Saturday, 6 June 2015

The beauty of dinosaur names and home education.

Can you say, "Coelophysis, children?"




I've become a great fan of palaeontology ever since my elder got into dinosaurs. Well, we didn't just 'get into dinosaurs', we got into dinosaurs. We bought many basic books on dinosaurs (we have a shelf full) but we also invested in Walking With Dinosaurs, the BBC book of the programme that came out in 1999. We also have the download - it is one of the few programmes we watch: we don't have a tv in the house and we don't let the children watch whenever they feel like it. For the most part they entertain themselves and learn through play. The programme presents incredible imagery of what early life on the planet may have been like and shows the behaviour of the early reptiles and dinosaurs (they're different, as my elder will point out) in a way that a book can't do so well for the young mind.

The vocabulary of the book is high - beautifully so, and I know my lad (and then his younger brother) would not get all the words, but slowly the meanings crept in. I heard them talk of coelophysis, Pangaea, cycad groves. They recreated the scenes they had watched and heard - and began to observe that many children's basic dinosaur books had huge errors in them. In fact, one of my elder's earlier jokes was: "Why couldn't the T-rex eat the Stegosaurus?" I came up with some plausible musings about the plates on his back or other defensive mechanisms..."No! They lived in different eras!!" he laughed.

The 'pedagogical point' is that we do well to expose our children to high level vocabulary. Walking with dinosaurs has complex sentences that stretch the mind's stamina and a breadth of new words that  my boys hear me practising new or unusual vocabulary, breaking the words down and testing them out before settling onto something that sounds fine. (With a comment, "I think that's how it's said"). It's great for them to hear an adult struggle - because, as they learn to read, that's what they are doing.

I've a PhD in philosophy in which a vast vocabulary is eminently useful. But trying to get the tongue around some of the dinosaurs' names presents a lovely challenge.

Coelophysis - coe is usually /see/
Ornitholestes - trips one up a bit. I often ask my elder, "How do you say that one again?"
Rhamphoryncus - took a few goes!
Ornithocheirus - not too bad since I've studied chiropractic. He became a family favourite with many pictures adorning walls and condensation, models, and drawings in books.
Muttaburrasaurus...sounds like hiccoughs.
Or how about "a clan of Leaellynasaura". Yep.

Exposure to such words is, I believe, helping my elder read well. As he matures, the connections between the words will become apparent: ornitho = bird; pod = foot; saur = lizard; rex = king; tri = three, etc. And dinosaurs are great to draw - we've a couple of drawing books that have helped my skills and I often find paper lying around that the boys have drawn well proportioned various dinosaurs and reptiles. It's also a laugh to explain the difference between how reptiles of the Permian period walked compared to theropods (beast foots) of the Late Triassic.



The books and programme have also helped us learn about the depth of earth's history. I typically read to them a lot of prehistory and my elder and increasingly his younger 4 year old brother know which era the various dinosaurs lived in. They both incidentally know about the birth of the moon as we often rehearse 'how it all started'. We collect fossils from our area and go to museums to see fossils and dioramas (a word they both use a lot of when setting up a scene).

I must admit to being rather proud when I found an ornithocheirus vertebra in Leicester museum and showed it to my elder. He stood and stared at it for ages. School kids - a couple of years older - were running by, high on sugar, this way and that, barely looking at anything, never stopping to stare and wonder. The contrast was amazing. (No, I'm not saying that school kids don't have their passions...no inferences there, just the contrast was stark to see one person engaged in his passion compared to the people around...my elder would be bored at a football match!). His face was a picture of pure bliss. Lovely. I hope he keeps that for whatever he turns his mind to.

We continue to learn about the dinosaurs and I've stretched their learning into geology: we've looked at obvious strata in the cliffs at the seaside. We've also moved forward to hominid history - I took my elder to an open lecture at Nottingham on australopithecus (took me a few goes to get it!): we spoke to the lecturer afterwards and he asked why she didn't do much on homo ergaster! Again, I don't expect him to remember much - but the exposure is paramount. So many books (and teachers) talk down to children (I often do an impression of a high pitched patronising teacher); we don't need to - they can pick up what they can, their minds are very plastic.

