International Mindedness – Article in ‘Global Insights’

An article originally written a little while ago for this blog has been included in the magazine ‘Global Insights’ published by The Educational Collaborative for International Schools

The whole magazine edition has lots of interesting articles. Mine appears on Page 26.


Educators Sharing Best Practices Around The World

There really isn’t a need, today, for any educator to feel isolated, or to believe that he/ she must reinvent the wheel. Of course, educators can be just as guilty as any other profession of falling foul of NIH (Not Invented Here!). This is the idea that a ‘solution’ may work in one place, but wouldn’t work in OUR place, because it doesn’t comply to ‘the way we do things around here.’

As i said, every profession can fall guilty of this. However, strong introspection and a willingness to challenge ourselves and our assumptions can address the issue. When we see an idea that’s working somewhere else, we need to come at it from the other direction – is there a possibility that I could make that work in our environment? This enables a greater degree of ‘possibility thinking’ and openness, rather than shutting down on ideas and innovations before they’ve been tried.

Here is a brilliant example of this at work. Throughout my three years working in UAE I was very aware that one of the weak or vulnerable areas is considered to be the way that the Arabic language is taught. The methods have tended to be very conventional, very traditional and rote based and are considered incompatible with the approaches of most progressive schools and educators. As a result, all sorts of issues arise for children who are being taught all their other subjects in more advanced learner-centric ways, but are confronted in the language classroom by teachers who haven’t changed their pedagogy adequately. They feel it to a far greater extent because of the contrast. Also, student motivation gets severely strained by the strong early emphasis on writing and character production.

Over the last month I have been confronted with evidence here that similar issues are talked about for the teaching of the Malaysian language and Chinese in the International schools. So, I was delighted to see this article – evidence of the UAE teachers coming out of their shells, ready to open up to new possibilities and new ways of approaching the craft of language teaching;

The National – UAE – Arabic teachers Told Children Learn Languages Better With Hand Signals

The article concerns a conference that took place in Dubai, where teachers of the Arabic language were exposed to evidence and examples of what teachers are doing in other parts of the world when teaching languages. The obvious implication being that what was working in one place, in relation to one language, can be adapted and made to work elsewhere for another language.

As with so many things, there are way more things that make us similar than make us different. This acknowledgement of our innate ‘sameness’ can lead to greater learning from elsewhere about the most effective ways to teach languages and this can only benefit young learners.

Crikey! War Against Exclamation Marks!

In pursuit of ‘opportunity for all’, purportedly, the English Department of Education has launched an all-out assault on the ever versatile, lively and vivacious exclamation mark!

There – now, look what I’ve done. If I was a seven year old, in school in England and had just written that sentence, i would be in trouble with the great and the good of the Department.

Independent – UK – Seven Year Olds Get Strict New Rules On Use Of Exclamation Marks

I hope that someone with a lot more time on their hands than me would do the analysis to find out how many of the Whitbread and Booker prize winning novels of the last 10-15 years would fail against these new rules. I’m guessing many would. I also suspect the likes of Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh would be spending considerable time in the naughty corner. And as for the late Sir Terry Pratchett, well , just …. !!!

Writers write for an audience and according to a given context. You don’t write a letter to your Grandma (does anyone still write letters to their Grandmas? I hope so.) in the same way you write an article for the NewYorker or your doctoral thesis. Those who write, do so for a purpose – a desire to communicate, to take ideas from the mind and capture them. Teachers complain very frequently that children lack the motivation to write. Should we really be surprised if they gt bound up from such an early stage in their development as writers with endless rules like this? Surely, our first priority should be to motivate them to want to share their ideas in permanent form. In time, as they lose their egocentricity they will come to recognise the need for different approaches depending on the audience. They can then learn the requisite skills to meet the needs and expectations of those different audiences. However, if they’ve been completely switched off from writing, then none of those skills will ever be learned.

