Archive for January, 2013

Mind, Reality and Open Lines – 28 December 2012.

An hour long radio interview with Chris Langan on Coast to Coast.

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This post details the exact process by which my formal education was pushed off the rails, whether by accident or design.

I started full-time UK state school in the early 1970s at the age of 4¼. By that age I was already a fluent reader. However, no provision was made in the Reception class to identify youngsters who could already read, or had already acquired other educational skills, and no attempt was made to provide an academic curriculum to those children who were ready to benefit from one. This may have been merely neglectful, but it got worse.

Whereas my grandmother had been teaching me before I reached school age to read, write, make things, cook, learn songs, make up stories and explore the neighbourhood, the Reception class, on the other hand, was virtually all unstructured play. That meant my attendance there was not only a complete waste of my time so far as learning opportunities went, but I had been dragged away from the one-to-one attention I had been receiving from my grandmother. In other words, not only was the school failing to teach, but it was placing me in a situation where I was being deprived of the teaching I had formerly been receiving (on my insistence, not my grandmother’s).

Being considerably ahead of my age peers in many areas, having a strongly visual-spatial learning style, having some unusual interests, as well as being an undiagnosed Aspie, meant that I did not fit in well to the school system. After all, I had absolutely nothing in common with my classmates except for the fact that we had all been born within the same 12 month period. This lack of accord with the environment in which I found myself was extremely stressful and I had frequent bouts of illness where I did not attend school.

Some teacher or school administrator must have noticed that I was not settling in well, and when I was six years old a standardized test was administered. I don’t know which test was in common use for young children in the early 1970s (probably some version of the Stanford-Binet), but I found out many years later that my class teacher had informed my mother that I had scored on the 15 year old level. (Can you believe that my parents didn’t even request their own copy of that score report?)

Identifying a highly precocious youngster is one thing; acting upon that knowledge appropriately is something else. I was not accelerated by the school (that was unheard of in the UK in the 1970s). I was not placed in a GT program or enrichment program (there were no such things, at least not in our education authority area). The class teacher herself made no attempt to design a tailored curriculum for me and assign me schoolwork that was on the level I would have needed in order to learn anything I didn’t already know. The done thing, it seemed, was to do nothing; whether out of pure ignorance as to the needs of the highly gifted, or perhaps out of some kind of misplaced political ideology.

All I learned on a daily basis was how to defend myself from bullies and their snickering hangers-on, to try and stay out of trouble with both teachers and classmates, to do the minimum (busy)work possible, and learn to cope with the long days of endless boredom by daydreaming the hours away. If I hadn’t been an insomniac, I probably would have fallen asleep.

My parents, in the meantime, were good little model citizens who prided themselves on following the rules, and bowed to the “wisdom” of authority. I asked my Dad one day if there was any way I could be taken out of school because it really wasn’t working for me, only to be told that wouldn’t be possible because then he and Mum would both have to go to prison. (I should be imprisoned so they wouldn’t be, right?) They were never going to advocate for my needs, or even seek advice about how I should best be educated, because it just would not have occurred to such conformists to do so. And the more intelligence, the better the kid is going to do in school, went their reasoning.

With that last gigantic assumption in mind, my folks and the teachers became puzzled as to why my advanced skills were not translating into a high level of school achievement. This was regarded by both as purely a discipline issue and was dealt with accordingly. What the teachers and my family apparently did not or could not grasp was that a six year old who was intellectually 15 was never going to want to endlessly repeat schoolwork they had already mastered and play puerile games with a class of young kids.

Rather than look at whether my educational and personal needs were being met in that environment, and tailoring it accordingly, I was pulled out for testing again about three years later to find out what was “wrong” with me. Since I scored at the ceiling of the WISC, according to the educational psychologist, I could not be “statemented”, i.e. receive a tailored educational plan for students with special educational needs. That sort of accommodation was only for those tested as having a learning disability, defined as being below average in some or all areas of intellectual functioning.

Again, unbelievably, my parents weren’t assertive enough to insist on having their own copy of that score report either. At no point was I ever told that I had been formally tested, or just how much above average I had actually scored. I know that there are various schools of thought with regard to whether the child should be told or not if they are gifted. However, I think that in my case being told that probably would have helped to recover some of my shredded self-esteem.

The effects of bullying are often downplayed by some people, but I think it is not possible to overstate their effect. I can think of individuals I have told who have said something like, “Well, if you had wanted to learn, couldn’t you?”, which betrays a staggering ignorance of the whole bully/target/educational performance dynamic. Imagine if you went to work each day not knowing if you were going to be injured, stolen from, taunted, shunned or inappropriately touched by your colleagues while your bosses turned a blind eye, who then made out it was all your fault when you complained? What do you think your performance on the job would be like after even a few weeks of this? And supposing you were told you couldn’t legally leave for another X years?

