Attitudes to learning
I originally wrote this blog at 30,000 feet - on a plane. A couple of days later when I tried to find it to edit it, it was gone! It was a good blog. Rather than be consumed with fury and the unfairness of life, I decided to see this as an opportunity to rethink the original. I have re-written it. Ironically, rage, fury and the unfairness of life is one of the things that the blog touches on.
Our daughter is finding school a little difficult. I adore her, and her anxiety about school is a serious cause for concern. She is witty, engaging, challenging and fun. She has a highly pragmatic view of the world, and often makes suggestions about how to circumvent a problem with astonishing perception. She is a genius at Minecraft and a terrific swimmer. She is a child full of surprises and vitality.
Primary schools have changed a great deal owing to the harsh Gove-ean philosophy underpinning everything. The issue that we are having with her, I do not recall having with our son. The problem is that the class is ranked, and she is painfully aware of the place she is positioned in the class - not far off the bottom. She is bright, thoughtful and affectionate. She writes quite well, and she enjoys being told stories; but her times-tables are slow, and her spelling is mainly miss, occasionally hit. The rigid assessment criteria determine her as someone who is below the median of the class. This unnecessary and fascistic structure does not take into account her passion, creativity or natural love of learning. I see little point in learning stuff by rote, so I am not going to force a six year old to chant her times-tables as if they were some meaningless spell or incantation. I have sat and done maths with her. She has a good grasp of the concepts and what the various functions mean; she just doesn't see the benefit of learning anything parrot fashion. This does not prevent her being joyful when she discovers something new. Her excitement to learn make her a pleasure to work with. And I agree with her about the parroting of maths ... for the time being. Sometimes she rages. The perceived injustice makes her furious. At the root of this injustice is the way her expectation does not match reality. In her mind, she deserves a place at the top table with the children who are reading novels and doing all their times-tables at calculator speed. The fact that she is somewhere near the bottom means that the whole world must be wrong. Her class teacher is talented and kind. He has inherited a way of working which is brutal and dehumanising, and he is doing his very best in helping her to mind the gap between subjective and objective world view.
Our son has a completely different attitude. Even though his environment is highly competitive, he is not interested in where he might rank above or below the other dancers. He sees his progress as something personal and private. It is something for him to assess under the skilful gaze of his ballet teacher. He is a zen ballet student - he observes himself as he is working, and his assessment is without judgement. His faith in his own process protects him from this perilous gap between expectation and reality. Whatever he can't do today may be done in a couple of months, or years, as long as he just proceeds, taking the right steps now. The path may be long, but he is an assured traveller without regard for how far ahead or behind anyone else might be. Despite any physical ability, or limitation, this is the perfect temperament for a vocational training in classical ballet. Come what may, it might even be the key to his survival.
I can sympathise with our daughter. I think that of the two attitudes to learning, I am more similar to her. She might even have her impatience and preponderance to rage from me and my side of the family. Throughout my schooling and even at university, the gap between expectation and reality was difficult to navigate. In fact, often it was a chasm rather than a gap; one that I've fallen into many times. When I consider any of the slight de-railings that I have experienced in my life; at root lies the discrepancy between what I expect and what is really the case. It has taken me a long time to learn not to fall or even jump, and now, finally, in middle age, I consider myself more accepting, more yielding and kinder; and I still sometimes tumble down into the chasm. It is now my task with the help of our son, to gently show his sister another way - to help her manage her expectation and not trap herself in overwhelming feelings of frustration and rage. And while I am trying to teach her, I am, of course, also trying to learn this myself. We'll start on the times-tables another day.
A Change in Direction
The blog is being redesigned. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that the readers deserve better. When I started doing it, I imagined only a handful of readers, and so I took a picture of some old ballet shoes on our kitchen table and stuck it through a photo-shop app. Coincidentally, there was a bit of red paint on the table. I liked this fortunate bit of synchronicity. The paint was near the big toe of one of the shoes. You might mistakenly have assumed that it was blood - appropriate for the struggle that we were all experiencing. As the readership has grown, I feel that I should now put some more thought into how I present the stories. I'd like to appear a little more professional; and a little less home-made. So, I've made a new 'banner', I'm adding some new features and I'm redesigned the site. This is my renewed commitment to the blog.
