Invention and creativity

The humble barb wire fence has come a long way since its inception. On the face of it, there is nothing unusual about its design. The basic premise is two sets of wire rolled together and intertwined, leaving sharp bits exposed. There are obviously inventions that are more complex than that, but perhaps the barb wire fence has an advantage in this because it achieves what it does using very little. And what exactly does it achieve? Well, it keeps out intruders and more importantly demarcates an area of property which is private.

The fence was invented in 1876 by John Gates, who soon earned the nickname “Bet A Million” Gates. He was known not because he was fond of playing the EuroMillions, but because he used to accept wagers on the strength of his fence. He would rustle up Texan longhorns and round them up in the fragile looking fence, and take wagers on whether the animals would be able to break out of the enclosure. The fence went on to breathtaking success. In 1880, a factory in America turned out 32 miles of barbed wire. Six years later, the figure had risen astronomically to 263,000 miles of wire!

John Gates’ moments of inspiration, he would claim, often came when he was not focussed on hard data and clinical tasks, but when his mind was operating at an optimal “hum” – engaged but relaxed at the same time, but beneath the level of consciousness. It is the same as musicians such as piano players – they must manage the scientific data of reading music and deciding what to play, while managing the emotional fine tuning through what they hear. The Piano Teachers N4 website claims that learning the piano will develop the multi-tasking skills and sometimes frees your mind for creative solutions to things you might not have though of. Why not give it a try?

Music lessons and single-parenting

What does your society think of single parenting? One can only assume it is largely linked to how your society views things such as divorce and marriage. Less permissive societies may frown on single parents because they do not approve of divorce and hold on to beliefs of marriage being for life. Or they may also frown upon such family structures if they believe that a child has been born out of wedlock as a result of extramarital relations. But single parenting, which seen as taboo, can be good in cases. We would all agree that it would be better for a child to be raised in a stable environment than in a household where there are petty disagreements which degenerate into shouting matches and abuse. But before we happily go for single parenting, let us remind ourselves of the negative points too. Children may have to commute for long periods so that the parents enjoy access. They have to spend different days of the week in different places, and that is not stable. They may have to bear the remarks of those around them, and also wonder why their parents can’t work things out between themselves.

In Japan, a mother noted how being a single parent had an effect on her daughter. Her husband had left since the girl was young and had made no attempt at reconciliation, and the lack of a father figure at home was causing the girls anxiety among her peers and making her withdrawn. Perhaps she felt isolated when she was in the company of peers, because they would have both parents around, talk about their parents, as girls tend to do. The mother decided on taking the unusual step of hiring an actor to pretend to be the long-lost father who had suddenly reappeared on the scene and wanted to make a reconciliation. She noted that the girl’s confidence returned and she became more outgoing, so perhaps it was gamble worth taking.

Single parents may struggle to occupy their children and engage them in activities so it is often good for them to develop interests such as music. Learning the piano is a good idea because not only does it teach skills like co-operation, practise, repetition and drive, but practising at home – you may think this selfish – gives you time away from your child, which may be important for you, and important for them not to have you in their face all the time. The Piano Teacher N15 website suggests fifteen or twenty minutes practice three times a week, more if they are able to cope, so that’s a fair bit of time for your child to learn to become an independent learner!

Misrepresentation

We’ve all possible encountered situations like this before. If you work in the childcare sector, you might find that sometimes when a child is caught out by a lie they have told, they will try to engineer the situation and construct a whole world of belief to alter the evidence to fit their view.

For example, if a boy John is said to have pushed another boy Tom, and Tom mentions it to someone else, when questioned John might be likely to have said things like, “But Tom started it”, “Tom pushed me first”, or something else to the same extent where he tries to impress on the interlocutor that it was not his fault. But even when the evidence points to the contrary – assuming we investigate further – John may or may not then contort the evidence to suggest that even if he did strike Tom, he might have been baited, or taunted in some form and that his actions might have been a reaction to that stimulus.

If it is a young child, we tend to impress on them the fact that lying only causes more problems. You end up digging a big hole for yourself and then the web of lies unravels.

