we half list, half read, half study, half pay attention. Or worse.

Instead, in everything we do, we need to be as focused as the young Alejandro must be. At first it is frustrating, the constraints make us angry - especially if we are creative and love having a go at everything (as I must admit I do!). But the circle conditions us to remain on task, to put our energies into what we're doing.

Slowly but surely, our abilities in that area increase; our expertise is enhanced and we are able to get the work done quicker, leaving us free to do more things.

Watch the clip here.

Currently, I am learning to trade forex and stock markets. I've thrown myself into the circle to calm down: for the past three months, I've been like a kid in a toy shop - there's so many markets to trade, so many movements and strategies...what to play with, what to play with?!

Trading gets rid of many demons in the head: so many emotions emerge when putting money down on the market and the direction it consequently takes - joy and despair mixed with frustration and exhilaration. But much of my trading has been like the young Alejandro - taking on too much without  any focus. In the clip, Don Diego asks him what the sword is for - Alejandro replies, "for sticking it in the other men." "Oh dear, this will take time," replies the old Zorro. Similarly, with trading - what's the button for? For taking a trade. Oh dear, this will take time, I can hear my mentors...

And this is very much like life and any learning we do.

When we concentrate on that which needs our priority, our foremost attention - we do better.

And often, we enjoy it ... because our brains are wired to learn. We are a curious species - and when we focus that curiosity, we can change the world!

(Or at least our understanding of it!)

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Time to celebrate rather than moan - a confession!

I had revelation today. It's been a long time coming but from now on, my articles will seek out the positive and accentuate the great, the wonderful, the beautiful.

Criticising is an easy sport, and I am, as a philosopher and educator, highly concerned about some trends we're in - ranging from diet to curriculum to the mass media and environmental issues; but we can all gripe, and I gripe enough about gripers...but it's time to change.

I'm a very positive chap: I look for the positive in most things, except perhaps when I write, when I get the demons that plague my mind and our culture out on paper and try to constrain them, like a Chinese painter in a fairy tale, who manages to chain the magic dragons that come alive on his murals by painting chains on them!

There is much to moan about - people, idiocy, governments, taxes, pollution, pharmaceutical products, tv, violent computer gaming - but there's so much more to celebrate than to damn. Our history books are replete with wars - but not the joys and successes of every day people.

So here's my promise - from now on, I shall only look for the positive for the Educational Thoughts and for my other columns.

Let me know if I fail and I shall go and hug my boys and get that positive outlook again. Talking of which, they're playing outside and I'm going to join them!


Friday, 14 March 2014

Discipline - pain or pleasure?


Discipline conjures up images of strict headmasters whipping boys with canes, of repressing natural instincts through institutionalised learning and creating schooled zombies, of standing in line and doing as one's told. It implies pain.

From Pink Floyd's The Wall

Yet discipline - and the word disciple - comes from the Latin word discere to learn. A disciple is one who follows a teacher or a set of principles, and it is instructive to note that when we think of discipline we think of a set of principles involving the application of force, of forcing people into modes of behaviour deemed appropriate by others: hence a disciplinarian is not on first thought a teacher or moral role model such as Jesus Christ or the Buddha but a person who inflicts violence upon others or on him or her self.

Like many things in our world, we need to challenge the orthodox. We humans are prone to creating bizarre notions of ourselves and other peoples and the nature of things, and this is just another part of the mayhem we create in our thinking and presumptions. 

The popular view is that discipline involves pain - usually inflicted on the self or on others. Pain is integral to such a philosophy - even if it is couched in the 'no pain, no gain' thinking. But when we tell people that they should feel the pain to get better, how many run forward and gleefully cry, "Count me in!"? And how many then keep up the pain over time? 

Huffington Post

Those that do pursue painful activities may have a deeper guiding philosophy than that of the mere pain/pleasure nexus so favoured by the utilitarian philosophy that western thinking has fallen prey to. They are guided by either a longer perspective of the success to be gained from current pain, or from a deeper, more interesting set of values. Or they are just masochists who believe that to a be self in this world must involve pain and that the absence of pain is somehow wrong or makes them feel guilty.

