Category Archive • Brian's brilliant teaching career
January 06, 2005
Back to Paradise Primary

It is now close to midnight, and I have just spent the last two and half hours concocting this posting, about why there has been such a huge public response in this country and in other countries like it to the Asian Tsunami disaster. So I have little time for much now, today. Sorry.

Although, as it happens, the Tsunami thing was also on my mind this afternoon, when I paid my first visit of the new year to Paradise Primary, and reacquainted myself with Boy One and Boy Two.

Boy One was very pleased to see me and was his usual charming and accommodating self. I learned things about his family, e.g. that his father is gone. I quickly changed the subject to my father, also gone. Divorce? said Boy One. No, try the other thing. I'm old. My mum is very old. Ah, he said. I want to live for ever, he said. Death comes to us all, I said. He spent the first half of his session writing out PlayStation 2 gaming instructions, which I did not at all understand, but at least he was writing, and then glueing them in the book he has made, which I keep for him. At the end he allowed me to read him some more King Arthur stuff, and by the end was reading along himself. The half hour went by in no time.

Boy Two was, as usual, more withdrawn, and I was willing to do anything and talk about anything just to draw him out.

And I found myself asking him about the Tsunami. Did you hear about that? Yes, of course, but at least that was an easy one word answer that he pretty much was bound to give. Do you know where that was? No? Would you like me to show you? There was a globe nearby, and I gave Boy Two a brief geography lesson.

I can see why Tsunami studies are now so appealing to teachers. Lots of death and destruction and drama for the boys. Lots of caring and sharing for the girls. I prattled on for a minute or two, pointing at the affected places on the nearby globe. Want more? No, said Boy Two.

He glanced through a complicated football book, with many cards and pull out bits, and bits of mobile cardboard. Thank you, done that.

Then we played chess. I started by insisting that the pieces be arranged in the correct starting formation. I arranged mine correctly. He then rearranged his, with only a little help getting the king and queen right. He is good at recognising shapes, I think. When we played, I confined myself to insisting that he make legal moves, rather than especially good moves. He has much to learn about this game, but did not rebel against my refereeing.

Importantly, I hoped that he would at least be sensible about not chucking the pieces around the place, and when pieces got taken, I urged him to put the dead ones back in their little bags. By these modest standards he did very well. Since they told me when I started with him that he had "behavioural problems", I surmise that he is not always this accommodating.

Was I too bossy? Perhaps. Was I too lenient, allowing him to do amusingly unpressurising things? Well, that's what we are told to do. Make a relationship, then worry about the reading. I remain to be convinced of the wisdom of that strategy, but also remain optimistic.

Interestingly, Paradise Primary itself was far less full of stray adults like me, in fact when I went in, the place seemed almost deserted. I had already been told me that the pre-Christmas period is unusually fraught. Compared to the post-Christmas period, it certainly was.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
December 10, 2004
Boy One and Boy Two play cards

Yesterday afternoon I had my last visit to Paradise Primary before Christmas, and, in retrospect, it went okay, although at the time it was a strain.

When I got there, it transpired that Boy One and Boy Two had hatched a plan, to the effect that I should see both of them together for an hour, rather than each one in turn for half an hour. Okay I said, since it's my last visit before Christmas. At that VRH course we were warned about taking them in numbers greater than one, but I agreed, on the clear understand that if I didn't enjoy it, and that if they didn't behaved as I wished them, it would be back to the old system.

Not having done any regular teaching of boys of that age I was startled at the transformation that overtook Boy One especially. Boy One, when with me alone, is the soul of mature politeness, not to say charm. When he's trying to get me to do what he wants, he is very nice, very plausible, very winning, and we get along excellently (for I too can turn on the charm when I am seeking things that I want). But when faced with me together with Boy Two, whom Boy One obviously regarded as a puppy below him in the puppy hierarchy, Boy One focussed most of his attention on shouting at Boy Two with a view to subjugating him. Ingratiating himself with me was cast aside. I spent most of my time telling them to keep their voices down, Boy One especially, please, or I'll get into trouble.

