Archive for the ‘Teaching and Learning’ Category

The following is the text of an email I sent to the Admissions Officers at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Dear Sir/Madam

I was passed this email address by [name], with whom I am given to understand you may have had extensive previous correspondence with regard to liaison with schools.

I write in my capacity as Secretary of Phoenix, a special interest group within British Mensa, whose purpose is to support people who were discouraged and held back as children for being bright, and to discuss ideas for getting educationally and professionally back on track in life.

In the four years I have run the SIG, I have encountered member after member who did not discover their intellectual abilities until later in life. While it is not my intention to discuss here the many reasons those talents may have been missed or disregarded by teachers and others, I believe it is a travesty that so many people with Oxbridge potential never even made it to higher education.

My own story is very similar.  After I had been tested as an adult and joined Mensa, my mother finally confessed that, in fact, I had been tested as a six year old and scored on the 15 year old level! I was a voracious reader, an independent learner from a young age, and had the ability to seemingly teach myself anything. Unfortunately, my abilities were not nurtured at school and I ended up not being permitted to sit my O Levels.

I am therefore wondering whether any IQ tests or standardised tests are acceptable in lieu of school qualifications for older applicants, or whether you have any advice or other comments that may be of interest to members of the SIG?

Yours faithfully


The (late) reply I received from Oxford did not address any of the specific points I raised, but merely referred me to the admissions criteria listed on their website.

I am yet to receive the courtesy of a reply from Cambridge Admissions.

I cannot honestly say that I am surprised. I believe I have sufficient evidence and personal experiences to explain my firmly entrenched cynicism about the “education” system on this planet. This only reinforces the sorry picture that should have become clear to anyone following the gifted education blogs – that there is no interest in providing for people with the most capacity to make a difference, and that even elite universities are insufficiently interested in the most extreme outliers to answer a few simple questions about the issues those people face.

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In an earlier post entitled “A blow by blow account of how my formal schooling got nuked“, and the follow-up post called “How I got fixed as a student“, I described how my early precociousness was identified but completely squashed at school, and how subsequently I found an organization with a completely different take on training and education that were able (at least up to a point) to take my abilities at face value, rather than award or withhold learning opportunities based on arbitrary “prerequisites”.

My opportunities to pursue formal education or enter a professional career may have been limited, to say the least, but I was a busy person who did a lot and learned a lot regardless. I have already mentioned elsewhere how I self-educated with great enthusiasm using the public library as a resource. I played in a band and won local and national music prizes. I taught myself to play several instruments and wrote several albums’ worth of songs. I went to evening classes, at various times, in art, yoga, martial arts, and even a series of lectures on parapsychology. I entered myself for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, straight in at gold award level, during which I was lucky enough to take part in an exchange trip to Trinidad & Tobago. I volunteered as a youth leader and obtained a guider’s warrant. I wrote novels and short stories and started to work on a philosophical thesis. I got into political campaigning. People I met who took the time to get past my very quiet external facade, almost to a person, expressed astonishment when they found out I had dropped out of school as a 16 year old and did office dogsbody jobs. My outside life “CV” showed a very different person to what my official CV showed I could do, even then. But the yawning chasm was going to get a whole lot wider.

When I was 21, someone suggested that I make enquiries of the Open University. For those who are not familiar with this establishment, it is a distance learning university in the UK that caters for mature students who do not have the usual university entry requirements. Now, I wasn’t sure what subject would be the best choice, but thought that perhaps something IT or business related might put paid to the constant school record pigeonholing. I recall that phone call to this day; even the name of the advisor has stuck in my memory, and since the gentleman sounded quite elderly back then, I will show enough respect not to name and shame the (probably) deceased. We chatted about the course curriculum, and then he asked me about my educational record. From that moment, the conversation rapidly went south. Instead of enrolling on the Access (A-Level equivalent) year, which was a part of the course, he told me that I should enquire around my own town to see if there was a pre-access level course that I should take first. I queried this, as the Open University is supposed to follow the philosophy that it’s the qualification you leave with that is important, not the ones you start with, and I had never heard of anyone else being given such advice. At this juncture, the advisor started suggesting that I ought to look into purchasing certain remedial educational workbooks designed to ready learners for a pre-access course. I thanked him politely for his time and put the phone down. Whichever way I looked at it, these people were expecting me to sit through years of dum dum classes before I even made it to first base. That had worked well at school (not).

