No one can deny that you are severely handicapped in the world today if you can’t read, write or work with numbers. You only have to go on holiday to Japan, or even Greece, to realise how lost an illiterate person must feel just walking along the street. What do all the signs say? How much do those pastries cost and do they have nuts in them? Have I got enough money to buy one, and if I do, will I have enough money left afterwards to get the bus back?
Reverse Psychology Works
Britain’s numeracy and literacy rates have politicians flailing in fear, battening down the hatches like terrified fathers of teenage daughters: withdrawing privileges, making rules and more rules to try and stop them going off the rails. Key Skills, Basic Skills, Functional Skills, core subjects, compulsory subjects – Maths and English are being pushed and pushed and pushed.
I don’t know about you, but my experience of children and especially of teenagers is that the harder you push, the more they resist. They get suspicious: what is the agenda? What is wrong with this thing? It must be something pretty bad if they are so keen for me to do it. Like an early bedtime or eating vegetables, adults have a way of presenting things that are good for kids that suggests they are not going to be nice or fun – and conversely, they manage to limit things that are potentially harmful in a way that implies that, really, this is the good stuff. This is what we’d all rather be doing or eating.
We need to face facts: wagging fingers and nagging rarely produce enthusiasm in children – as I found to my detriment when I recently attempted to potty train my son. After a week or so, constantly asking “Do you need the toilet? Why don’t you go to the toilet now?” produced defiance and resistance, rather than joyful compliance. Learning did not take place. The times that he did want to sit on the toilet endlessly were at bedtime or when we were late for something and I was trying to shoo him off it.
Nonchalance makes things more mysterious. Rationing makes things more desirable. Refusing access makes things more precious than gold. I have a friend whose tactic for interesting her toddler in new food was to put it on her own plate. When asked what it was, she would reply: “This is Mummy’s aubergine.” By the end of the meal, her daughter would be begging to try it.
When it comes to vital skills like Maths and English, I think we need to dare to back off.
Let’s not make them compulsory. Let’s not shoe-horn them into every topic that we teach. Let’s not do frantic and constant testing.
Subjects like any other
In the Sandpit School, Maths and English are treated like anything else: they are topics/areas of learning that children can be interested in or not. They will be both discreet subjects that can be learned for their own sake, and they will occur quite naturally in other areas of the school, in the same way that in History you might end up looking at paintings (Art) or in Biology you might climb trees and jump over puddles and go for long walks (PE).
The children will be able to explore Maths in the Numbers Room, where I think it would be great to have Numberjacks-style missions, where there are problems with numbers and shapes in ‘real life’ that need solving and will lead into discovering mathematical principles. Like in all other areas, if a five year old wants to know about radius or mass or how to calculate the area of a room, they can. If a nine year old wants to count beads and play hopscotch, that is fine. The teacher will make sure they know what the options are, and when asked give advice as to what they might like to explore and what would be suitable for them, but not push. Not say: “You shouldn’t be doing that at your age.” Not insist: “It’s time to learn your times table now, put that down.” Not break out into a cold sweat when they notice that Melissa (7) has never once set foot in the Maths room.
The English room will offer opportunities to read books or be read to, to write stories or shopping lists (after which you can take a little trolley back to the Numbers room to buy your wares and pay with the correct change), to do spelling and grammar games and to speak. You could write and record a radio or TV show with your friends, have a debate on school or world issues, write and perform your own poetry or interview a teacher for a magazine you are making with friends. You can come or not come, every day or once every fortnight.
The Maths and English classrooms will relate strongly to real life, but also let you delve into the subjects purely for the pleasure of exploring words or numbers – because that, too, can be fun.
Let me be clear. I am not talking about reinventing school so that we can motivate students better. I don’t want to make learning more fun. I don’t want to find new ways of icing stale bread to pass it off as a cake. I want to reinvent school by stepping out of the way. I want us to stop de-motivating. Stop sucking the fun out of things. We need to stop assuming that learning is actually boring. Children love learning. They are designed to learn and they do it naturally. From the time your child is crawling, you need to baby proof the house because they will be off exploring: what is this for? What happens when I touch this? Is this good to eat? When they are about three years old, you can’t stop them asking questions. They want to know why and how.
The key to all this is trust. We need to trust our children to develop an interest in reading, writing and mathematics by themselves, either early on because they want to or later on because they have come to realise they need to. We need to trust that they will discover a motivation to learn these two vital subjects. Let them come to you with their questions and they will listen to the answers. Badger them about Maths and English, and all they will hear is “blah blah blah”, a bit like when you tell them to put their dirty socks in the laundry basket.
I can see you all sweating now, so let’s do a Risk Assessment. Backing off: what are the risks, how serious are they and how likely are they to happen? In other words: what is the worst that could happen?
Literacy rates could drop. They might drop dramatically. Britain might fall below Third World nations in the international league tables of literacy and numeracy.
Let me ask you this: how serious would that really be? If we let small human beings – who we often point to as “the future” – decide what is important enough to explore and learn about, and they decide en masse that numbers and letters are not worth their while, then are they not shaping the future? They won’t die, they won’t starve. They will find new ways of communicating. They will invent alternatives to the written word. They are already reinventing the written word, as it happens, on smartphones. This is how the human race has functioned since it began. It finds solutions to pressing problems and then it finds better ones. At the same time, it is in our nature to resist change. So it is understandable that we want to use our schools to maintain the status quo, but that does not mean that this is the right or the only way to educate.
The potential consequences, in my view, are dramatic, but not serious.
How likely is it that Britain would become largely illiterate and innumerate if we stop pushing Maths and English? Remember, I am not suggesting we don’t teach them. I am merely saying we should let children seek them out if they are interested and not nag or punish or force them into learning what they are not ready or willing to learn yet. I think we will find that if teachers who are genuinely passionate about their subjects place tasty morsels on their own plates and eat them with visible enjoyment, 99% of children will come and ask: “What is that? Can I have some?”