On the other hand, they may rewire the word pain into something more positive. 

To be disciplined does not have to mean getting the hair shirts out! 

What discipline means depends on the guiding philosophy - on our perception of the world and the associations that we make. 

Pain is a word. 

It is a concept that we create to describe a feeling. 

If the word did not exist, would we feel pain? 

At this point, you may reply that we are dealing in semantics and of course we would feel pain even if we did not have the word?

Would we? Imagine cutting your finger and then describing it as follows: the skin is cut and a nerve is reacting to tell the brain that it should remove the finger from the sharp object and that a chain of reactions will now start to repair the cut; in the meantime, you may find the emergency noise created by the nervous system distracting as the electrons and chemicals ring the first aid bells, but like any extraneous noise, you can ignore it. 

We know people can can ignore pain. We know the brain's cognition of pain can be overridden by a release of adrenaline. We know that people can mentally control their body to not feel pain. 

The issue is deeper. All the words we use are frames through which we view the world - our world is a product of our language. Close your eyes and think of the colour blue for thirty seconds, open them and you'll focus on the blue things around you. What we think of, we look for.

Yes, the world is, but what it is and how we perceive it and talk about it is through the medium of language. When I am training (strength training with Guy Baker in Nottingham), I could vocally express the pain that I feel when pushing a weight. My muscles are on fire - I see what I term the 'white fire' that accompanies a strenuous effort, but I don't use the word pain. Pain is something I want to avoid, so I would not push as much if I thought of it as painful

What the philosophy (and psychology) of language tells us is that there are many windows through which we view the world. If we look through the pain window we see, guess what...pain. We expect pain, we look for pain, we focus on pain. For the orthodox disciplinarian, this is what life is about - the simple philosophy of no pain, no gain. 

But if we look through the self-improvement window, we see a more developed self, a stronger self, a more physically and mentally fit self. When looking through this frame, we do not associate improvement with pain - we associate it with development, growth, profit, health, strength, love, and generosity. Development is a positive process and the self improvement window is a wonderful, positive frame through which to view the world. It implies that the world is orderly, that we are rightfully here to enjoy it and to get the best out of it for ourselves, and that what we learn and how we improve gives us a greater confidence to act within the world and with other people properly, honourable and with dignity and coherent values. 

Pain is a negative word and if we think in negatives, we attract negatives - we see them all around ourselves and we focus on them. 

Looking through the pain window we effectively stress ourselves: we expect pain - and when we expect a painful experience, we pump out the adrenaline and our higher mental functions diminish or freeze, we go into flight/fight mode. And stress is the cause of all illness. (Think about it - a toxin stresses the body, a pathogen stresses the body, psychological or environmental factors can stress the body). 

We can instead alter our view by using different words, by associating tasks and events differently. When we change our vocabulary, we change our view of the world. 

This is profound and easily verified: people who focus on the negative tend to be sicker and poorer (in a range of things) than people who  are positive. People who say, "I can't draw or spell" certainly can't. but they are basically saying, "I'm not going to even try." Why? Because, for whatever reason, they find drawing or spelling (or any other endeavour we care to name) difficult and usually associate the difficulty with pain. 

Yet when we associate a task with positive feelings such as achievement and improvement, we are more likely to do them and enjoy the progress that results.


But many people think that their perception of a task is fixed, that their emotions are a given that cannot be altered, which means that improvement in impossible. Their response cannot be challenged - it is hard, it is difficult, it is painful.

I hear it a lot in my practice from young children (who switched them off!!?) as well as adults. 

One of my adult clients (aged 49) intimated that she was no good at languages because she hated them at school. Yet she travels to France a lot and has avoided learning basic phrases because, as I pointed out, her teenage self associated language learning with distaste/difficulty...pain. A coin dropped and we made it a goal to learn some French for fun

And so we return to the notion of discipline. If we now associate discipline with positive attributes - of self-improvement, of timetabling quality time with family and friends, of learning a new skill, or strengthening the body and moving to a healthier state, then we can grow. And improvement requires discipline.