So I poured myself into studying any self-development and brain-building techniques I could find with a vengeance, and when I read Hubbard’s Dianetics I was totally intrigued. I rapidly moved from new public to academy student,  to course room volunteer, to student debug specialist, to supervisor, to training director. By the time I left the organization, 13 years later, I was in fact about three training courses away from getting my full Professorship, since they have a whole parallel system of teaching/tutoring qualifications. I learned things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be taught anywhere else. Where else would a school dropout be trained as a Professor from scratch? Or trained on advanced staff organization and management courses from nothing? I kept going back because the philosophy and the techniques went much further towards providing the intellectual stimulation I craved than anything else the world had deigned to send my way.

In my “moonlight” jobs in the outside world, I was still seen as just the office girl. That was just about liveable as long as I was an executive and senior course trainer in my voluntary gig, but when I ended up having no choice but to leave that organization, and only had the day jobs to keep me occupied, I didn’t just feel bored or restless or unhappy. I felt positively degraded. (Imagine if you were a senior lecturer somewhere, and you somehow fell into a parallel universe where none of your post-16 education was recognized, and your work history was discounted, and you had to fall back on that typist or telephonist experience from your student days just to survive.)

I don’t blame the organization. And I make no apology for my choices under the circumstances. But I suggest that if a talent-spotter had made themselves available and done the right thing, and the right training and the right sort of career had been offered at any stage, I might not have had a “need” for that organization for so long. Just a thought.

As best I could do with a hugely time-consuming desk jockey job in the legal world and, by this time, a partner who did not enjoy good health, after sorting out a few life logistics I continued investigating the world of self-development and cognitive enhancement from a more scientific perspective. The difference now was a new tool was available to me that hadn’t been available in my course room or the old-fashioned little companies where I’d moonlighted – the Internet. I spent my lunchtimes and tea breaks reading everything that was available.

One technology seemed particularly fascinating to me – that of light and sound stimulation. It worked on a purely physiological level, using flashing lights and repetitive tones to gently entrain the brain waves to desired frequencies via the frequency following response. There was an organization based in Switzerland that seemed to have a particularly interesting application of the technology to teach advanced reading skills (and I ended up training as an instructor – but that’s a whole other story). There was also an organization in Canada that sold these machines, and whose blog I started to follow. When I saw one day that the CEO/chief developer was coming to deliver a workshop in England, I signed up straight away.

Ironically, the workshop was to be delivered at the Open University’s headquarters in Milton Keynes, the very same institution whose advisor had effectively labelled me a remedial ed case all those years ago. This was especially amusing to me since I had fairly recently discovered that I was something of a cognitive outlier and had found my online home in “IQ Land”.

Towards the end of the workshop the Professor in charge of the Brain Lab at the Open University invited attendees to another workshop that he was also hosting that was to do with qEEG (quantitiative electroencephalography) and neurofeedback. No one had asked me about my background, so I signed up for that too.

It was only after I had been to a few of these applied neuroscience related workshops that I mentioned working for a law firm. The lecturers assumed I worked in criminal law and used the technology for some purpose in the criminal justice system. I said no, I’m a dogsbody in an intellectual property department. The room went abuzz. These workshops were for clinicians, researchers and postdocs. How had I been able to keep up, ask questions, and do the practical work if I was just an interloper?

Well, the professor asked me if this was a field that I wanted to get into, and I said yes. He asked me what subject my degree had been in (assuming perhaps it had been something law related). I said I had escaped school at 16 with a Pitman typing certificate and (luckily, if you could have seen my school) my life. So he started giving me advice as to where to go from there.