Boy Two, who tends to be a tad despondent with me alone, seemed rather happier and livelier, which was probably because of the general air of relative anarchy that prevailed, compared to the one to one sessions, plus the fact that he had a bit of company of his own age, which he seems to like a lot. When with me alone he tends to fidget in a rather alarming and One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest sort of way. There was none of that today. When physically irked, he would run to the other side of the room.

I have been urging both Boys to do some reading, or at least submit to me reading to them, so that the idea of books as sources of information and entertainment is fixed in their minds to work its future magic, even if the notion has no effect now. They submitted to another two pages of King Arthur and his endless conflicts with the diabolical Morgan le Fay, the source of all trouble in Arthur-land, it seems. Then they mucked about with coloured pens and paper. Then they played cards.

These cards are of the ones with soccer internationals, each card having a picture of a soccer star and a list of individual information, like country, year of birth, weight, height, number of international goals, number of years of international soccer, and so on. The cards are divided … oh to hell with it, who cares what the rules are? But the point is: these rules involved comparing the information on your card with the other fellow's card.

I seriously don't think that they realised they were reading.

It was a long hour. They seem to welcome the fact that I will reappear in January, which was pleasing to me, but at the end of it all, I was tired.

What looking after twenty such, all in a pack for a whole day must be like, I dare not speculate.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:20 AM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
December 02, 2004

I see that in my report from the day before yesterday of that VRH refreshment meeting, I really left out the most important thing I learned, which is that reading is not the sole purpose of VRH. Paul The Boss even said that he somewhat regretted the title of the organisation, Volunteer Reading Help, because it missed out other important things, like children just talking, with an adult, and just becoming more confident. Once they see the basic point of words, and can say them confidently, then the next step, of reading them and writing them, comes far easier.

Paul The Boss even used a word I had never heard before – "oracy" – which apparently he heard Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools Stephen Twigg use in a speech about a year ago. Paul The Boss suspected Stephen Twigg of having made the word up, or that the word was at least something made up by New Labour. But he liked it anyway, or he wouldn't have mentioned it.

So, is oracy a real word? You be the judge. I have the strong impression that we have the education academics to thank for it, and that before 1990 it definitely wasn't a word. But one thing's for sure, which is that Stephen Twigg did not make it up.

However, the fact that someone like Paul The Boss finds this word useful makes me respect it, despite its likely recent academic origins. What Paul The Boss has in mind is a general confidence with words, spoken as well as written, although whether the academics mean exactly that by it I don't know. And we VRH volunteers are there not just to get our charges reading, but, if that fails, simply to get them talking. Confident in speaking with an adult. Used to the idea that words can communicate, that communication, indeed, is possible.

Associated with this is an ethic of voluntariness. We aren't there to compel these kids to do anything they don't want to do. If they want to play games, fine, that's what we do. If only because playing games does often involve reading in various ways, as was the case today when Boy Two and I played a card game that involved him reading the names of soccer players and their countries.

What separates all this from the aimless chaos of a badly run primary school is that each child has our undivided attention for the duration of the session. Just sitting and doing nothing and getting bored, it is absolutely not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerEducation theory
November 30, 2004
A little refreshment

Today, in need of a little face-to-face guidance in the matter of my Paradise Primary activities, I rang the London headquarters. (I see two boys, twice a week for half an hour each, one-to-one, encouraging them to read, talk, be happy, etc.) I asked for Paul The Bo, but instead spoke to the equally helpful Lady Assistant. And it turned out that they had a refresher afternoon for volunteers this very afternoon. Would I like to attend that? I could fit it in, and I did. The gathering consisted of Paul The Boss and four volunteers, me included.

I found both the event itself, and the personal chatting with Lady Assistant on the phone, and then with Lady Assistant and Paul The Boss before the formal proceedings began, both useful and encouraging. Basically, they said, I need not worry too much about whether Boy Two is proving a bit of a "challenge". I should just carry on carrying on, doing my best, and it would almost certainly help, they said. Fine by me.