Instead of the usual associations of pain and handwork, discipline can be seen as a means to improve the self: a commitment to love the process of learning and growing!

To become disciplined means setting up a routine and following a list of priorities; but those priorities must mean something to you. They cannot be imposed, except from contractual reasons (work and family commitments) – they must come from your deepest needs and desires of self-fulfilment.

The routine and discipline of being true to yourself becomes quickly enjoyable because you’ve walked through the self-improvement door rather than the door to chores and pain.

Monday, 24 February 2014

ADHD, body and mind, and...sugar

What is ADHD? Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder - an amalgamation of attention deficit issues and hyperactivity.

Children - and adults - who are deemed ADD/ADHD are impulsive, hyperactive, and fail to pay attention for a long time. Its prevalence is growing affecting around 1.3% of children in the UK.

The condition causes its sufferers to become easily distracted often with a short attention span. Children with ADHD may also find it difficult to interact and play with other children as they don't exhibit safety awareness or courtesy when it comes to taking turns and often become aggressive. ADHD is directly associated with school failure, exclusion and poor future prospects. Counselling Directory UK

This commentary is not about the very small minority who present extreme symptoms and whose condition may be neurological (something chiropractors/osteopaths are often good at dealing with, especially when the child had a traumatic birth or who has suffered whiplash injuries affecting the spinal column, notably around the cervical vertebrae or to the cranium itself).

This commentary is about the 'normal' children who fall into being labelled as ADD/ADHD - children who have difficulty settling down 24/7, around the clock, not just sporadic bursts of hyperactivity which we all get at times.

Behavioural problems are certainly evident - they're not made up and can be stressful for parents and teachers. The cause - as with most illnesses and stresses - is not a single thing but there certainly are issues that cover the general problem that we as parents, tutors, teachers, coaches, etc. can deal with.

I asked a student once to define ADHD and explain it to me.
Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder...I have trouble concentrating. 
Okay...what about this text book? How long can you read this for?
Oh, about forty minutes, then I lose concentration.
I had to laugh. "My (academic, PhD level) colleagues can't take ten minutes of it, it's so dry!"

In the case of this student, it was her lack of study skills that let her down. Her note taking was unorganised, that's all. That meant that she could not grasp the major themes from the detail and was a bit lost. I taught her to sort out her notes and her marks went from a D to a B rapidly.

Yet someone had told her that she had a label. Ah, rip it off and start again!

Children are not designed to sit still

Some children I've met have a lot of energy. They're fit and healthy and bounce around and want to run all day and climb trees and play tag and chase each other. Quite normal. But then our schools expect them to conform and sit down behind a desk and concentrate on tasks non-physical. Is it surprising that the teachers' favourite kids tend to be the well behaved? I.e., those who have conformed and sat quietly for most of the term doing the work the teachers set. We expect that all the kids settle and conform, but we should be asking ourselves are we not asking the wrong thing of our children and thereby comparing the unsettled, energetic children on a false hypothesis?

Such children usually do not have a problem settling down to work on what they enjoy or do school work in a very quiet setting without distractions.

Indeed, there may be something to say for individual desks in rows and a commanding teacher who insists on quiet, focused attention. Some may struggle anyway, as being behind a desk is not natural to our evolved notions of motion and energy deployment, but in an environment that has an enforced quietude all pupils have a chance of getting on with concentration without their neighbour chatting away about what he or she did on the weekend: enough to drive any adult to distraction - and our kids are much less trained than we are in coping with external distraction and noise!

But there is also the issue of having children be quiet and still when it runs against our drive to act.
Again, we maybe labelling what is really natural as something unnatural or wrong merely from a desire to have children conform to the expectations of the classroom and school.

Wherein lies the value of conformity? There are many great values - leadership, innovation, creativity, energy, musicality, well as the core values of honesty, integrity, sincerity, generosity, kindness, discipline, and so on. But with children who can't sit still, it's not these values that are respected.