The first thing, he said, was I would need to complete an undergraduate degree, and to give the Open University another chance. “We will accept your application,” he said. I took that as a promise. I’d had so much resistance from tutors I’d spoken to on and off over the years, who seemed to think that my unfortunate school experiences counted for everything, whereas my life experiences and unusual cognitive profile should count for absolutely zip. When I stood in the 2001 general election, I was contacted by several university libraries who said they collected election material from all the parties in every constituency at election time. My election leaflets were worth having, but I as a person was not. I sent them the material, but with a cover letter stating as much. In fairness, I did receive a very supportive letter from the librarian at, I think it was Bristol, who said that he had managed to get accepted as a mature student. However, his encouragement was undone by the extreme rudeness of a tutor at one of the London universities that I spoke to, who basically said that I didn’t have a good enough brain. (I’ve seen my qEEG recording, several in fact, and I’m still looking for what could possibly be so wrong that made me an educational pariah. LOL.)

So I went to the Open University’s Camden Town campus and spoke to an advisor there. I told him about the workshops I’d been to, and the research (at least, some of the most basic, preliminary stuff) I was interested in doing. Well, he said, you wouldn’t get into that until Master’s level at the very least. I didn’t even know what subject area it belonged to. The advisor suggested I do a psychology degree. I applied, ignoring the Access modules and going straight for Year 1. To my surprise, I was accepted with no questions asked, and the government loans company approved my application, again with no questions asked. (The cynic in me tells me that now students have to pay £9,000 a year tuition, the university probably wants all the paying customers they can get.)

At another workshop, I told my professor guy that I didn’t really see the relevance of the course I was doing. The curriculum had a great emphasis on the social sciences, whereas what I was into was EEG, brain imaging, brain stimulation, and peak performance. So when he emailed me with a heads up that there was a cognitive neuroscience degree available at one of the London universities, and that another one of his mentees had landed a place there, I knew what I had to do. The course leader was really nice and said I could use my OU credits instead of A-Levels, although I would have to start again from Year 1 as it was a different curriculum. I was too cynical about admissions tutors by this point to think that I would actually get a place, but I applied anyway.

I am now about to go back for my second year, having completed the first year as a straight A student in every class. I think the course leader knows I am considerably ahead of the typical undergrad in many areas, and even have some fairly specialized knowledge, but considering the astonishing amount of resistance I have had to even getting a foot in the door, I’m not going to make waves at this point.

The title of this post, by the way, is entirely tongue-in-cheek. If you are seriously looking to get to university, at any age, I do not recommend the peripatetic and circuitous route I took.

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I had seen a message advertising an open day at the London campus of the Open University, and out of curiosity I decided to drop in.

One of the staff approached me, and I said I hadn’t decided upon a course of study, and that I was only there to take a look and see what was going on. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see the next available advisor for a chat. I sincerely hoped that this wasn’t going to be either a high pressure sales pitch, nor the sort of thing resembling one of those awful “I’m going to catch you out” style interviews conducted by a third-rate HR assistant, like I experienced at the London Metropolitan once.

So we got talking, and it rapidly became apparent that the advisor didn’t know what would be the best subject for me.

I said that I knew one of his colleagues in the University’s qEEG and Brain Lab,  that I had attended every single one of their workshops since 2011, and that this colleague had encouraged me to set up shop as a biofeedback practitioner but said that at some point I would need to obtain some kind of qualification to lend weight to what I was doing. I said I was interested in biofeedback, neural stimulation technologies, EEG and neuroscience.

By this stage the advisor was kind of scratching his head, and got out some psychology degree brochures. I was rather underwhelmed, saying I wasn’t interested in a lot of this stuff, and that when I had looked at their curriculum online once the only course modules that had grabbed me were the ones in neurobiology and psychometric testing, and the rest of it I couldn’t care less.

The reason, I explained, was that I had experience in delivering training courses and a type of personal counselling that had a very positive focus. The counselling wasn’t about addressing addictions or any other medical condition, but was a method of self-exploration to improve personal effectiveness. The courses were designed to improve study and communication skills, or improve various areas of life and business, and my target clientele was therefore professionals.

I asked if there was anything they could offer that could put an official stamp on my more than 10 years’ experience of delivering these courses and services. So we looked at the education degree brochure, but it almost entirely focused on child development and teaching children. Not a mention of adult or professional education.

At some point in the conversation I mentioned how in the early 2000’s I had started a business management course elsewhere, but had dropped out after the first year because of the simplistic nature of the work and the slowness in sending the next lot of materials after I had finished and turned in each assignment. He showed me some business and management brochures, but I didn’t see how it was going to help given my current interests.