We've learned to knap flints a little - I'm too impatient, but he's managed a few flint pieces he's proud of!

Sometimes what we've learned together slips away like water off a duck, but other times I'm surprised at what they recall. We're all like that - if we find our passion, we'll learn everything about it. Sat down and forced to learn something we're not too keen on...grab the coffee and grit the teeth!

Unsurprisingly, the boys want to become explorers and palaeontologists. Who knows where their passions will take them, but I'm witnessing a wonderful upbringing in and around our home. Their interests are not thwarted by state imposed curricula and are not impeded by time. They're learning breadth and depth and I am exposing them to the flow of geological and biological history as we read together.

But don't get me wrong: I'm not 'producing geeks' here. Childhoods needs innocence - which partly explains why I focus a lot on prehistory. People aren't going around killing each other yet. They're aware a little of the brutality of human history and they're certainly comfortable with the viciousness of nature. We also still read Thomas the Tank engine, the Foxwood series (beautifully illustrated), Bob the Builder, Dick King-Smith and anything else that takes their fancy. Instead, I'm aiming to sustain their curiosity and support their passions. Something that oft gaes awry in school.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

A lovely view - books! And why books mean freedom.


Here's an image of a corner of my library that took my fancy yesterday.





I love electronic gadgets as tools for writing, communication, and business and the odd bit of reading the the Kindle but seriously nothing beats a good book.

I'm a serial bibliophile. I think it comes from the very few books I had as a kid - and then the insatiable curiosity that overwhelmed my mind in my later teen years. I started to 'get' things - first, maths logic (which is why I love teaching the basic fundamental logic of maths - it's relatively painless and it teaches us to work through problems, and life is full of problems to solve, regardless whether we start off with an x or a y!!).

Then I got into the political philosophy of nuclear deterrence, arguing with pacifists why giving up the bomb might not be a bright idea in the middle of the Cold War; then I discovered economics - and my academic passion that took me through to the MA level before transitioning over to a PhD in philosophy (I'd been asking awkward questions in the MA that 'weren't on the syllabus': you don't get replies like that in philosophy departments.) Along the way, I began devouring books - and still do. One of the sad points of my life was leaving a good collection in Canada when I migrated back to the UK, but I think I've caught up since!

Books worked their magic on me and still do. Barely a week goes by without a new purchase - I've found some very cheap sources not just on the web and it's a real pleasure skimming bookshelves to see what may be discovered!

Apparently, I've passed the love of books onto my boys: my younger said, "I love books!" the other day. Warms the cockles of the heart.

In a future dystopia I wrote a decade back, called Vestiges of Freedom, books are banned and slowly but surely, the evil EUnion is deleting the electronic copies that it holds in the national library. The written word and therefore the text are vital elements of freedom - to be able to write a message or read a text has been vital through the centuries against the forces of totalitarianism.

It should reminds one of Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) or George Orwell's 1984. Vestiges has elements of both - and Clockwork Orange with its funky language - but is also great fun. Teenagers put twists on EU language directives and our hero Robin Bradbury hides a secret library - it's fast paced and set in the area I live in: Melton Mowbray and the Vale of Belvoir. Up north though, things are not so good, or so it seems.

I didn't mean this to be an advert but I'm really proud of the book and have had great reviews. It's available in paperback/hardback using my nom-de-plume William Venator at the time but also Kindle under my normal name.

OR VIA KINDLE -

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Symptoms of being plugged in: TV and gaming

​Based on conversation with a pupil early...then developed into something wider.

With one to one tuition, my practice often runs like a doctor's office. Funnily enough, I explained to my pupil, I am a doctor (PhD in philosophy). People come in with similar symptoms all the time. So, imagine a medical doctor sitting there with patient after patient coming in with a runny nose and sore throat.