(Boy One seems to be doing very well, although as we bloggers often say: what do I know? You do your best and hope for the best, with VRH stuff as with so many things.)

From one of the other volunteers I learned that there is at least one way that I have things very easy, which is that I do my stuff in the same place in Paradise Primary every time. She has to duck and weave and find a free spot in her much overcrowded school, and never knows from one gig to the next where she will be, or where the kids will be that she is supposed to be helping. The school knows the problem but can do nothing about it. I just go in and am started within a couple of minutes, in the same place as always. Count your blessings Brian.

Apart from the somewhat tedious travel, which I have yet to get systematised properly, my only other complaint (a minor one) is that I have yet to develop much in the way of a relationship with the school staff. They are very kind and polite, but mostly they just let me in and let me get on with it. They often thank me profusely, but it's hard to tell how much difference I am really making in their eyes. Trouble is, they seem too busy for me to feel comfortable really asking them things, plus it probably doesn't help that I go there towards the end of the school day when everyone is probably eager to be off home, in circumstances of maximum excitement and confusion.

Paul The Boss suggested that if I looked at the Paradise Primary website (by the way Paradise Primary is not this place and nor is this its website) for future school events I might invite myself to, but I couldn't find anything.

Be patient, said Paul The Boss. In fact said everyone (every other volunteer having been at it longer than me).

Paul The Boss also advised that with Christmas approaching, any primary school is likely to be in a more than averagely fraught mood just about now, and that if I just keep showing up until the end of the term, with no fuss, that would be best. Leave all that developing-increased-contact-with-staff stuff until the new year, when things will probably have calmed down a little.

A most helpful event. Basic message from Them to Me: relax, be patient, you're doing okay.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
November 23, 2004
Dressing up for Paradise Primary

Yesterday I visited Paradise Primary again, and this time I tried something different. I dressed well. Smart suit. Smart shirt. Tie. A new pair of shoes. The idea was to make my two charges more biddable, to impress them. I remember reading, somewhere, that what determines the behaviour of boys in a classroom is not what the teacher does in the class, but what the boys perceive the teacher to do outside the class. What counts is the perceived position of the teacher in the pecking order out there in the big, wide, bad world. Dress better, and you look more important in this world, and hence to the boys. Ergo, they pay attention to you.

Whether it was coincidence or causation, the boys were more biddable. Boy One even asked me about my smart clothes. Why are you wearing such smart clothes? – he asked. Because I am doing something important, after this, I said. Not that this isn't important, I added hastily, but this other thing is, you know, really important. So how about we do some reading now, Boy One? Okay, says Boy One, and we do.

Boy Two also submitted to some reading.

I don't want to give them more informative nicknames than this, because I don't want to impose my expectations upon them, and nicknames are bound to embody expectations. The One and Two thing is strictly a matter of chronology. Boy One goes first, then Boy Two

Later, I had another look at the Volunteers' Handbook, and it seems I can relax about whether we do any actual reading or not. Playing games, drawing pictures, which is what I have actually been doing with them a lot of the time, and generally establishing a relationship, is quite sufficient to start with. I am tempted to scoff and am sure that some of the readers of this may scoff, but then I think, these people do know their thing, and have had a lot of experience at it. I shall be guided by their guidance, and will relax about us having to do reading every time. I may even read them the bit in the manual where it says we don't have to do any reading. This may amuse them, and get them thinking about the uses of reading.

Next time, I will try dressing down to my usual standard, and see what difference that makes. If they refuse to do any reading, what with me so dressed down, I now know that this doesn't matter.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:22 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
November 03, 2004
First visit to Paradise Primary

Today I visited a primary school, in the company of the man who runs the London bit of Volunteer Reading Help. I am fixed up to help a couple of children with their reading etc., two afternoons a week, for about half an hour each.