The best advice he could give at this point was to pick and choose various subjects and combine them into an “open” degree, i.e. it would actually carry the title “BA Open” or “BSc Open” (rather than having a specific subject name). If the objective was to get something that carried professional weight I wondered how useful that would actually be.

We talked about various other interests of mine, my music, my writing, and so on. “Is there anything you’re not good at?” he laughed. “Making pots of money,”  I replied wistfully.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’m really interested in. I want to explore the area where my background in education, training and self development on the one hand, and the information from those neurostimulation technology workshops meet in the middle. I’ve got tons of research ideas. The question is, how do I get there?”

“Wow,” he said. “That would be a Master’s level at the very least.”

Going home, I was having crazy thoughts about how the school couldn’t meet my educational needs as a kid. It seems that my need for a tailored curriculum carries all the way through to University level.

Am I really such an oddball that I can’t find a course in what I’m interested in, and on the right level for me?

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This post follows on from my earlier post on how my formal schooling got nuked, and I now describe how I managed to fix myself as a student.

There were very few jobs available when I left school for those without proper qualifications, especially for a person who did not interview well due to some manifestation of lasting shock from my school experiences. The prospect of being able to get back to where I needed to be educationally looked like an impossible feat. There was no minimum wage back then, and I was extremely nervous of dipping into my precious savings to pay for classes where there was no guarantee that I wasn’t going to get just as much obstructiveness from the lecturer and my colleagues in the class as I got from teachers and students at school.

Well, I had a library membership card, and I made use of it. I was interested in mind development even back then, and so I set about borrowing and reading every book in the psychology, self-development, and mind-body-spirit sections of our local public library.

Perhaps I was just being sensitive about the following because of my own experiences (or lack of them), but has anyone else noticed how so many so-called “inspirational” or self-development books start with the author’s “When I was at University” story?

I found myself being regaled with the story of how Evelyn Wood (of “Reading Dynamics” fame) was at university, and she was reading a book on the beach on a summer break, got annoyed, and threw the book onto the ground. While dusting off the sand from the book, she found her eyes could track the sweeping movement of her hand, and so an idea for a reading technique was germinated.

I found myself reading how Tony Buzan was impressed by a professor at his university who had memorized all the names and personal details of every student in the lecture hall before the start of term.

Later, when I discovered the Barbara Sher and her books for “scanners”, yet again I found myself reading a story about how she didn’t want to have to choose only a few classes at university, because so many of them looked fascinating.

I found myself thinking, “They don’t know how lucky they are to have been able to finish school properly and make it to university.”  And, “How do I get to meet these sort of people when all anyone sees is a high school dropout?”

Well, I might not have a “When I was at University” story to tell, but I not only managed to fix myself as a student, but I learned how to hone my study abilities to the point where I was able to get straight distinctions, if not 100%s, and that is even before I started practising visual mnemonics. I found and enrolled on a study course that offered a structured and disciplined set of techniques to identify and handle study bugs as they came up, and so my quest to become an Olympic athlete of the mind started in earnest in the early 1990s.

I’m not going to pretend that the early part of my road to success was easy, because it wasn’t. The study skills course on which I had enrolled was intended for people who were already on the route to training in a specific technology, and it was full of both technical and organizational terms which I had never encountered before, and it made constant references to a certain type of organization in which I had never worked and had no personal reality.

Added to that, there was the baggage of years of being bullied by kids, underestimated by teachers and futzed with by senior department heads, which would rear its ugly head constantly, to my embarrassment, and I would get hugely upset. I was intimidated by the course supervisor who, I felt, didn’t suffer fools gladly. And my family were alarmed that I was taking classes at an organization that they thought was some bizarre New Age thing.

However, having come this far, there was no way I was going to back down. I kept coming to class, chipping away at the materials, which I could study at my own pace, and I came to learn that the course supervisor Chris actually had a heart of gold and was totally supportive of what I was trying to do.