The second reason for a change of direction concerns our son's transformation while this academic year gets underway. It is a completely different experience for all of us. His activities at the school appear to be giving him such a sense of satisfaction. The ballet has become even more challenging - even more is required of them. He has some new teachers - some are new to the school, and others are just new to him. These teachers have given him a renewed enthusiasm for school. He also seems to have settled down with the other children. He seems to have found his place. In terms of the academic tasks and the ballet challenges, he is thoroughly enjoying himself. At the moment his school life has the idyllic texture of an Edwardian children's story. I am genuinely happy for him, but I've always hated the Edwardians - patriarchal and repressed.
Where, then, does this leave me? I have become lost in my own story. The narrative of my own blog has abandoned me. This is the story of a son ripped away from the heart of his family, and the father's attempt to reconcile what it happening. It is a story of loss, incomprehension and unnecessary pain. Or at least it was. Now it is the story of a child who has found a path in life that he enjoys. He understands that this path involves living away from home during the week. He is dropped off every Monday full of excitement and anticipation. Who would begrudge this for their child? Surely it is what every parent wishes.
I have to seriously rethink my part in the story.
So the blog needs to be redesigned.
The Futility of an Education
I have spent some of the weekend helping our daughter to read made-up words. This is because of a phonics test which all children of her age are required to take. Someone in the government - probably Michael Gove at the time - thought it would be a good idea to ask children to read fictional words rather than real ones. English spelling is difficult enough. These fictional words are referred to as pseudo-words. Here are some examples from last year's test: 'flam', 'voisk', 'quigh' 'jorb', 'herks'. These have been quite difficult to type, as my autocorrect insists that they are other words - real ones. There are about twenty-five of these pseudo-words on the test. Our daughter's teacher has explained to me that many children have an inbuilt autocorrect of their own, and so will read a word incorrectly, saying a real word, rather than the pseudo-word. They will read 'job', for example, rather than 'jorb'. I think these children should receive extra marks rather than be penalised.
About a year ago, an exercise circulated around Facebook that proved we read the words we expect to read rather than the ones on the page. The document replaced some letters with numbers, and it was still possible to make perfect sense from the writing, and read it at a usual speed. For adults this is an entertaining digression which proves how we rarely read what is actually on the page; for children, trying to make sense of made-up words is infuriating. Understandably, our daughter does not enjoy being tested in this way. We've had a couple of tantrums about going to school. I've been sympathetic.
Occasionally, our son expresses his disappointment that the range of subjects he studies at school is not broader. With all the ballet and dance, there is little time for anything other than core subjects. There is no IT, media, or design, The only foreign language he studies is French. I know that he would like to learn Spanish, or German or Latin. However, he has a sound knowledge of Ballet History, and a practical understanding of several European folk dances, including Morris dance, and Hungarian Folk dance. This is how he spends his time when he is not in the Ballet studio or studying the core academic subjects.
I went to an academic school. Not only did we learn Latin, but we spent some time looking at The Odyssey - in English translation, it was a state school, after all. Culturally, we seem to view some subjects as having more value than others. In my adult life, I have used very little of the Latin that I learned at school, and even less of the Physics or Chemistry. Yet, these are perceived as worthy subjects - suggesting that my achievement is the result of valuable intellectual rigour. For our son, I imagine that Folk Dance is a useful subject, and History of Ballet certainly implies an intellectual rigour - depending on how it is taught. To suggest that one subject is more important or useful than another is purely subjective - a view founded in intellectual snobbery and cultural habit.
My daughter, on the other hand, will never have to read made-up words again, and I hope that I never have to type the vile phrase 'pseudo-words' ever again. The sounding out of random made-up words without context is a complete waste of everyone's time.