What would be the problem?

Cold, she says.

Great. Most probably.

Now, when student after student comes in who struggles with spelling and can't focus very well and whose attention span is very limited, there are similar symptoms. In this case screen-itis. Of course they may be playing mind-suck online gaming or just messing with the iPad or device, but basically they're plugged in.

Symptoms: difficulty concentrating; poor English skills (comprehension, listening, following instructions); weak analytical skills; a desire to rush to the answer and not think (just like clicking the game consoles); relatively low vocabulary; inability to think for themselves; looking at the tutor for the answer; creates confusion around them; eyes tending to jump around (looking for the artificially focused world of the flat screen); lethargy - mental and physical; an unwillingness to work for up to half and hour after arriving (especially if they've been playing on phones on their way to tutorial); easily frustrated; twitchy towards the end of the lesson, especially if I'm talking to the parent and they need to go get plugged in; fear of learning new things; lack of personal discipline.

It's a catalogue of vices really. Let's look at how the great 17thC educationalist John Locke, whom I wrote a book about, would have described these traits. John Locke is a virtue theorist: education should be more about character development and freeing in individual to pursue a morally wholesome life and we should train our younger charges in the virtues and to avoid the vices. These are words I garnered from his writings on philosophy and education:

Drowsy; indulgent (in their playing); emulatory (every one else is playing, so should I); excuser (usually doesn't get homework done); timorous (poor social skills); slavish (tell me what to do...); foolish (living in the now but not thinking about priority); perverse (hmm, often enjoys surfing for videos that will stimulate further - porn, violence - especially if playing 18+ games); ungraceful; sheepish (lack of confidence); ignorant (or manners and intellectually); sluggish; obstinate; rebellious; disobedient (refuses to stop playing); playful (in the sense of wants to do anything but focus); pedantic (again, used to avoid priority focus); dominating (after all, he/she dominates the game why not people around?); covetous (always needs the next game or watch the next series); elusive (finds it hard to provide a straightforward answer); careless (in work and thinking); negligent.

Would you hire your son or daughter if that were the description? 

That's the character that I see some children and young people converging onto. Ah yes, you may reply - they're very sporty, they're lovely to be around...sure, but why not offer them a cigarette to round them off? Huh? Well, why introduce them to gaming and dvds  to watch all night in their room or download movies or youtube videos on their iPad? What are they watching, do you know? Some tell me and I'm shocked. 9 year olds watching horror movies. Teenagers watching videos of cruelty and pornography. Then there are those who get addicted to the games side of life. No, they're not good for mental development.

There is a moving video on youtube - that most people think funny - of a father who has had enough of his son's gaming and mows over them with a ride on mower. The son is understandably anguished and it is painful to see him writhe in pain (while his brother filming it sniggers - nice). I'll not link it as I don't think it appropriate for us to wallow in another's misery - we need to turn away when we cannot provide a hug. The guilt though initially lies with the father: who bought the games? who put the tv and console in the kid's bedroom? who said nothing for years while the kid slowly got addicted? No doubt his school results were reflecting his addiction and if not then he wasn't being encouraged to strive harder and reach his potential. Reaching your potential on level 8 of a game is not real. That's not reaching potential, that's diving into the 8th layer of mental hell - a world far removed from the reality of social nuances and developing the mind.

Oh, I hear from defensive mothers, it's helping my son (usually son) learn how to manipulate objects and organise his mind by juggling lots of variables. Dad's tend to join in the gaming - even kicking their sons off so they may play with their friends. What's going on there? 

Do you smell the BS? Do you hear the rationalisations? What price the easy life? As Locke wrote, do not complain of undrinkable water if you've poisoned the stream.