John, in that case, might collapse under questioning and then burst into tears as a last resort if the weight of truth becomes too heavy!

However, what the misrepresenting of truth does is that it colours your dealings with others. If people realise you are not to be trusted, and it has happened before, they will be a bit more cautious about the things you say in the future. If John is found to have repeated that same sort of behaviour later, it might be that eventually he gets trusted less, and unfortunately in life, as he grows up, he may develop that reputation that tars him.

Of course, this is what child education has to involve. We have to teach children to grow out of that behaviour. But perhaps one of the ways to do that is by responsible parenting, to demonstrate to them ourselves that this sort of behaviour is not condoned. In the field of music, it has been demonstrated that if something is internalised, it has a better chance of being applied. (You can read more about this in the Piano Teacher N19 blog.) If we can consistently apply and model to our children the behaviour we want from them, we have a better chance of making them demonstrate it.

For information that sticks, look for meaning

School trips. Love them or hate them? I suspect that it depends on which side of the equation you are on. The children that go on them would likely be excited at the chance of doing something different, away from the classroom, and not having the “boring” learning, of information thrown at them that they would be forced to absorb in order to pass a test.

For the adults, it might mean anxiety at being out of the classroom, in an environment where you have little control, and have to establish control, in the face of excited students who are seizing upon the opportunity at freedom.

It is funny how adults and children have two different perspectives.

Trips are important though. They are difficult to co-ordinate, involving shepherding children on public transport to places, doing headcounts, making sure children are safe, and generally cause high levels and anxiety for the organising adults. For the children though, it is a meaningful experience and a chance to attain information and internalise it in a meaningful way.

Imagine the students reading about historical events in the classroom. They may have read about the battles in France in Ypres, or Flanders, and learnt how many people died in these battles. But to them, the numbers are just that; statistical information that needs to be recalled for the purpose of writing an essay or passing an exam. But take them on a school trip to Flanders, where you can see the poppy weaths laid out over the fields, and they get a meaningful sense of scale of the wars. Look at the scenery around and visualise what life might have been like, with bombs raining from the sky, and history comes to life and is made more meaningful. And long lasting.

We can take the same approach to anything we encounter in life. By trying to look deeper, and going beyond the obvious factual information, we can create a deeper sense of relevance and meaning. Playing music on the piano? According to Piano Teacher in Finsbury Park, rather than looking at the music as a list of information and instructions on which keys to depress, try and understand the motivation of the person writing it. Why is the music alternately loud and soft? What is the composer trying to depict? What are the circumstances behind the composer’s life? These questions spin off more thought and discussion beyond “Play these sections loud and soft”.

Meaning is everywhere in life. Meaning gives us relevance. But to find it, look beyond the obvious, first-layer of information. And when you find meaning, the information becomes more internalised, relevant, and sticks for longer.

Teaching, Knowledge and Assessment

Are exams a good thing or bad thing? It depends on whom you speak to. As children grow up and enter the academic world of school, they enter periods of testing and exams and homework. Most people would agree that exams to a certain extent are good, because they give the students something to focus on and apply their knowledge. A lot of school involves the dissemination of knowledge and facts, particularly in the early year of Maths and Science, but the sole memorisation and replication of these facts does not necessarily guarantee a wise student – merely one who is good at parroting back information.

The problem with exams and test is that schools and other education providers can get too involved with literal facts and the accumulation of them. The students are judged by how much information they have soaked up and can reproduce. But that is not necessarily learning; it is learning for assessment. And teachers end up teaching to the test – in short, teaching about things that may eventually be used in an exam. It is a very narrow-minded method, of selectively teaching information that is going to be assessed, rather than giving a broad range of education.

Why do they do that? Well, when you are choosing a school for your child, what do you look at? You look at its Ofsted ranking and its GCSE results, or where possible, how the school ranks in terms of SATS tests achievements. Better results suggest that the school is better – although they may only be teaching towards the test. In many schools, there are exams, and then there are mock-exams to prepare for the exams, and then a further round of mock exams. The students sit a battery of tests and are expected to find out why they made mistakes, and then plug the missing information into their brains. Learning for examination, and learning by examination. Schools have to do this because of the political game of attracting enough students to qualify for funding.