For the time being I will refer to this place as Paradise Primary, because frankly, that is how it struck me. Maybe that pseudonym will change, but my guess is that it won't need to. (Maybe there will be times when it is a bit ironic.) The place has a website, and is crammed with photogenic stuff, the most photogenic things of all being, of course, the children. But for reasons I need not elaborate on, there will be no link to the website, and certainly and absolutely no photos. Quite apart from anything else, I have just signed a Confidentiality Agreement. Suffice it to say that I am looking forward to doing this very much, and am already sure that it will massively improve my understanding of the realities of education in London, which is, educationally, one of the most fascinating places in the world, what with all the different cultures and ethnic groups that are here represented.

Acronyms abound in education, much as they do in Tom Clancy novels. (CINCLANT, SACEUR, DEFCON, etc.) So, for instance, today, they gave me an information sheet about Paradise Primary which listed the Head Teacher, the School Secretary, and something called the SENCO. The School Secretary guards the front door of Paradise Primary and the person I will check in and out with every time I visit. And the SENCO is, approximately, and assuming that I heard it right and am remembering it right, the Special Educational Needs Coordinator.

Already, I am learning.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:03 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
March 16, 2004
Yesterday I sent in the form ...

Yesterday morning I sent the form in saying I would like to contribute to this enterprise. One of the reasons I did this was that I was about to meet up again with a dear friend who knew that I had been meaning to do this for some time now, and who I knew would at some point ask me if I had done this. I wanted to be able to say yes, and today I was able to do that.

This friend also asked me: what is the absolute most important thing to teach a child? I said: reading. Not writing, nor arithmetic. If you can read, you have a chance of learning how to write, or how to arithmetise (?). Learning how to write is meaningless if you can't read, and learning how to add and subtract (probably a better way to turn arithmetic into a verb) won't help you learn to read. So: reading. Reading opens the door of civilisation. Not being able to read keeps that door firmly shut. A little bit of help to a child at an early age can make a lot of difference, I think, which is what I put on the form as my reason for volunteering.

Me becoming a reading helper is bound to make this a more interesting blog to read, once this process gets under way (assuming that these people can find a use for me). I will keep you informed of progress, as and when it materialises. Expect no names of people, places or institutions (other than the one I have just linked to). But I for one, expect to learn a great deal about the state of education by becoming the lowest form of teaching life now in existence, and about whether I may ever be able to make myself into some kind of seriously effective educator.

As a first step, I much prefer this to picking some sort of training course, with a pin.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:27 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerLiteracy
September 02, 2003
Separating teaching from tyranny

The article by Jennifer Chew about phonics which I scanned in here last Wednesday is now up at the Telegraph website.

A homeschooling commenter denounced it thus:

More dogma and propaganda from those who have been indoctrinated to think they know who to raise my child better than I do.

I have a recent post on a topic related to this on my blog.


I'm not quite sure which particular "this" the posting on her blog refers to. Is it the phonics, the presumption of teaching superiority, or the "infant school" thing? Not sure.

I don't know if what follows works as any sort of answer to Joanne Davidson's objections, but maybe it does.

It seems to me that two things constantly get lumped together, both by those who favour both, and by those who oppose both, namely very structured and disciplined teaching, and the claim that children should be forced to submit to such teaching against their will.

I'm pretty sure that Jennifer Chew is a more or less unquestioning believer in the necessity of compulsory education, particularly for small children. In this I disagree with her, as does commenter Joanne. But when it comes to the teaching of literacy, I believe that I have a lot to learn from such persons as Jennifer Chew.

Put it this way. Supposing someone asked me which was better for a child: Being "taught" to read and write by those disastrously confusing "look and say" (i.e. look and guess) methods, in purely consenting circumstances, year after year? Or: Being forced to pay attention to someone like Jennifer Chew for a few early months of life? Well, I just hope no one asks. All I can say is I'd try like hell to persuade the "voluntary" teacher to change his or her ways, and if I failed … I'd not be a happy person. At present, most of the damage done by "look and say" is compulsorily inflicted by idiot state teachers, so that question, put to me, has never arisen.

