Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allAssumption
Some say I have a chip on my shoulder about education.

At 9 years old, I returned to Scotland with my parents, having spent almost 2 years in Nyasaland (now Malawi). While in Africa, I was home-schooled for almost a year. I then attended St Andrew’s Primary School, in the Capital City of Blantyre, for the remainder of my stay.

I had no education in the traditional sense during the months-long journeys to and from Nyasaland on Union-Castle liners. The unusual long routes round the Cape of Good Hope, were taken at the time of the Suez Crisis when access through the Suez Canal was unsafe.

My childhood experience of living in Africa was an enriching one, but my traditional education fell sadly behind. When I re-enrolled at Dunfermline Commercial Primary School in Scotland, I sat beside the classmates that I’d been with over two years before.

They were all so far ahead of me by that time. I had real difficulty catching up. My schoolroom behaviour took a turn for the worst.

I was soon to be classified as a boy much
in need of counseling, and was made to attend a series of Tuesday afternoons with Mrs Len, a child guidance counselor.

My visits consisted of sessions of being helped through tests, mainly so-called association tests and intelligence assessment, presumably to determine my state of mental health and my ability.

A beautiful glen

I recall one session in particular. Mrs Len began by asking what I did on Saturdays. I explained that I spent fine-weather days down the beautiful Glen in Dunfermline. I loved the Glen and would have spent every Saturday and most Sundays there if I could.

“Why don’t you go to the films on Saturday mornings?” was her response to my story. “That’s what lots of other children do.”

I explained that I didn’t like the movies that were on at the local cinema.

“Why not?” she asked. “These films are specially chosen for children!”

Gangster cadillacs

I explained that I didn’t like watching cowboys and Indians killing each other, or wars with ‘Japs and Gerries’, or gangsters hooning about in Cadillacs, or cops and robbers blasting themselves to bits.

That was in 1957. I was ten years old.

Not that long after the war, it was still acceptable for children to see all this violence. Mrs Len’s assumption was that it was good for me to be subjected to hours watching movies of people shooting at each other.
I had a different opinion.

Educational assumptions

In fact, in discounting the years of my lost education, she made a number of assumptions.

Based on the results of the tests she gave me, one assumption was that I was unfit to attend High School. Luckily I had caring parents who insisted that there was ‘nothing wrong’ with their son and that he would attend High School no matter what.

The long and the short is that my parents eventually removed me from Commercial School to enrol me in Pittencrieff Primary School nearby.

A year later I attended High School. In 1965 I became a student at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. I left that place of education in 1972 with a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

So I’m not knocking Scottish education. All things considered, I firmly believe that the system served me well. But when I think of my last months at Commercial School, there were several odd and perhaps invalid assumptions made by my teacher, the school I attended and the child guidance councilor, Mrs Len, about where I stood in relation to ‘education’.
Abominable assumption

Wikipedia defines assumption as a proposition that is taken for granted, as if it were true based upon presupposition without preponderance of the facts.

This means it’s a preset notion with no factual foundation.

Assumption can present barriers and can lead to disastrous decision making. It has dogged the view of where Earth is in relation to the centre of the universe since before the time of Ptolemy. It seeded the reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo took the fatal poison.

The legal maxim that a person is innocent until proven guilty was initiated by the recognition of its fallacy. Yet assumption is often used mercilessly by legal council in leveraging notion and supposition while swaying the opinion of a jury.

One of the greatest barriers to learning is initial and erroneous assumption in the mind of the learner.

Another is initial and erroneous assumption in the mind of the teacher.
Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Paul C said...

Your educational background is most interesting and reinforces the idea that teachers can never assume the abilities of a student. Often, under the right conditions, a student can experience dramatic improvements.

You mentioned how your three years in Africa put you behind the students when you returned. There was even the suggestion that you not go to high school.

In Ontario there is quite a push to focus on the primary grades, to make sure students have a good foundation. After all, some of these young children received very little intellectual stimulation at home, while others did. No student should feel frustrated and made to feel inadequate because of shallow assumptions. And that extends throughout a person's life.

David Truss said...

Greetings Ken,
I think the biggest assumption made by schools is that all students need to 'fit in' to the different categories we lump them into. Should kids fit schools or should schools fit kids?
It makes me think about the how grading just doesn't fit what we do and yet we try to grade everything:
My point is that it may not just be assumptions made by the learner and the teacher, bur rather by the system(s) that they are placed in.

V Yonkers said...

When my son was 7, he had a classmate he was having trouble with. When we brought this up in the parent teacher meeting, the teacher told us that my son needed to "learn to play more" and suggested we put him in after school programs to "socialize" with the students.

I don't know what she thought he was doing when he came home, but her assumptions that all he did was study (and that somehow, we were the type of parents to make our 7 year old come home and study instead of going outside and playing with the neighbor kids) was totally off. What we really wanted from her was a discussion of how we could work together to resolve this problem he was having with the other boy, not to blame anyone.

What I find interesting is that they assumed you were "behind" rather than you having different skills that could contribute to the class. Think of the opportunity that they missed by having those assumptions. Also, they could have tapped into your love of nature (is this where you began your love of science and language).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Hare mai!
Haere mai!
Haere mai!

Kia ora e Paul

My feeling is that focus on literacy and numeracy in particular at primary level has become a global educational pursuit. I have no problem with this.

In New Zealand the emphasis is to be on reaching standards - an extremely controversial introduction I posted about recently. The main concern is around how the results will be reported from individual schools and what uses these results may offer.

Tēnā koe e David!

I'm inclined to agree with you.

I have always believed that a learner centred approach should accommodate schools fitting kids. But the more this approach is attempted the more I'm convinced you are right about the system dictating where the slots are.

I see a parallel between what appears to be happening to individual learners in schools, and the behaviour of communities with respect to its individuals, where the behaviour of the community shapes the behaviour of the individual and not the other way.

The metaphorical connection may appear to be slim, but the overall collective-versus-individual effect show in each as being very similar. Perhaps it is just so, and that there is really little can be done other than to be vigilant of the need of the individual so that movement is initiated when this becomes apparent.

Kia ora Virginia!

You have an interesting anecdotal account of your son's experience. I think it shows the presumptive attitude of some teachers who discount possibilities in matters they know nothing of.

Young minds are extremely resilient - fragile, but resilient. Thank goodness they are!

You mention my love of nature. It was only many years after the events told in my story in this post, that I realised how precious my love of nature was to me. Perhaps if this had been recognised by others when I was at school, it may have assisted me to appreciate nature differently - I really can't say. But I agree with your suggestion that, maybe, there was something there that could have been tapped and shared.

Catchya later