Learning a skill puts this style of learning into perspective. If you are learning a musical instrument like the piano, you have to work out reading the notes, hand-coordination, and develop that sort of fluency by going slower and being comfortable to doing many things at once. And once you have managed that, then you think about doing piano music exams. If a piano player were to learn and sit for an exam the same way as the school system seems to be going, they would merely be playing the same songs over and over again, entering themselves for exams over and over again, and hoping to pass – rather ineffective.

We should consider removing too much assessment in the school method, giving teachers the freedom to teach knowledge for its sake, rather than teaching to the test! The knowledge gained is more relevant, has more meaning and is likely to stay with the student for a longer period of time..

Taking care of vision

Could it be true that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be short-sighted?

The NHS website seems to think so. It cited a piece of research involving over 67,000 participants which surveyed their educational levels and correlated them to their vision.

The result was that individuals who had higher levels of education were found to be more short-sighted.

Does this mean that if we wanted our children to be educated to at least university level, we should be prepared that they will be Specsavers customers in the future?

Maybe we should start investing in company shares for Vision Direct?

Before we jump to conclusions, we should perhaps think rationally about these claims.

The reasons why eye sight deteriorates can be due to various factors: diet, lifestyle, too much close focus, among others.

When we read to our children, or encourage them to read, we must help them establish good reading habits.

These can include adequate lighting, ensuring no shadow on the book, or not too close focus.

Unfortunately, before bedtime, we tend to do bedtime stories in dim lighting, ostensibly to calm children down, and read in poor conditions.

When a shadow is cast on the book, the eyes have to work extra hard to pick out the words and come under strain.

The same is if we read in the lazy position of lying on our back while holding the book up towards the sky, arms outstretched.

If we lie on our stomachs, propped by elbows and read a book too closely, the focus of the eyes is narrowed and over time the eyes get lazy and this leads to myopia.

Many of the above positions for reading seem normal and it is hard to accept that they are bad, but we have become habituated to them that we just have to pause and consider what we are doing to ourselves and our children.

Being educated does not lead to myopia. But the development of bad habits, exacerbated through the pursuit of knowledge through education, does.

In other words, if you have poor reading habits, then reading more books to gain educational qualifications means you will develop myopia.

What we can do for our children is to encourage them to develop good reading habits. We can also encourage them not to spend too much time on close focus. For example, if they are taking up a musical instrument, such as learning the piano, then make sure the music is lit without shadow, not too glaring, and also that the children break off after some time and do not prolong their close focus. We can encourage them to play outdoors. It is a myth that the colour green is good for the eyes; it is just taking the time to focus of long-distance objects that resets the balance in our eyes.

We can also encourage our children to use less electronic devices and watch less TV, both because of the glare and prolonged close-focus.

We only have one set of eyes to last a lifetime. Those of our little ones have to last a lifetime while being bombarded by things that demand their attention. We can help by guiding them through the growing years and making important decisions that they are unable to conceptualise for their good.

Teaching Children the art of balancing

Among the useful life skills we can teach or children is the skill of learning to balance. Because life is about balancing. And when I speak about balancing, I don’t mean the physical skill if riding a bike or going about on a scooter. I refer to the skill of leaning on one set of rules on one occasion, and on another set at a different time.

Why is balancing important? It is because as adults we give children many layers of instruction. Depending on perhaps how liberal a parent it, the instructions can come more positively-wrapped, or a series of admonishments. “Stay close.” “Don’t do that.” “Don’t go there.” When we give children a seires of instructions that we expect them to follow through, in their minds they will be working out the reasons for these. Why does Mummy not want me to go near the tree? Because she is afraid I may fall. Why does Daddy want me to stop at the end of the road. In fact, why is he hollering “Stop!” at me when I know to stop? Because it is dangerous.

The unfortunate thing about negative parenting – or what appears to be negative anyway – is that compounded over time it can just bury the child under a series of Not To Dos. And repeated over time, it does foster a spirit of not trying, because everything is dangerous. If we repeatedly rein in our children, and curb their spirit, affter a while they do it to themselves.