Most of us have good memories of teachers who were (a) tyrants and (b) great teachers. Conflating their justified confidence that they knew how to teach something with a belief that this entitled them to force it down their pupils' throats (the key Bad Idea here) they duly did so. But, we have happy memories of this because to us what counted most was the good teaching, rather than the tyranny, which was irksome but (given the alternatives which probably involved just as much tyranny but less in the way of good teaching) bearable.

Yet good teaching and learning on the one hand, and compulsory teaching and learning on the other hand, are two absolutely different and distinct things. Good teaching may involve orders and obedience and abuse and prodding and poking and generally bossing the pupil around, but it absolutely doesn't have to involve the pupil having no right to switch this process off.

Some of the best teaching I've ever done has started with me saying: "Look, you can stop this at any moment, without explanation. Literally, whenever you want out, you can get out. No problem. But while you stay, you have to at least try to do what I say, or I'll get frustrated and I'll want to stop. Okay? Deal? Yes? Off we go then." And then followed a burst of high pressure teaching that to the naked eye would have been indistinguishable from tyranny. But it was not tyranny. Consent ruled throughout. The right to leave makes all the difference to the pupil's experience, to the pupil's attitude, to pupil morale. It means that despite all appearances to the contrary, the pupil stays in control. (A similar principle is embodied in the idea of an assembly line worker having next to him at all times a button which he can personally push to stop dead the entire assembly line.)

Boys in particular often love this sort of bare knuckle learning ordeal, which at the time is scary, but which afterwards they can feel genuinely proud of having lived through and learned from.

And one of the absolute worst ways to separate teaching from tyranny is to remove all orders, criticism, holding to a standard, attention demanding, prodding or poking, mental or physical, EXCEPT the tyranny of forbidding the victims of this vacuous anarchy from getting the hell out of there. Boys, in particular, will despise such "teaching", and if you attempt it on a gang of them, they will give you the exact punishment you deserve. They will make your life a living hell. That is a one-paragraph summary of all that is wrong with state education in Britain today, and I'll bet also in a hell of a lot of other countries.

I know what you're thinking. How do you persuade children to learn something like reading and writing if they don't want to. The answer is right there in the question. You persuade them. (I call it "selling the culture".) You tell them why you really, really think they ought to learn to read and write, why you are so, so pleased you learned to read and write as early as you did, and then hope that they agree with you. And then you, or someone, teaches them. If they don't agree with you, increase your advertising budget. Spend more time on the persuading. (And before anyone says the opposite, advertising and compulsion are also absolutely different things.)

If you can't think of any good reason why kids should bother with reading and writing and are just taking it on trust from your social superiors, and "selling" reading and writing to your kids on a because-I-say-so basis, then there's your problem right there. You don't actually see the point of it yourself. So why be surprised if your kids don't either? That's the message you've sold them, very persuasively.

So anyway, my question to Joanne is: were you objecting to the compulsion? – in which case I'm with you. Or to the phonics? – in which case I think you are turning your back on some very good stuff, the best stuff on the teaching of literacy that I personally know about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:15 PM
Category: Boys will be boysBrian's brilliant teaching careerHow to teachLiteracy
June 24, 2003
My ethnic group is ...

Today I finally got around to ringing these people, to offer my services as a reading helper. The application form will be in the post to me tomorrow.

The only thing of note about the conversation, which was otherwise most informative and definitely made we want to press ahead, was that they wanted to know – or warned me that they were going to want to know, I forget which – my ethnic group. Those, I suppose, are the times we live in.

I told them I was "white", the word "Caucasian" not being ready at the top of my brain. Just in case you were wondering.

Does this mean I'll be helping only white children?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:47 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
June 16, 2003
Could this be my big chance?

It's only a short posting today, but about something that looks interesting, namely Volunteer Reading Help. I found out about it by reading this.

It is, as is fairly obvious, a volunteers-to-teach-reading scheme. I've been trying to wangle my way into active education without committing myself to anything too huge or time consuming, and this might be worth me looking into a bit further. An hour a week for each child, apparently.

I know, I know, it's got government all over it. But if it's good then good, and if it's bad, then I can blog about that, can't I?