Motivation to Write

snoopy writing

(With credit and appreciation to the great Snoopy)

When a small child learns to walk there is no end of motivation. There’s the intrinsic kind – the child wants to go where others go, see things which are too high from a prone position, touch things that others can reach and generally be a part of the ‘walking world’. Then there’s the extrinsic kind of motivation – every attempt is applauded, there is visible delight from all around every time the child tries, whether or not they succeed. Failures as well as successes are welcomed with equal glee. perhaps as important, the child gets to learn from the feedback of their own body. Nobody sits them down and takes them in to endless detail about balance, body dynamics, energy etc. And nobody sets them up in artificial competitions where the quality, standards and speed of their walking are continually compared and contrasted with their peers. What wonderful conditions for learning – should any of us wonder that 100% are successful learners?

Cut to a few years later, a curious and enthusiastic pre-schooler, fascinated to explore the world around them, to learn about it, to understand it and to engage with it. Arriving at school for the first time they can be forgiven for believing that this is a place that will offer them endless opportunities to explore, to learn, to satisfy their curiosity. But, hold your horses! We know where this story goes and we know that for far too many children the ending is not a happy one.

Even before school, when being read stories, seeing books, the child becomes vaguely aware that we humans have a way of setting down the thoughts and ideas from inside our heads in a permanent code that enables us to share them with an infinite number of other people. To most, this seems like a pretty cool idea. Sadly, they are soon to lose their rose-tinted glasses.

Dull as dishwater sessions in the classroom making the same letter over and over, colouring in pictures of letters etc. would be bad enough. However, then they go home and are made to do more of the same there. All the focus and feedback seems to be on finding the mistakes, the faults, the ones done badly. Negative comparisons start to get made. Other children in the class may be praised for how beautiful their writing looks. other children’s writing may be considered beautiful enough and diligently mastered to deserve to be displayed on the classroom wall. For some, the torture comes from being expected to learn the capital forms, the lower case forms and then cursive/ joined up before anything else has really been mastered. This is like being expected to learn to run and hop at the same time as the child is still getting to grips with basic walking.

As the child gets older they start to hope that they will now get to use this code to express their creative, imaginative ideas, to weave magical tales and to share thoughts and knowledge. However, when they get the chance to write, their freedom is wrapped around with all sorts of limitations, they’re still conscious that the writing won’t look as wonderful on the page as some other children’s and therefore won’t get the same attention or praise. Worse, when it comes back to them, their piece of creativity will have graffiti all over it highlighting spelling errors, punctuation issues and their failure to use paragraphs properly. What happened to being praised for the effort? What happened to all that motivation to share?

Should we be surprised, in these circumstances, if too many children lose sight of the connection between these endless mechanical processes and the perpetual obsession with form and their motivation to share and express their ideas, the thoughts in side their heads in writing in such a way that they can be conveyed to others.

I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with parents of children between classes one and six/ seven who, when asked whether all is going well with their child’s learning, replies; “He/ she won’t write.” This sounds sometimes like a terrible damnation on the child. In the parent’s mind you can see the equation unfolding – won’t write – won’t learn – won’t pass or do well in school – won’t go to a good college – won’t have a good life – will fail to fulfil their potential.

There are things that can help (until we really get to grips with the processes in the school and home that do the harm in the first place). I’ve seen, first hand, the transformative impact for a child invited to orally tell a tale to an adult while they transcribe it, either on paper or to a computer. Then, the children were invited to select clipart and borders to decorate their writing. What came out was their ideas and creative minds presented in a way that was pleasing to the eye and that they were proud to share. I’ve also seen the wonderful impact from writing games and exercises that can free children from worry about how their writing looks. In such circumstances, all attention is on the creative use of ideas, none on spelling, punctuation, grammar or the mechanics of writing.

I write because I choose to write (sometimes a lot!), because there’s an audience. Yes, thank you dear reader – you are the motivation for why this blog grows and grows. You fuel my desire to share ideas and thoughts and to continually strive to do so in the most effective ways. Yet, for our children in school, all too often they feel like the only real audience for their creative writing is their hyper-critical, process-focussed teacher. This hardly fuels high motivation.