Growing up, I knew of a friend that had often been told by his parents not to do this and that. Perhaps it was because he was the youngest of three children, and their instructions to him to keep safe (“Don’t do that) were more a way of keeping him reined him while they tried to manage the other two children. Slowly this friend grew to adopt the spirit that had been trained on him. But when he was in his teens and seemed to his parents to be developing into some sort of anti-social spirit (he is fine by the way), they were trying to encourage him to go out and make more friends. “Go out and socialise! Go meet more friends! Leave your room and meet new people!” Unfortunately the advice he was receiving was in direct contradiction to what he had been previously taught.

We give instructions to children because that is the quickest way of getting them to do something that is safe. Some of it is positive, some is negative. Sometimes there are two different sets of rules for social situations. We sometimes, for example, encourage children to give their best and try their hardest. Yet, at a birthday party for a friend, sometimes we have to teach them the skill of letting the birthday boy or girl win at a game of say, pass the parcel. We have to teach the children which rule to adhere to, and the skill of balance – knowing which one to choose.

We encourage children to be compliant, but sometimes we have to encourage them to be creative and go against the grain too. The Classical composer Richard Wagner was trained – as most musicians were – in the past generational ideas of harmony, and while his earliest work displayed a strong influence of the past, he realised that it was artistically sterile to merely repeat what had been done already, and if he did so, his own self would merely be subsumed in a long ancestral line of artistry. He needed to break free, and this is why as his musical work progressed, it broke free of the past structures of harmony. But Wagner could not merely write chromatic and dissonant music in a complete break with the past. Otherwise his music would be completely at odds with the status quo and he would have been an outsider inhabiting a different world to his surroundings. It was in the balance of new ideas with old existing ones which produced his best masterpieces, one where new ideas of harmony blend with traditional ones. Wagner found his balance. You can read more about this from the piano teacher crouch end blog.

Balancing is the switching between two sets of rules as the situation dictates. In life we are often given set rules but none of them are fixed; only situational. The skill of balancing is an important one to pass on to our children.

Daring children to fail

It seems that we are such a goal-oriented society and measure our progress by the attainment of success, that we have forgotten that in failure there is much to learn to.

Think of a child making a Lego set. He or she follows the instructions, and then perhaps after a nunber of steps encountes a point where the pieces do not fit as the diagrams intended.

What do you do? Should you just break up the whole thing into the constituent blocks and then start all over again?

Strangely enough, this is how some people approach their learning.

Some piano players that I have encountered, for example, are so intent on getting it right, that when they make a mistake, they merely keep returning to the first bar, and try playing again from the beginning hoping to get a complete error-free version.

The problem with doing this is that you get familiar with the opening stages of the process. You don’t really learn as much as dealing with the difficult stage. What you are doing is repeating the process and banking on, or gambling on, that the next time you do it right something will magically sort itself out.  You have not really learnt to deal with the obstacle, as you have attempted to do the thing again and hope it will be right.

Imagine if you were that child playing with Lego. You hit a snag and somewhere something must have gone wrong.

What should you do?

You should retrace your steps, until you get to the point where you can identify what you have built does not match with the instructions. There you learn where you went wrong, how you misintepreted the instructions, and how to watch out for that step again if you ever decide to build your model from scratch.

If you do ever make a mistake and then decide to start from scratch, you may think your perserverance is a positive factor, but actually it is not. You are merely masking a lack of initiative to solve problems by hoping hard graft can make up for a lack of perserverance and the will to develop intelligent problem-solving skills.

Daring to fail is not a bad point. It gives us the opportunity to gain maturity and intelligence by overcoming the problem ahead of us.

In life, everyone frequently hits a snag. This presents an opportunity for growth. This is what we should teach our children. Dare to fail, dare to make mistakes, so that in overcoming them we grow. You don’t need to produce perfection. If you don’t try for the fear of making an error, you have lost out on the opporunity for growth.

Before facts, teach purpose, relevance and meaning

How do we assess if children have learnt a fact or not? Usually it is their ability to recall a matching answer to a question we post them.

“What is 10 x 10?”  “One hundred.” (Learnt! Tick!)