Anyone know anything about this scheme?

In the same bit that mentions VRH, John Clare also supplies a link to these people, who put themselves about rather more than I first realised.
Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:42 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching careerLiteracy
March 28, 2003
Guitar anybody?
So I want to get my BEdBlog duties over and done with for the week, and I type "Brian's Education" into google, to see what I've been up to that I must have been doing while sleep walking. And it seems I'm branching out into giving guitar lessons.
Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:47 AM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
November 22, 2002
The un-mis-informing of Ali

I promised the other day that by way of a change I would soon be mentioning (and I promised it rather sooner than now – apologies) some actual teaching that I'd done. Well, the most recent teaching I did was when I was helping my friend Mariana run something called a Kumon Centre, which is a franchised after-school maths club, managed locally but in accordance with a centrally imposed set of guidelines first developed and still presided over in Japan. I wrote a piece for the Libertarian Alliance about this experience, but the events I am about to write about happened after that piece had been published.

Regular school maths usually seems to involve the children working through only a few rather hard problems. Kumon makes them do many more much easier ones. Instead of hoping that they get, say, about half to two thirds of their stuff right, Kumon says they must get nearly everything right. At the heart of the Kumon method is the difference between a child painfully working out that seven plus six equals, er, thirteen? (anxious glance at face of teacher), and knowing with real certainty that seven plus six equals thirteen, with no doubts or hesitations. The usual educational emphasis is on "understanding". The Kumon literature talks of "mastery".

Each child does a clutch of sums selected for him or her personally (there is no everyone-in-the-class-does-the-same-stuff rule) each day, which are supposed to take about twenty minutes to complete. In schools, teachers do the teaching. With Kumon, the system does the teaching. All we did was mark the work the children had done, and then Mariana would follow the rules of the system to set them their next lot of sums.

It worked. Almost all children made steady progress, and in some cases - and in more than just maths by the way – progress was truly astonishing. Kumon sometimes seemed to administer nothing less than a psychological transformation.

But there was one boy for whom Kumon did not seem to be working its magic. Ali was the boy's name, and he seemed to be in such serious trouble that Kumon seemed beside the point. When he did sums they were all over the place. Answers were totally wrong, and figures written the wrong way round. He could hold a pencil and write, but what he wrote was crazy. We seriously doubted if there was anything we could do, and we were ready to give up right there. He would make repeated mistakes, both of calculation and in the way he wrote numbers, and we even started to believe that he might be "dyslexic", or even brain damaged. Also, Ali seemed to be an extremely arrogant little boy. He had a way of lowering his eyelids and raising his head that made him look as if he thought the world to be populated entirely by fools.

At which point I got very, very lucky. I said, let me have a try with him. I decided to do some teaching.

As I say, with Kumon, you're not supposed to teach. You simply shove the stuff in front of them and they do it with the minimum of guidance, and at the end you tell them how they've done, and they learn. The system teaches them, not us. But that wasn't going to work with Ali.

I sat Ali down in front of a clutch of Kumon sums and sat myself down right next to him. I got him to do each one exactly right, telling him exactly what to do and getting him to correct all errors immediately, as soon as he made them, and telling him exactly what to do whenever he didn't know.

I separated the task he faced into a succession of tiny steps and got him to do each step right before proceeding to the next. You start by writing your name there. No, there. What's your name? Ali. Good. Can you spell that? Good. Please write Ali there. Good. Now: what does this say? I point at a two. Two. Good. And what does that say? I point at a one. One. Good. What about that? I point at the plus in between the two and the one. No? That says plus. That means you are adding two to one. What does this say? Don't know? That says equals. That means what does two and one come to. What's it the same as? What is two plus one, two and one, two added to one? So. What's two and one? Don't know? It's three. Do you know how to write three? You do. Good. Please write three there, which is where the answer is supposed to go. Excellent.