Let's look at the rationalisation. Picking up a cigarette involves dexterity and coordination involves manipulation of fine objects. Real objects in this case rather than virtual. But not many parents of good intellect and moral standing are going to suggest providing their child with a cigarette is anything to be proud of. Buying cigarettes also involves jugglinh variables, especially for younger people - which shop to buy ciggies from, whom to ask, how many to buy, where to smoke them. All competencies in their own right but assuredly not healthy ones. 

Isn't it just easier to let the child plug themselves in to netflix, online gaming, collections of dvds than work with them. Oh, they scream, but life as a mother is so hard, you don't know what it's like in our house. I have to work, cook, clean, organise the kids...

- Yep. Choices you've made. You choose to continue working.
- Ah, you're against women working now?
- No, not at all. But don't gripe about it after choosing to have children.
- Well, we didn't really plan little Susie.
...? You mean you immaculately conceived? Wow! Have you told the church?
- No! Idiot! I didn't realise it would be this hard!
- So why not encourage the kids to help rather than plugging them in? Why not shut the screens off and let them howl for a couple of days and then explain how hard it is for a working mum (or dad) and how we all need to chip in. Or stop worrying about keeping an immaculate house when you've got children. Kids want love and parental support - not a show home...Why not talk and listen to them? You'll find them lovely...

Parenting is a juggle. It is hard. We're sacrificing so that we can home educate; We both work in the business and we have to work around and with our children. It is hard, it does get frustrating, and sometimes we do wonder whether we havee made the right move, but we have never considered buying ourselves the easy way out and putting them in front of the tv or a games console. We're raising children not zombies. 

I've played the games - and I've felt the addictive nature of them. Like tv, they draw us in and then pull us in for more. Sure, I'm like an ex-smoker who can't understand why people still smoke - I know that, but I keep up with the research and see the symptoms daily in my office.

That said, many of the pupils can handle playing and tv - we live in the country and there's lots for them to do, especially when they're young. It's when they hit 12 and suddenly exploring fields is no longer as cool as mind-suck games. They excuse their online gaming on the fact that they can't get to their mate's house and it's so much easier to hook up online.

Ever heard of a bike?


What next? School undermines our ability to choose so how do we learn to make a true decision?



One of the biggest issues we deal with in young people as they finished their exams is the sudden realisation that they are gaining control over their life - its direction and importance.

Not all 16-18 year olds realise this, and many adults have yet to realise it either! As we emerge from the constraints and conditioning forces of childhood, we are expected to rise to living a life of greater responsibility and know what we're supposed to be doing.

Most people run from the task. They hide from the need to grow up in various ways, but often in our tuition company we see it in young people and adults who remain in school and subject themselves to more exams. Note that it's not the love of learning that propels them forward or the sense of knowing their direction such as becoming a lecturer or getting the medical degree to share their love of health. No, they stay in because they're afraid of making choices and entering the market place of Choice, Action, and Responsibility - of getting in the CAR of life.

A side effect of eleven to thirteen years of formal schooling and being told what to do is a reduced ability to make choices. I hear it in my private practice regularly. The condition becomes gradually the norm until the young adult - or even older adult - finds it difficult to make a decision. And if you can't make a decision, it's impossible to take action.

Letting things happen is not taking action. Ignoring things is not taking action. That's taking inaction. We are either acting or being passive. Do we say yes to a partner because we're just going with the flow, or do we mean the YES? Do we say yes to the job offer because it's easy? Do we 'choose' to stay in school because it's the easy thing to do...Anything else would mean raising our consciousness and wouldn't that be hard work?

Of course. Action requires making a decision. Getting over some fears or at least pushing through them. Then doing something rather than just thinking about it.

Action is our means of improving ourselves and growing. When we 'do things' - such as a job or stay in college, we're not really taking action. We're following what other people tell us we should be doing or we just fall onto the path as it arises. That's not acting, that's not making a decision. Even if the pupil or adult says, "No, I really made a choice to go to university," we can ask why and check if there were any reasons or it was just something she thought she had to do. If we're met with silence, or "Why do you ask that?" we've encountered a lack rather than a direction.