So, I share here an idea that I’ve shared with a number of parents, especially when they have talked about their children struggling to find the motivation to write. The internet, today, offers every writer a potential audience. For example, in the last twelve months, this blog has had visitor readers from 57 different countries!

This idea of writing online has been a big motivator for my son over the last 3-4 years. So, with his help I’ve gathered the following resources to provide a start for any student who wants to write for a real, live audience. There is enormous motivation to write something – a story, a poem or a piece of commentary and to put it out in to the public domain. Within hours, a student can potentially have feedback from peers all over the world. For a parent or teacher it’s a good idea to do a bit of research on the suggested sites. Some are limited to young writers over the age of 13, but there are a few that allow younger writers. The sites are generally all moderated so they are a safe place on the internet for your child. The contributors are encouraged to reflect on each other’s writing, as well as publishing their own. Some limit the amount each child can publish on the basis of points gained for critiquing the writing of others. However, these are vital skills in becoming a better writer and in understanding and handling the feedback that comes from others.

The links below also offer some useful starting points for the motivated student writer who wants to enhance and improve their skills, to hone their techniques and to attain higher levels of mastery in their writing.

Cool Tools for Schools – Writing Tools

Larry Ferlazzo – The Best Places Where Students Can Write Online – 40 Best Websites for Young Writers

For those interested, I’ve written before and shared my views on the teaching of cursive writing. If you want to read – type cursive in the search box at the top of the page.

Finally, I finish with a confession – I am a motivated writer. However, if I had to present you with a handwritten document every time I wrote, that motivation would evaporate rapidly. I have ugly handwriting (the product of Primary School teachers who tried to undo my obvious left-handedness!). Thankfully, technology means I don’t need to worry about such things. Instead, I rely on your critique on the quality of the writing as it conveys my message and my ability to express coherent views.

Writing to Heal

In a teacher recruitment interview a few days ago, the issue of children who lack the motivation to learn writing came up. This teacher was not unusual in advocating ‘more practice’ and various process oriented responses to get the child to do more of the activities that would eventually manifest in the ability to write.

These, I find, are the typical responses – if what we’ve done with the child so far isn’t working – do more of it, push harder, take a more pro-active stance, but by hook or by crook we will make the process happen. These kinds of perspectives are inevitable in a system that sees teaching as what matters (as opposed to learning). This approach says, essentially – it’s on the syllabus, all the children will learn it. Next – if most have learned it, any who haven’t are in some way or other inconvenient misfits. Compliance, consistency and the regulated outcomes of the factory are what we appreciate and value. And so, the quality control, remediation process commences as we, the educators, seek to bend the child in to conformity and consistency.

Even if we are successful, what have we done to the child? What have we lead them to believe about themselves or about the learning process? Phrases like, “I’m not very good at this school learning stuff,” “learning for me happens when someone older and wiser makes it happen,” “learning is something that has to be done to me, for my own good, not something i do for my own good.” Should we really be surprised if these turn out to be self-fulfilling prophesies?

Barring cases of severe mental or physical retardation, did you ever see a child that failed to learn to walk? I’m guessing not. That said, you might have seen plenty of children who would have been defined as failing if they didn’t walk among the first batch of their age peer cohort. My understanding is that walking starts between 9 and 16 months from birth. If we educators got to interfere in the process I suspect that by month 14 all those children who weren’t achieving at least a B grade for walking competence would be in remedial class, being set extra practice and would get to hear themselves talked about as a ‘late developer’ and ‘low achiever’ by educators and parents in not so hushed whispers! Who knows, if we could really get our hands dirty, some of them might be inclined to give up on the whole idea of walking completely.

The same could go for speaking.

And yet, aren’t these the very responses that come from the industrialised model of education when a child is ‘late’ in developing the skills of reading or writing? Should we wonder that in countries like UK and USA where there is decent quality school education, free for all, there is 20%+ functional illiteracy in the society? Isn’t this criminal?

The first major issue, to me, is that with us staying out of the process children graduate from crawling and bottom sliding to walking when their brain has reached the development stage to have the appropriate neural network to support the sophisticated process of walking. When this happens over the extended time period mentioned above seems to make no difference whatsoever to their eventual level of competence as walkers – it’s not as though late walkers are destined to be poor ‘D’ grade walkers for the rest of their lives. So, when the network’s right, it will happen.