And of course, there was still no such thing as AS, since that wasn’t commonly known about until the mid-1990s. Yet again, I was sent back to class with no advice or appropriate support.

Despite these difficulties at school, I was an enthusiastic reader, and I would read anything at home for pleasure. I taught myself all kinds of skills, and my mother commented in despair that my self-chosen projects at home were of a much higher standard than anything I did in school. The bare facts were that the school curriculum did not allow the same sort of scope to learn and explore as my own projects at home did.

The gulf between the level of achievement from my self-taught interests and the level of achievement at school widened and widened. It reached the point where no teacher was going to believe that this demotivated individual could possibly be gifted.

By the time I reached secondary school, it was obvious that the classes students were assigned to for various subjects had more to do with their interest and motivation in following the curriculum than any objectively measured ability level.

I increasingly lost heart at the puerile work and endless repetition. What would then happen was I would get moved down a set for showing a lack of engagement in the lessons, and lose heart even more as a result. This was the exact opposite of what needed to happen to engage my motivation again, but teachers were stuck in the whole “didn’t finish first course, so no pudding” approach to schoolwork.

This however was the irony: I actually thought I wasn’t very bright because I probably really overcomplicated everything, thinking that there must be something to all this that I just wasn’t getting. When the teacher asked if anyone had any questions, I thought I must have completely missed the point of the lesson because I couldn’t think of any questions to ask. I realize now that the reason I had no questions about what had just been covered was because there wasn’t anything not to understand, and the sort of questions I would have asked given half a chance were well beyond the scope of the course curriculum.

My parents just clung increasingly hard to the idea that I was just coasting along because I was lazy. They didn’t see how hard I was trying just to stay afloat with the ceaseless educational neglect and sabotage, and interminable bullying. I resolved that all I had to do was somehow survive until statutory school leaving age, and then I could get out of there. I was in too much of a permanent state of shock to think much about what I would do after that.

Many of the classes I had been moved into for certain subjects were full of pint-sized ruffians who made it a full-time task for the teacher to maintain order, and very little actual teaching got attempted.

Because I had been placed in inappropriate classes for nearly everything, I wasn’t allowed to take my O-Levels in most subjects. Instead I was forced to take CSE’s, a lower-level exam designed for the less academic student. In many cases, this was almost a last minute decision by the school, meaning I was told I was being entered for a CSE exam when I had up to that point been following an O-Level curriculum. Since part of the marks for a CSE were coursework based, I simply hadn’t covered the required two years’ worth of work.

You might wonder why I didn’t simply get the top grade for the few exams that I was allowed to take, and prove myself that way. Well, the school and/or examining body had some strange bureaucratic system in place where the top grade was only available to the top-tier classes, and students in lower classes could only receive up to a certain grade, even if they wrote a very good final paper on the day. Some classes didn’t even enter an exam. All my outside reading and acquired general knowledge became rather irrelevant at this juncture.

I could not take A-Levels in sixth form as you had to have a certain number of O-Levels to enrol in those classes. My chances of taking A-Levels and going to University along with other members of my school year had been nuked by people who should have known better, long, long before I ever got to sixth form. Unlike they might do in certain other countries, we did not have some alternative standardized achievement test in the UK that I could have taken instead to get to college.

So I ended up taking a business course in sixth form and, having thus gone as far as it was possible to go with the school, I left, still aged only 16 since my birthday wasn’t until the summer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, upon seeking employment I had to contend with organizations and recruiters who thought the measly clutch of grades I had been allowed to achieve represented the best of my ability and knowledge. I was repeatedly directed toward applying for unskilled entry level positions that might have been suitable had that been the case, but were frustrating and confidence-destroying for me.

I ended up taking a job in a local shop, and poured myself into self-education, where I studied voraciously and covered a huge amount of material.

With that under my belt, plus all the skills I acquired from becoming an expert in study tech, I found myself in the situation where so far as the formal education system was concerned, I needed all these “remedial” type classes to get anywhere near college, yet on my own initiative and hard work I had placed myself on a level far beyond even many graduate students with my study skills and deep interests.

I am exploring various possible solutions with regard to my education and career that hopefully won’t take 4-7 years for a £30,000 undergraduate degree (and then who knows). There may well be alternatives to academia that are not nearly so expensive and time-consuming.

Perhaps by my writing up exactly how things went wrong, someone, somewhere, can learn something from all of this.

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