Taking action means having a direction and for that direction to be authentic it must mean something to us. It must come from our heart - from our inner purpose. We're all here on earth for some reason. We were born to do something and each of us do something different from our peers - but what is it?

After so many years of being told what to do, when to do it, how to do it and being subjected to external critique in subjects and exams, our inner voice - our deeper purpose is often quietened. 

Few have the courage to do as Monty Roberts who was given an F for an essay on his life's dream by the teacher who said he should alter his dream: "You keep the F, I'll keep the dream." Wow. Few have that courage - but we can learn to listen to what we want to do and there are many techniques. My favourite is to ask myself at night, "What's my purpose?" Then the following day the answers come.

What's funny in my life though is that there are always many answers. Some people walk a clear path - they can see or learn to see how it unfolds and what they need to do: e.g., become a surgeon, accountant, or physiotherapist, etc. My vision is more of a multilane highway - several paths that reach outward: novelist, tutor, coach and mentor, academic writer, editor, public speaker. The highway is certainly headed in the same direction - to reach out and educate and help people. Each day, I have several lanes to choose from and this can be debilitating too for people like myself: we want to do it all and we want success from all at once. Which brings us back to - do ONE THING. What one thing can I do this year, this month, this week, this day, this hour that can help me fulfil my dreams?



That said, helping people rediscover their dream or to listen to their little boy or girl inside saying, "I don't want to be a vet, I want to be an actor..." and letting that voice get louder and louder until life matches purpose.

I asked a student not long after writing the first draft of this: in five seconds, tell me what you really want to do. Without hesitation: "Be a drummer." So be it. That was the subconscious speaking - then the look of concern flickered over his face - the years of conditioning, the stories of struggle and dreams not attained.

"What's the first hurdle you see in your mind?"

"What if the band I'm in is touring and the tour fails. We flop and break up?"

"You'll deal with that when it happens. But it won't happen unless you are a drummer. What's the next hurdle?"

"Confidence."

"Sure. We all think about that. But what grows confidence?"

"Practice."

"Exactly. Putting in the time and getting out there. That's what I do. I have thoughts - so I write them up to share. My writing improved the more I did. My confidence is secure because I can do what I do. You will too. Listen to that dream and follow it."

Listen to the deeper voice, the quieter self, the purposeful self within. Remove the distractions and harken to the soul. Walk the silent woods, mellow in the calm bath, write and think without constraint.

See what dreams come forth and let the world listen.


Friday, 29 May 2015

Should rubbers or erasers be banned in schools? A positive reply to Guy Caxton's thoughts

In an article in May 2015, a cognitive scientist argued that rubbers (erasers) should be banned from the class room.

As reported by the Daily Telegraph: "Guy Claxton, visiting professor at Kings College London, has sparked arguments with his comments that the humble eraser is "an instrument of the devil".
Rubbers create "a culture of shame about error. It's a way of lying to the world, which says 'I didn't make a mistake. I got it right first time.'" It is better, Claxton argues, to embrace mistakes, because that's what happens in the real world...“Out in the big wide world nobody is going to be following you around, marking your work, organising your time for you, in the 21st century you are going to be the designer, the architect, the curator of your own learning.”

It's an interesting argument. As a libertarian, I'm not keen on the word "banning"  - persuasion based on rational argument is better for us to prosper and learn from our mistakes; or perhaps removing from sight those things which handicap us (call it banning if you will for media purposes - but it's a harsh term that echoes totalitarian or theocratic regimes).

Erasers (and delete buttons) have a role in helping to keep our work neat, but I do like Dr Claxton's philosophy - if we provide children with certain tools, they will use them. Are the tools appropriate though? Sometimes yes, sometimes no - along the inappropriate ones I'd argue are game consoles and smart phones and tvs in the bedroom: if you provide them, they will be used. And then you'll slowly create a zombie who "struggles with English" as I often hear from parents. Funny that.