I noticed my productivity start to soar. My already quite considerable vocabulary (from all that solitary reading) skyrocketed. My confidence increased week on week. I realised that I had been wrong in thinking that I wasn’t that smart, or that there was something wrong with my memory – actually, quite the opposite. I’d just never been challenged in a way that allowed my native abilities to connect up to the driving wheels.

After taking a couple of other courses, I decided I was going to train to be a course supervisor too, and I started helping Chris out in the course room.

Then when the opportunity came up for people to attend an elite training program in the US to train to a very high level in running the courses and learning all the technical skills for debugging any kind of study difficulty that students in the course room might be encountering, my name was at the top of the list.

Here is an article I wrote explaining about this study methodology. (This article was published in IQ Nexus magazine in March 2010.)

I have continued to self-educate and hone my own skills, as well as look into other techniques and technologies for enhancing the study and learning experience for myself and others.

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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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Another article highlighting how mass schooling is wasting the potential of the brightest students.

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University said children in the top ability range are ‘perhaps too often left to their own devices’.

‘We don’t do enough for the really able in our education system.’

Understatement of the millennium.

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The Giordano Memory System, as taught by the School of Phenomenal Memory, gives students certain exercises to enhance their ability to concentrate and visualize, if they are having difficulty mastering these skills while doing the course.

Here is an explanation of each exercise, as contained in the course, together with my comments on them.

1. Thumb twiddling: the instructions are to lock one’s fingers, leaving the thumbs free to move, and to rotate the thumbs around each other without them touching. The student is supposed to be totally focused on the action of rotating the thumbs, without allowing their thoughts to wander, for a minute or two. The whole exercise is done with one’s eyes closed. This is supposed to teach students to concentrate and divert from their thoughts. A more complicated version of this exercise is to do it in your imagination, without actually moving your hands.

I had long suspected that this had been drawn from some meditational practice or Yoga, but have been unable to find any webpage describing or video demonstrating that exact exercise in the context of those subjects.

Nevertheless, the following may be interesting. This page shows a homunculus – a “little man” showing the importance of various parts of the body, as seen by the brain. Notice how large the hand, particularly the thumbs, are on this diagram in relation to other parts of the body. An experiment was conducted where a spider monkey had to rotate a ball with his hand to obtain peanuts. The monkey would spend all day turning the ball to collect the treats. Scans of the regions of his brain relating to his fingers and thumbs were taken. Then the researchers tried something – they taped up his thumb and smallest finger, leaving only his three middle fingers free to rotate the ball. After three months, the monkey’s brain was scanned again. This time, the areas connecting to his thumb and pinky finger had decreased in size, whereas the brain regions connecting to his three middle fingers had increased.

Now, I hope that nobody thinks that they’re going to become Mensa material just by twiddling their thumbs for hours. Perhaps this exercise does have some effect on fine motor dexterity, if nothing else. There is possibly a study here waiting to be done by someone.

2. Focusing on the breath: simply taking a minute or two to concentrate on the sensation of the breath going in and out, without thinking about anything else, and without trying to slow down or speed up the breathing.

This one is a classic meditation exercise, one which is often taught as an easy exercise for newbie meditators. I am uncertain, however, of the supposed benefits of only doing the exercise for 1-2 minutes, as the instructions direct. I can only speak for myself here, but it can take me at least that long just to settle down and clear my thoughts.

3. Warmth: placing the hands close together, with the palms facing each other but not touching, and feeling the sensation of warmth in between. It is not made clear whether this warmth is supposed to be real or imaginary. Again, this is only a short exercise to be done for 1-2 minutes, and if any other thoughts occur, the student is to try and get rid of them and carry on doing the exercise.

Again, I suspected that this was supposed to be a form of meditation, and then I found this.

As with the breath exercise, I question whether any benefits to be gained from doing the exercise are curtailed or prevented by performing it from such a short period of time.

4a. Moving the attention up and down the body, and feeling a “warm wave” as the attention passes over the various muscle groups.

This is very similar to something we used to practise at a Yoga class I used to attend many years ago, although what we were doing was tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. Right at the end of the description of this psychotechnical exercise, the next topic is introduced with, “After a few relaxation exercises…”, although the preceding exercise was not explained as such. It merely gave the instruction to place one’s attention on various parts of the body. I think perhaps this was supposed to be a relaxation exercise, it just wasn’t very clearly explained.