The second major issue, to me, is motivation. Now, to the industrialised model of education this whole matter of motivation is way too fuzzy, unmeasurable and therefore something to be squeezed out of the process and/ or ignored as much as possible.

When a child is crawling they come to realise that this is only partially effective. There are too many interesting things that arouse their curiosity that remain out of their reach. Crawling has severe speed limitations. The child has the desire to move faster, to keep up with older children, to go where the big people do, to move away from being held and to move and explore the world around independently. All of these things add up to enormous levels of motivation that spur the child through the immense learning required to master walking.

Similar can be said for oral communication. The child develops a massive desire to communicate; to express physical needs, to share feelings and emotions, to join in and feel connected to all the other people around who are using language and oral communication to share things. This all adds up to vast levels of motivation that provide the spur for the child to work through the most challenging aspects of mastering the monumental skills required for oral communication and language learning.

Then we come back to writing. My concern here is how much time teachers spend talking with children about issues of motive and motivation when it comes to writing. The expressions on some small children’s faces when you see them in class made to do endless repetition of forming a particular letter appear almost bemused – as though they are being subjected to some form of bizarre, repetitive process that seems to have little or no purpose. In such circumstances, should we wonder that so many lose their enthusiasm so quickly? Should we be surprised when we hear teachers through all the Primary school years saying of a child, “He/ she doesn’t want to write, but he/ she’s quite happy sharing his/ her ideas when speaking.”

How long could you or I sustain enthusiastic practice for some form of repetitive practice for which we didn’t believe we had any purpose, desire or wish. Worse, we can see and think of a whole variety of things we would rather be doing. Is the child to be turned in to a ‘pleaser’ by the fact that the biggest motivation they can identify for writing is it seems to keep the adults happy/ stop them getting angry at me?

There’s something else that tests a child’s motivation for writing in the early stages – what they write doesn’t look very beautiful/ perfect/ aesthetic and it certainly looks like a poor version of what they see adults and teachers producing. If we paid more attention to motivation, I think we’d pay more attention to these things. We’d be more likely to spot the signs when a child is struggling to maintain the motivation or finding it difficult to make the mental connections between the processes they’re being asked to do and the practice of capturing one’s ideas, stories, messages and feelings permanently for communication to one or many others. And, educators would focus far more on strategies to help with that motivation.

I’ve read a few times and had first hand experience of the joy a child experiences when their oral rendition of some idea or a story is captured for them by an adult (either with pen and paper or on a keyboard), then maybe decorated with a nice font, a border, maybe a relevant picture and printed off. Suddenly, the child has a full and complete mental connection with the power of the written word and the endless possibilities that lie ahead for them when they master the skills of writing.

As children get older, we need to share with them the full multitude of ways that people use the written word to communicate. We need them to know and recognise that the people who write books are not ‘gods’ or unreachable heroes on pedestals, but normal people like them with ideas they want to share and who have mastered the skills to do so in ways that reach out to others and touch something deep in them.

Even adults these days say they don’t write very often and struggle to find the motivation to do so (said I as I approach 850 articles on this blog!). Well, for any of the adult readers who need the motivation to write, here’s a nice article i came across that mirrored some of the evidence I’ve read in the books of Tal Ben-Shahar on happiness.

Mic – Science Reveals Qualities in Those Who Love to Write
(Click on the link above to read the article)

We’ll know when we’re genuinely breaking away from industrialised ‘one-size-fits-all’ models of education when children’s motivation gets respected as a critical factor in the development of writing (and reading) skills. Then, I believe more children will grow up to be far better and far happier readers and writers.

A Site for Budding Writers

Here’s an interesting site for anyone who wants to read the writings of up and coming writers, give feedback and generally share ideas. Or for anyone who aspires to be a writer themselves and wants to put a toe in the water, it’s a good idea to share your writing on a site like this to get real feedback:


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