Now rubbers...

In my private practice of working with students of all ages and abilities, I tend to keep the rubber at more than the pupil's arms length or hide it altogether for the young pupils (8-10) who tend to reach for the rubber and enthusiastically make a rubbery mess of their work, often spending more time rubbing out than thinking about the problem or spelling they were working on. The time spent rubbing out rather than just putting a line through it is a waste of time. It also makes a mess. Nonetheless, I agree with Claxton that there's something deeper going on with the eraser though: a covering up of our errors is potentially dangerous habit - one that leans into perfectionism, authoritarianism and narcissistic neuroses underpinned by a belief in infallibility.


(Image - Dr Alex Moseley; Southwell, Notts, private tuition for maths with Classical Foundations: the GCSE student is to my right, the eraser is behind the stapler, out of her sight. This was not set up - I instinctively 'hide it' before lessons).


Why not use the rubber to get rid of mistakes?

Well, it's good to know we've made a mistake - whether it's in forming our letters when we're young or solving an algorithm (a series of logical steps - a word, by the way, that the government thinks all children should know for some reason. I'd prefer then to know 'critical reasoning'...). Seeing our mistakes in retrospect shows where we went wrong and highlights the false paths - and the improvements we're making.

That's life - it's a series of challenges and wrong turnings and constant learning!

Indeed, showing the path of trial and improvement is an excellent way of teaching ourselves that sometimes we don't get things right - reaching for the eraser or dumping that file can be a rejection of the struggle as if the history (personal or academic) should be obliterated. Life is a struggle and a daily challenge (amidst our habits of things we do seem to be getting right) and we need to see the results as they unfold rather than reject them.

Hopefully, gone are the days when teachers pick up a piece of work and rip it to shreds in front of the pupil and the class. (Hmm, I have heard of instances though - what does that say to the pupil?)

Failing forward (the title of a book by John Maxwell) emphasises the forward movement of learning with its trips and falls and dead ends. We learn to walk by toddling and falling over lots until we get it. We learn to ride a bike by falling off before gradually learning a sense of balance. These things take time and patience - and plenty of mistakes along the way.

When working alongside a higher GCSE maths student, sometimes I go down the wrong logical path - it's good for the pupil to see that that the path didn't work out. I've had a couple of students remark, "Hey, you're my tutor, shouldn't you get this right...?" implying that if the tutor/teacher can't get it right, how are they supposed to learn.

Interesting implications for totalitarian thinking - that we acculturate our children into accepting the perfect dogma of the teacher. Frightening even, but it does explain why later a lot of pupils "don't know what to do in life." Cast adrift in a world of trial and error, they've been conditioned not to make mistakes. Creative and balanced minds this does not make. 

When I get something wrong, I laugh and say, "Well, that didn't work...now, let's see what direction we could try now...do you see that sometimes in life we don't get the answer first time?" Or some such message to provoke their mind a little.

I've also noted in our 11+ grammar school training that some pupils are indeed keen to remove any evidence of making a mistake. After getting something wrong, they rub it out, correct it and then say, "See, I got that right." This, I think, is the essence of Dr Claxton's point - too concerned with getting things right, they're not keen to accept that they can get things wrong. They are often relatively more stressed pupils to work with. "It's okay to get it wrong," I comment. Sometimes they shake their head.

I wonder what's going on in the home as well as in the school.

Now that leads to a connection I may be spotting in Dr Claxton's comments that the eraser is "the instrument of the devil."

Having recently read M Scott Peck's The People of the Lie, I saw a similarity in Dr Claxton's use of "the devil" with the psychology of not wanting to get things right of wanting everything to be perfect first time. This, Peck argues, is symptomatic of the psychology of evil: of keeping up appearances even though we are killing our own or our children's spirit. Quickly obliterating the mistake keeps up the appearance of invincibility and godlike omniscience, which, whatever theology you follow, we do not possess as mortals. Herein lies much evil, muses Peck.