4b. Focusing the attention on a room object, and then moving the attention to another room object nearby. The point is to focus exclusively on that object, and not allow any other distracting thoughts.

This is a concentrative meditation technique, designed to build up one’s ability to concentrate. To make the exercise even harder, it is suggested that the student tries this technique with a radio or TV on in the background to build up the ability to ignore external distractions.

So far, with all these concentration/meditation/relaxation techniques, I had two rather large questions or uncertainties while doing them on the course. The first, as I have mentioned, is the length of time which they are to be done seems very short, too short to get the maximum or indeed perhaps any benefit. Perhaps it would be better to pick one of these early exercises and go for broke, rather than try to fit them all in the same practice session.

Secondly, we are told that whenever other thoughts crop up, we are to get rid of them and carry on doing the exercise. OK, so how do you get rid of a thought? Don’t think of pink elephants! I bet you just did, didn’t you? Thinking about trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts is still thinking.

I was given a different perspective on this whole business of stopping one’s thoughts and just focusing on one thing earlier this year. I was explaining how I’d never had any success in learning to meditate. I’d get to 10 breaths, perhaps 20 if I was lucky, and then I would find myself sitting there thinking about some other thing entirely, with no idea how long I’d been drifting off onto other things instead of doing the exercise! The opinion I was given was that exceptionally high functioning people simply can’t meditate like that – the urge and need to think and be doing something with the mind is too strong. They need to use creative visualization meditations instead. So perhaps that is why some of the exercises described further down were always much easier for me to do than these beginning exercises.

5. Letters: this exercise requires the student to take a newspaper or magazine, and count all instances of a certain letter within a few chosen paragraphs. Different letters can be chosen each time, and then moving onto whole words. A timer can be used to see how long it takes the student to find all the letters.

Perhaps it’s just me, but this exercise was just too easy to do for it to be a simple attention stability exercise. The mention of the timer was the clue, and perhaps this exercise again could be more clearly explained. The way I found to turn this exercise from a pointlessly easy drill to something fun and challenging was to treat it as a speed exercise. As it was far too easy counting all the letters A, B etc., as explained in the exercise instructions, I tried finding two or three letters at a time. For example, looking for every instance of A and M in the paragraphs chosen, and try to cross them all out within a certain time limit without making any mistakes. The constant switching certainly beefed up the drill, and the more letters looked for simultaneously, the greater the working memory load too. If that still becomes too easy, I guess you could try doing it now with the page upside down.

6. Mental drawing: exactly as it says, whereby the student is supposed to visualize a chalkboard, whiteboard, paper surface or any surface on which characters and shapes could be inscribed. Letters, numbers, short words, foreign language symbols and geometric shapes are recommended as characters to be drawn in the mind’s eye about 2-3 feet in diameter, on an imaginary surface 3-6 feet away.

I felt that this was the first exercise presented which directly related to the content of the course. In GMS, mental drawing is used to learn new foreign words and complicated signs, and also to fix associations between the figurative codes and the numbers etc. which they are supposed to relate to (an apple for the letter A, for example). However, in actual practice, I did not find mental drawing to be the most effective way of learning all the figurative codes, especially as there are over 100 to learn in the early lessons. (I cheated. I made a Superlearning session to learn all those instead.) It could be that I just never fully mastered this as a skill, but I just didn’t find it that efficient as a learning technique.

7. Image manipulation: taking a couple of objects, such as a glass and a box of matches, and performing every possible mental manipulation with them – matches in the glass, glass in the matches, and so on. When this is done, more objects can be added.

8. Image stabilization: visualizing any item, a spoon, for example, and viewing it from one angle but keeping the image in one position without allowing it to move or rotate.

9. Image transformation: taking any kind of object and transforming its form or shape. So if you used as your image a pencil, it could become long and thin, short and stubby, etc.

10. Image modification: taking an object but this time changing its type, while keeping the types of objects within the same general category. So for example, if you chose a house, you might visually transform it into a hotel, an office block, a beach hut, a church, and all other kinds of buildings.