A very temporary student, aged 8 or 9, of mine (whom parents and I agreed was not ready for tuition...) had a very low ability to sit and concentrate for a few minutes. We managed 8 minutes I think but what was the point? Watching him run around with such an excess of energy was a delight in itself - and his humour and infectious smile will take him further in life than being a conformist. His skills lay with his hands and I was pleased to hear that he worked with his father a lot (a landscaper). A lesser mind may have diagnosed 'ADHD' and 'your kid needs to be on ritalin...' Gee.

The adult who looks at an energetic child and feels tired needs to change their perspective. Energy and the inability to conform to a desk job is not a bad things. We all calm down eventually but there's no rush to calm down as it were: we should instead be viewing children's energy as a source of joy and pleasure!

When we expect them to "calm down" and "behave" and be more sedentary we're imposing false strictures that can eventually repress their natural inclination to run around and be a kid.

On the other hand, is the child a victim of biochemical or environmental issues that debilitate him or her from concentrating at any task?

I have a few books on ADHD which give tips on dealing with the symptoms of the disorder rather than with the causes. The causes are wafted away as if they were an irritant or irrelevant. Because if you are in business to deal with the symptoms (a) you will find may symptoms that fit your bill (b) if you've got the taxpayers' credit card, you can always get more money for your corner by pitching a clever marketing campaign (lobbying for funds) by finding more clients and (c) by dealing with the symptoms and the causes, your clients will never get better. More worringly:

ADHD diagnosis is often made on the subjective observations of teachers or guardians, based on signs that nearly every child will display at some point. Aggravating factors, such as diet or home environment, are oftentimes overlooked entirely. - Dr Mercola

It is more economical, ethical, and rewarding (all in one) to aim for the causes of a problem than the symptoms. Sure, some symptom based procedures are highly applicable such as adjusting the pace of teaching or the media used (which in a one-to-one setting happens naturally - we know, as tutors, when the child's attention drifts and we can either encourage the stretch - that extra minute of focused work to train them to concentrate further, or change to a different task to rest the fatigued part of their brain. We see great results working one to one, because we and they can adjust and grow.)

But let's review some of the causes that can be easily adjusted in people's lives by looking at the body and the mind.

Body and Mind

If your body's under serious attack from toxins, if your gut is struggling to brain will suffer. The brain is the body is the brain - this is the view of integrative medicine which is finally catching up with what complementary therapists have been saying for centuries - what happens in and around your body will affect how you think ... and vice versa.

For most of the modern period, western medicine - fantastic at surgery - has tended to compartmentalise the body, so severing the brain from the physiology of the body. The blood-brain barrier has led many medical thinkers to decapitate the mind from the workings of the body and to dismiss the impact of diet on thinking or thinking on health. Yet when we think of pain, we can create pain; when we think of humorous things, we can laugh ... the placebo and nocebo effects baffle materialists who have forgotten that the mind is intricately embedded in the body, yet for those of us who take a more holistic or integrative approach, there is no mystery.

If you think you can't concentrate. Guess what, you're telling your body, "I'm the kind of person who cannot concentrate ... I just can't do it ... see what I mean?"

Think differently and you'll get a different result.

But now let's focus on the corporeal side of life and what bio-chemical factors may be hindering a person's ability to concentrate.


Probably the number one cause of erratic thinking and physiology - something that can be changed in a minute. CUT THE SUGAR!

Sugar does not just mean white process stuff you put in your tea or the horrid fizzy drinks or so-called energy drinks (read the label!)...sugar also means carbohydrates - bread, pasta, cereals, rice are all carbohydrates which raise insulin levels which in turn can cause hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar (because you've spiked the sugar levels in your body for a few minutes, they're going to come plummeting down): this can cause irritability, anxiety, and ... a lack of concentration.

Many adults go to work on a bowl of cereal (maybe with toast, orange juice, jam... yep, sugars!). Think about the adverts of the ideal home with the cereal bowl out and milk ready to pour - then wonder why they are hungry by 11am and need to grab a muffin (more sugar!) with a coffee (to keep awake as the pancreas works overtime) with perhaps a dash of sugar (or worse, an artificial nerve agent called a sweetener....very Orwellian marketing). Lunch? A sandwich with a chocolate bar...more sugar. Then a pasta (sugar) dinner with sauce (spot the sugar in the sauce)...