 Narciciss at the pool falls in love with himself. The eraser would be his tool.

It's not just erasers though.

Many teachers - my pupils inform me - just read out the answers.

They don't show the children the working out or that they themselves can make mistakes. Accordingly, in the children's minds the answer is either right or its wrong - and sometimes in primary tests there's room to argue with the examiner or produce a different answer, but the answer that's given in the books must be right it is assumed.

It's somewhat reminiscent of Asch's peer group pressure study when the group chose the wrong answer to a simple questions about line length with the participant generally caving in to their choice rather than what he could see was right. If the teacher says it's right - it's right. Period. I'm having an on-going 'banter-argument' with a local primary teacher through a pupil; she insists that you can't have a triangle with more than 180 degrees internally. Yes you can if you break away from Euclidean two-dimensional space. Apparently she insists that I'm wrong - yet, she seems never to have looked it up - even googled it. Now that can be considered narcissistic...or dogmatic.

Here's a short video on taking us out of our flatlandish perspective of life and reality. All is not what it seems - and our path to understanding more is and always will be through trial and error / improvement: sometimes by ditching our mistakes, sometimes by reviewing the mistakes we made and finding something interesting in them: if we've rubbed them out - we would never know where it could have taken us. 






Monday, 11 May 2015

Academic labelling and its effects - personal stories

I had an interesting discussion with one of my younger pupils this week: her school have her down at a certain level that is below the level she's working at. Schools sometimes do this to ensure the pupil scores well at the lower grade. But her replies opened up a huge area in my mind.

"Sometimes" is a flexible word - some schools do this more than others when it comes to GCSEs: for instance, they may keep a student who is working at a B/C level on the foundation maths as they are more likely to secure the C grade pass. Is this all about maintaining a high ratio of passes? It does reflect human cum institutional nature when the personnel are given targets by the state or OFSTED to hit. I case you think I'm a cynic, there's plenty of evidence out there both anecdotal and historical - my position on it is to abolish the league tables and take the pressure off the teachers from having to perform against each others' classes and schools in the region. Education is not football.

It is just as wrong to compare two schools whose local cultures differ as it is to compare two individuals. And this was the point I was trying to make with my young pupil this week. Her responses were however saddening. When I pointed out that her ability was higher than the level her teacher had put, she defended her teacher, and then the school, and then the teacher: not with a reasoned explanation such as "Ah, but you see, when I'm in  the classroom, I cannot concentrate as well as I do here, so my teachers think I ought to do the lower level," which is fair enough and which I've heard before. I don't see the classroom side of my pupils, so I have to bow to the facts and then ask if she could take the exam in a quiet place such as the library.  Unfortunately, her response - typical as it may be at that age - was more thoughtless and just accepting the label provided. 

I found her retorts despairing, not just because she countered my perception of her but because her acceptance of what her school teachers had described was accepted as a dogma: a "label" as people now say. A sudden rush of understanding flooded my mind: an acceptance of what "they" say (a word she used several times) will leave her self-confidence fragile and low for many, many years. Her abilities are being defined by an authority figure and she has taken that authority, like most young people do, fully into her confidence. It creates a dependency on others' reactions and readings of us that is saddening and which needs to be countered by a healthy self-esteem and critical mind. 

In talking to parents, I may ask, "Have you got over school yet?" and many laugh nervously. 

Parents who were dyslexic in particular retain a fragility and host of fears about their children: to what extent this has held them back in their own lives may be difficult to quantify. Yet as we mature, we need to learn (and continue to learn) that other people's assessments and reactions are independent of our own.As an author,  I've been particularly sensitive to others' criticisms of what I've thought to be unassailable logic - partly from my schooling, that we become emotionally dependent on the 'report card' and partly from my personality type I gather (check out 16personalities.com for some fun! I'm an INF ) and partly from some horrendous knock-backs in life that have reinforced a fear that "other people are going to damn what I'm doing..." It's quite common but it's not healthy. 

When I hear a pupil rest an assumption on another's opinion, I first ask  whether they think that the description is fair, which it often is. Sometimes it is well off the mark - such as one of my GCSE students whose predicted grades were set by her SATS results: needless to say, there's a lot of intellectual growth between the ages of 10 and 15 and while she was predicted Cs, she's scoring As and A*s. When it is a fair description, "Yes, I do struggle with doing exams under pressure," I then ask if past performance is any indicator of future performance (a phrase we always hear when finance companies are advertising a product).

A common analogy I then use is strength training. 

When I was first introduced to the dipping bar by Guy Baker, my personal trainer in Nottingham (yep, a plug - but I only recommend what I see as the best in the field), it was only after several weeks of strengthening the shoulders. I'd not done dips for many years and from what I learned from Guy was that I had been doing them incorrectly anyway. He used bands for the first few sessions as I learned the technique and gradually they went. And gradually the reps or the 'time under descent' increased. And then he introduced a belt upon which weights could be fixed. I've gone from supported dips to body weight to weighted dips - dipping an extra 20 kilos on top of body weight. Past performance was no indicator of future performance! I use the analogy with pupils who are struggling to read and write as well as pupils who are nervous about exams. Rarely, the damage is too deep - the pupil needs other intervention (we recommend hypnosis or acupuncture, for starters) to get over exam nerves: but when I've met such rabbits in headlights - it's not just school assessment and reports and labels that have left them nervous wrecks: it's their entire family! 

I recall one girl who was struggling mathematically but whose father loudly repeated every session when he dropped her off how great he was at numeracy, how he could do 12% of £3 11s 10d off the top of his head. 

Can you imagine what that did to her confidence? 

Her situation was rather extreme, but most of us are guilty of dropping implicit or explicit comparisons into our assessments which sound so stupid in the cold light: "Your brother loves French...why don't you? [because you're useless]" "Oh, I used to love maths, I did A-level and got an A...[you must get your innumeracy from your dad, because you're not like me at all]" "I hated English, I hated grammar school [shudders]...so we want our daughter to apply for the 11+..."

??!! - which translates as "I'm setting up my daughter to hate the interminable future...just like my parents did, and they didn't listen to me, so why should I listen to my daughter's fears?" 

I said to one 16 year old, "You're no longer dyslexic..." 
His reply: "What will my mum say?" 
"What has she got to do with it? Her fears and concerns are not the same as what you're capable of in your own right. Just keep it quiet then, and nod and smile, but now you know - you're not the label school and parents have imposed on you." 
Phew! That was a deep one - not massively uncommon though along the spectrum of life.

As teachers and parents, we always need to speak with care - we're human, we'll slip of course, and it's good to say to the kids, "Whoops, I made a mistake there."

It's best not to label, especially regarding ability and choices made in the past. Much better is to say: "You need to work on that area..." which implies that the pupil is capable of working on that area: rather than imposing a restriction on their ability: "You're dyslexic... [implying] so you'll always struggle...[which in turn implies] why not give up now?" 

As humans, we carry with us the immense ability to redefine ourselves and to step out on a new path - but that ability is so thwarted when authority figures and parents impose labels with no hope attached: "You're dyslexic, just like me, just like your grandparents..." or assess our future with a grandiose statement and no analysis of why grandfather John found it difficult to read (he was a farmer who 'had no use for schooling' and books were not in the house and his parents had told him that reading is useless...a culture he passed to his daughter...)

"Once a C student, always a C student" - that was reported by teacher of a head teacher's assessment of her daughter! 

What the heck?

We're flexible and adaptable - that, if anything, is what has enabled us to survive and flourish as a species. And when we are caught not fulfilling our potential or of being virtuous and thoughtful, it's usually because we've labelled ourselves or accepted the labelling and become dogmatic about who we are and therefore of our reactions and choices.