“If ten friends give you ten sweets each, how many sweets do you have?”

“Er .. er… er … ”

“Come on, if you have ten rows of ten objects, how many objects have you got?”

“Er … ”

 

While the above may seem to be a discussion of an adult with two separate children, the two children were actually one and the same. The same child could moments earlier churn out the answer for ten mutiplied by ten, yet when presented with a word problem to an answer she already knew, could not connect the two together.

Unfortunately this are the limitations faced by the education system. Assessing learning and understanding is difficult, and time-consuming, and perhaps too individual a task to be managed within the confines of a classroom ratio of 30:1. So instead of understanding if students have learnt, teachers have to demonstrate that students are capable of reproducing facts that they have more often than not memorised and kept within short term memory, then reproduced in an exam question paper that is largely fact based and recollection-biased.

As educators, we have to communicate understanding and learning alongside the acquisition of facts and knowledge. We also have to communicate a love for learning, a desire to find things out, and a desire to be creative and experiment. In many of these cases we should withhold our inner desires for the right or wrong answer, but encourage the development of ideas first, then the facts.

Here is an example. Instead of teaching by rote questions such as 10 x 10 x 20 and other mental maths facts, another technique often used is the Problem-Solving Method. This can manifest itself in methods such as these:

Give a group of eight students twelve items each, and ask them to divide up these items equally into six boxes.

Some students will realise that one way to do this is for the first student to place his item in the boxes, then the second student to continue where he left off, and for each successive student to do that in turn. This is the linear way, where the items are “added” equally into each box.

Some may decide to count how many items they have first, and then see if they can divide them into four piles. This is the multiply and then divide method.

After a ten-minute timeframe, students may report back on their answers and be encouraged to look for other methods and examine their effectiveness.

This is a time-consuming process to teach 12 x 8 = 96, and 96 divided by 4 = 24. And in many classrooms, there isn’t really that much time to do all the mental sums in this way. But in the next lesson, you could assign one group to do another similar problem, while giving another group a multiplication chart to obtain the answer from.

In this way, you have demonstrated to them that there is purpose and meaning in what they are doing, and that there is reason to learn the mental maths – so that it is a quicker way to get the answer.

Purpose, Meaning and Relevance. These should form the basis of learning upon which facts are built. This ensures that another information memorised or learnt by the textbook delivery at least has some sort of personal relevance.

Achieving Greatness

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.

We often wish for our children to achieve good things in life. Perhaps they have a skill that could be nurtured. Perhaps it could be art, music or drama. Maybe a child shows an engineering bias or a love for machinery, or craftwork. We want them to be the best they can be, to do the best they can achieve. But often we could end up visualising the final product, conveying it to them, that we neglect to convey to them the little steps we take to get there.

Too often we forget that to achieve big things we have to do things in little stages. To get from A to Z, you can’t just fix your eyes on Z and hope that by the sheer force of willpower you will be able to drag yourself all the way. It is possible, of course, depending on the size of the task, but willpower can be discouraged if you pull for too long with no end in sight, and affect the effort as well. Imagine you are pulling a heavy car tyre from one place to another, using a rope. (Why you would do that is beyond the scope of this discussion, but this is only a hypothetical example.) If you pull the heavy weight and have to move it one foot at a time, if you keep your eyes and thoughts transfixed on the end goal, then you are really going to be discouraged by how the gulf seems to be still there even though you are shifting with all your energy with each tug. And after you have done that for a while, you will feel discouraged and that will manifest itself in your effort. You will pull with less energy – why invest all the energy for little return – and when you end up in that state, it will turn out to be a negative cycle. You pull less, you move less, and finally you stop.

It is much easier mentally to break the big task into little stages and work towards the completion of each stage. Have you ever heard of people who have accomplished big projects, then told others of how, had they realised it was going to be so big at the time, they would have never started?

The achievement of a great task starts with little steps.

So perhaps a good life skill to teach our children, before we teach them to work hard and never to give up, is to be able to break tasks up into little things, to strategise. Then direct full effort into fulfiling each stage. Otherwise brute effort without direction is a waste of effort.