And so on. I never made him guess more than once, and I was unfailingly polite. I always said please before asking him to do anything, and I never raised my voice. I never, that is to say, confused Ali being ignorant with Ali being stupid. I did nothing that would be unfamiliar to an averagely capable aerobics instructor working with a arthritic old-age pensioner, but for some reason this sort of thing, when needed by a child, is not always supplied, even in something as widely known as simple arithmetic.

Aside from not knowing the answers, Ali's biggest problem was writing the numbers the correct way around. He would routinely write mirror reflections of them instead. Not all the time, just rather a lot. (This was what had prompted the dyslexia diagnosis.)

When Ali did this - getting, say, the answer right but writing it mirrored - I would say well done, you got the answer right. The answer is five, and that's what you wrote. Well done. However, you wrote the five the wrong way round. Please rub out the five you did, and rewrite it the correct way round. Good.

As I say, you aren't supposed to do this in Kumon. If all the children were to get twenty minutes of solid attention, the way I was attending to Ali, the place would have stopped being the learning factory for everyboy and everygirl that it's supposed to be and would have reverted to being a few tutors helping a few rich kids. But I didn't care.

And the reason that I didn't care was that it worked. After about three sessions along these lines, Ali reached his personal plateau of arithmetical excellence (a few sums wrong but almost all of them right), just like any other Kumon kid.

There was nothing wrong with Ali's brain. Nothing whatsoever. He wasn't stupid, far from it. He had merely been misinformed.

Nor, in my opinion and in my brief experience, and despite my initial prejudice along exactly such lines, was he arrogant. My guess was there was something a bit wrong with his eyesight, and he did the lowered eyelids and raised head thing to correct it.

I don't know for sure how or why Ali had been misinformed and anyway, the cause of the problem wasn't important; what mattered was that the problem was being dealt with. My guess is that (a) his mother may not have been that sure about doing or writing out arithmetic and had consequently not been helping him with it, the way most mothers help most kids with easy sums. Confusions created at school were not cleared up at home. (The more I contemplate state education, the more important remedial home teaching seems to me to be.)

So how had Ali's school created these confusions? I surmise that at his school Ali had not had all his errors corrected, only some of them. Maybe, what with all the other kids to be worrying about, they just couldn't or didn't bother to find the time.

Maybe Ali's teachers had become gripped by the fallacy that ignorance is stupidity and that therefore to correct someone's mistakes - all of someone's mistakes, all of someone's numerous mistakes - is to launch an all-engulfing personal attack on them. (Better to boost the little kiddy's confidence and self-esteem by telling him he's doing better than he is.)

Maybe, what with Ali looking down his nose at everybody, they judged him to be difficult, and feared that if they told him the full story of how badly he was doing he'd make a scene. (That Ali and his family were Muslims might also have made them fear some kind of cross-cultural battle.)

Whatever the exact reasons, Ali had been getting wrong information. Here, two plus one was three, but here, where he'd put two plus one was two, no-one had objected. So presumably that was correct also. Numbers written both the right way round and the wrong way round were left unmolested, so presumably both answers were okay. Except that sometimes the wrong answers weren't okay.

Actually, I believe that Ali was very intelligent, and that had he been less intelligent he would have been less confused. He was getting a mass of bad information and, poor fellow, he was taking it all in, the way a less clever boy might not have.

As I say, Ali wasn't arrogant at all, but if he had thought arithmetic too silly and arbitrary and irrational to be worthy of his sustained attention, who could have blamed him?

I believe I did Ali some big favours, and in a very short time. With luck I convinced him that arithmetic could, if explained properly, make perfect sense and that he could make perfect sense of it. I told his parents that there was nothing – nothing whatsoever - wrong with his brain, only the information that had previously been fed into it, and with any luck they believed me. If Ali's learning environment later reverted to confusion then presumably Ali went back to being confused, but with more luck, both Ali and his parents will then blame society rather than Ali, and seek out non-confusion.

I could go on at even greater length, and in an earlier draft containing this (for another Libertarian Alliance Educational Note) I did. There are plenty of "lessons" here, I think. But this is blogging, and I'll leave this story to speak for itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:51 AM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career