While adults may store the sugar in a higher than needed fat deposit around the body, children may just need to run around to burn off the extra carbohydrates flooding their body. Not going to do that well by sitting down!

Review the Standard American Diet (which is the same as ours and Europeans to some extent or less, but the abbreviation for the American kind is more obvious: SAD).

SUGAR, SUGAR, far as the eye can see.

The first thing to help perennially inattentive children is to look at their diet and to remove all sugars. Yep, they'll crave it...they'll demand it! They're addicted, you see.

John Yudkin was one of the first to outline the dangers of sugar in the 1970s. More recently, Candace Pert, a woman who just missed the nobel prize in chemistry, argues that sugar should be classified as a class-A drug, because it is so addictive.

Read labels - you'll be amazed what you'll find sugar in. It's in salad dressing for heaven's sake! Olive oil, bit of vinegar, herbs...and sugar.

So the first thing to tackle is high sugar level products and to change your thinking about what you're putting into your own and your children's bodies.

When I take my children around the supermarket I point out the names of the aisles: that's the diabetes alley (fizzy drinks), that's the dead food alley (crisps and sugary snacks), that's chemical alley...industrial cleaners for the home (which then bleed into the water table, rivers, and seas - ever want to see an effect of that? Look up 'the Mississippi dead zone').

Provocative thought - not of my making this time:

As explained by The Sons of Liberty host Bradlee Dean, who also writes for The D.C. Clothesline, ADHD was merely a theory developed by Eisenberg. It was never actually proven to exist as a verifiable disease, despite the fact that Eisenberg and many others profited handsomely from its widespread diagnosis. And modern psychiatry continues to profit as well, helping also to fill the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry by getting children addicted early to dangerous psychostimulant drugs like Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine, dextroamphetamine mixed salts).

"ADHD is fraud intended to justify starting children on a life of drug addiction," said Dr. Edward C. Hamlyn, a founding member of the Royal College of General Practitioners, back in 1998 about the phony condition. Adding to this sentiment, psychiatrists Peter Breggin and Sami Timimi, both of whom oppose pathologizing the symptoms of ADHD, say that ADHD is more of a social construct than it is an objective "disorder."

Learn more:
Certainly that puts us in a spin...yet we still have to deal with behaviour hyperactivity and inattentiveness. So rather than put our children on pills (many of my pupils have come to me on heavy duty drugs which then affect their sleeping habits, so they need another pill...the drugs begin to affect their liver and hormones) look first and foremost at their DIET. Then I'd look at cranial-cervical issues before moving onto other environmental factors. Do your research, avoid the drugs except in dire medical emergencies (all medical products have a role).

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why do teenagers use fillers? Like, uh, dunno, like, uh...

Like ... know...they kind of do.

Where does such behaviour come from?

Many language experts - who follow the use of language - explain that fillers are used by people (of all ages) to provide a pause while they are collecting their next thought. Such experts tend to be quite tolerant and egalitarian of teenagers' deployment of fillers in their speech. For them, it's all part of life's wonderful tapestry, and, implicitly or explicitly, we should not judge people for their use of fillers.

Others find the fillers annoying. To add in words such as 'like' and 'innit' into sentences grates on their aesthetic nerves: the use of ums and ahs by adults similarly demotes the speaker in the ears of the listener (or rattling change in the pocket while lecturing or public speaking!).

The egalitarian view - tolerant though it may be of people struggling to put a sentence together - is more indicative of linguistic nihilism, the belief that no greater value can be put on sounding educated compared to sounding uneducated. A true nihilist denies that there can be value in anything, so I may be exaggerating the claim here, for a linguistic nihilist would logically not be able to reject an ungrammatical sentence such as 'the sat on the cat mat'?