11. Memory activation: basically, running through from moment to moment all the events of the day before. If that is too easy to do, the student is instructed to run through his/her life video of yesterday backwards.

12. Visualizing colours: an orange fruit, the red, amber and green of traffic lights, a blue sky, white snow etc.

I wanted to discuss points 7-12 together, as they all seemed like slightly different variations on a similar theme – that of enhancing the ability to really see and manipulate images in the imagination. I’m possibly calling this by the wrong name, as my attempts to Google “creative visualization” all returned pages and pages of hits relating to sports performance and people’s hopes that they can attract desirable outcomes into their lives by visualizing them.

Obviously, the way these exercises are used in GMS are for neither (although if you develop the skill and then go away and use them for other purposes, I hope you will let me know what successes you have!).

Very little came up when I tried searching for “creative visualization effect on the brain”. However, we do know that visualization enhances the amount of theta waves, which are linked with memory ability, among other things.

While taking the GMS course, I frequently felt that there were certain exercises, techniques and pieces of data that could have benefited from some extra background or explanation, and these psychotechnical exercises were a prime example. I would have preferred a little more (well, quite a lot more actually) about what exact cognitive processes are being trained, and a more precise explanation of what is supposed to be gained from doing the exercises. These are my speculations so far, and if I come up with anything else, I will write a follow-up post.

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I had the very good fortune a few days ago to meet Dave Siever of MindAlive in Canada, and to attend one of his workshops.

The workshop was entitled Introduction to Audio-Visual Entrainment: Arousal, AVE Technology and Cranio-Electro Stimulation (CES) and Transcranial DC Stimulation (tDCS). Sounds scary? Not really. This technology has been thoroughly tested in research trials and I believe is the most exciting developing field in the area of neuroscience.

You can see the outline of the course here.

I have been using light and sound entrainment, as well as CES equipment, on and off for some time now, and it is wonderfully relaxing. In fact, I haven’t explored a fraction of what these gadgets can actually do yet, and when I do, I will probably write up my findings here or on my main site. As a person who is very excited about the field of cognitive enhancement,  I find the work that Dave and others have been doing particularly fascinating.

tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) units are not normally sold to the public, but are supplied to clinical professionals. I, however, have managed to order one. The manufacturer is satisfied I know what I am doing.

I found the information about quantitative EEG from the workshop filled in a few gaps in my knowledge of neurophysiology, and it is very possible I may be attending further workshops in the future on neurofeedback. Watch this space for further reports and articles.

I have been reading (well, actually re-reading) Dave’s book “The Rediscovery of Audio-Visual Entrainment”, which you can order as a hard copy from MindAlive Inc. but I found that you can actually download certain key chapters from their site.

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I probably haven’t had enough practice at this technique for it to be a really useful tool, although I know some people absolutely swear by them, and the really well-drawn ones I find aesthetically pleasing. This article has been reproduced from the Learning Technologies e-newsletter.

Mind Maps, Myths and Misconceptions

by Phil Chambers

As World Mind Mapping Champion, it saddens me when people have been exposed to poor training or inferior visual thinking tools that purport to be Mind Maps but in fact are not. As a result, they come to believe myths about the limitations of Mind Maps. Of course, Mind Maps are not applicable in every area of life or study but in this article I aim to tackle some of the unfair criticisms that occasionally arise.

1) Mind Maps can’t be used for technical subjects like maths.

Mind Maps are very structured and follow a strict set of rules. So it should be no surprise to learn that they can lend themselves to mathematics. One of the aspects of maths is the categorisation and breaking down of a problem. Mind Maps are ideal for this. Another aspect of maths is following a process. Once again, this can be represented directly on a Mind Map or you can always add a diagram, flow chart or graph on a branch where appropriate. Mind Maps don’t directly help you to perform a specific calculation but arithmetic is a very narrow aspect of the subject. I prefer to describe maths as the study of patterns and the beauty of nature.

2) Images and colours are childish and have no place in business.

The most successful businesses and entrepreneurs are those that continually innovate and think creatively. The use of images and colour on Mind Maps stimulate and promote creativity. They also massively aid memory. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. A visually rich Mind Map, once memorised, allows you to have facts at your fingertips whenever required. A truly invaluable business asset.

3) