Let’s scrap the myth of progress in learning
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Let’s scrap the myth of progress in learning

I meet many parents of school-age children. Most seem to worry about the progress of their child. The pressure from Government and from schools tends to be to expect neat linear progression. The requirement seems to be for a steady upwards curve of learning. But experience (and research) shows that this can be unrealistic. Here are some examples of different trajectories.

Nobel Laureate and President of the Royal Society Sir Venki Ramakrishnan was being interviewed on Desert Island Discs. Here is someone who is about as respectable as you can get. Yet being questioned about his education he was happy to say that he was a poor attender at school and at university. One trick he explained at university was to sit in lectures by the window so that after the register had been called, and the lecturer had turned his back to write on the board, he could climb out of the window and go off for a coffee.

It reminded me of Bill Bryson’s tales of school and that he was the worst attender in his high school. He was regularly hauled up for his poor attendance. At one meeting with the careers counsellor she had trawled through career options, given his poor school records, and in the end said; “It doesn’t appear that you are qualified to do much of anything.” He replied; “I guess I’ll have to be a high school careers counsellor then!”. For this response he was marched to the principal’s office (and not for the first time). It’s a shame that the school did not recognise his obvious comedic talents instead of punishing him.

He developed his writing talents by spending time on things that interested him and also learning a great deal from the world around him. He became an excellent self managing learner.

Another example is of a boy in Bolton, Lancashire with no apparent interest in his schoolwork. He tended to spend time with his mates or watched comedy VHS tapes that he had recorded. He gained one GCSE then after school did a series of seemingly dead-end jobs such as in the bingo hall and at the local cinema.

Because he enjoyed cracking jokes and fooling around, he started to do some stand-up comedy gigs in local pubs. Eventually he developed a comedy stand-up act. He was officially entered in the Guinness World Records book for the planet's biggest-selling stand-up tour ever. His ‘Tour That Doesn't Tour Tour… Now on Tour’ show sold 1,140,798 tickets in 113 arena dates between February 2010 and November 2011, earning him a place in the 2013 edition of the book. His name is Peter Kay and he has also won awards for his comedy acting.

His time when he was seemingly loafing and doing nothing was actually a crucial time of learning for him. He learned from watching comedians the art and craft of doing stand-up. He also used his time in the bingo hall and at the cinema to listen to people so that he could learn the potentially funny things that went on in daily life.

Looked at from a short-term point of view he was a complete failure. Taking a longer view it’s the opposite. He was, and continues to be, a brilliant self managing learner.

This is also true of the scientist Sir Venki Ramakrishnan and the best-selling author Bill Bryson.

To bring in closer to home, Coco came to SML College aged 13 having had a poor record at school. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. She was criticised for doodling in class and apparently not making progress. When she joined us she initially spent most of her time doodling, drawing cartoons and chatting to other students.

Last year her first graphic novel was published to some acclaim. The publishers initially could not believe that a 15 year-old girl could create such a mature piece of work. She emphasises that she prefers to work visually. For instance, last year she chose to take law GCSE (which she passed). She found that she could remember things by doing drawings. In order to distinguish between solicitors and barristers she drew them with speech bubbles.

She is not alone in finding that, developing her talents at a pace that suits her, she can make great progress. Patience is key to helping children develop. Also trust that with the right support children can surprise their parents with their achievements.

Ian Cunningham, SML College