I had an infuriating conversation with a supposed epistemic subjectivist/nihilist once who insisted that 2+2 = 4 because "that's how you see it, and my opinion that it may be 5 is just as valid." Crikey, where to start with such a muddlehead...(you often find them at philosophy conferences by the way, usually postgraduates who have read that nothing can have any meaning and then run with the theory) I offered to pour her milk into her coffee, which she gladly accepted. "So you agree that I've just poured milk into your coffee?" I asked her, swiftly refuting her attempt to annihilate everything into meaningless statements. She blushed. (I've a PhD in philosophy by the way - and I'm quite sure that there are values and meanings out there!)

Back to language.

The acceptance of fillers encourages a demeaning of education and of the greater conversation that the mind is capable. It is analogous to accepting scribbles for finished artwork or belches for humour.

We all struggle to find the most appropriate word for our ideas, but that struggle should be taking place in the higher reaches of our cultural-linguistic ability, not in the realm of the most basic.

"You know, I kinda like, um, this sort of music, y'know, like, uh, duh, like ..."


Hesitation, mental preparation, forestalling, nervousness - there's a few excuses for um-ing and ah-ing and like-ing and y'know-ing, but they all come down to a mental laziness, a low vocabulary, and an acceptance of low values. Or with an older person, a refusal to think before speaking.

I've had pupils who used fillers. They have tended to be the ones who watch a lot of tv. So I keep a tally of their use and show them how many times they use the word like while speaking. They are often shocked! We then proceed - always with their permission - to see if they can reduce the number that they use. (I do point out that if they are in a job interview and their response is replete with fillers, they are not likely to get the position over someone who can speak fluently).

It has nothing to do with intelligence or academic ability either. It's all about whether the speaker accepts poor communication as being acceptable or not. Accepting poor communication is essentially saying that the speaker does not care about what he or she says.

Now the reasons as to why that may be the case could be many and deeply embedded, but the speaker  is in control of what he or she says. She can decided that the next utterance will not have any fillers. She can work on avoiding the fillers by just focusing a little on what she is saying and how she is saying it. I've turned pupils around very quickly with minor interventions. Adults who um and ah, can also change how they speak with a little training.

Training, as the Romans knew, can improve anything.

If we are truly stumbling for the words to express our thoughts, some suggest remaining silent until the word comes. Well, that doesn't help if you have an idea but no word for it in your vocabulary - far better to ask for help! Otherwise, try an alternative path of words to help communicate the idea. Pen and paper are often fantastic media for communicating ideas - draw. Or dance, as one of my pupils may note.

Egalitarianism - the idea that one person should count for one person and no more than one person - constitutes the political and legal underpinning of civilisation. However, that does not imply that all words are equal, that all deeds are equal, that all speeches are equal.

Would Lincoln have been remembered for this speech:

"Right, you know, um, it was sort of a long time ago, like, that our umm, fathers helped build, you know, this nation like. It was um made in liberty, like, y'know, and ah, dedicated, sort of, like, to the idea that, y'know, all men, like, are like created like equal like."

Or Winston Churchill:

"We will like you know um fight them on the beaches sort of..."

If you use fillers. Stop yourself. Just slap your hand or put a 5p in a pot every time you utter one. Think before you speak and remain silent if you've nothing to say. Then go and read some books and find something to say. Expand your vocabulary.

As Funk and Lewis say in 30 Days to a a New Powerful Vocabulary, "your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you." There's a lot in that. Lazy thinking doesn't lend itself to getting on in life. The philosopher Wittgenstein reminded us that our world is constrained by our vocabulary - so, the smaller our vocabulary, the smaller our world. Imagine that.

I love civilisation and as a philosopher, political thinker, writer, and educationalist, I'm sensitive to the intellectual trends that demean civilisation: when our minds cannot grasp higher thought, when we tolerate inconsistent thinking and blurred communication, we are looking at our demise: so stand up for the civil order, improve your mind and your child's - accept not lazy speech.

Our children and our children's children will be proud that we stood up for values rather than let them slide into a linguistic cesspit.

Recommended texts - if you want to think better and wider, Nagel's succinct introduction to philosophy is hard to beat.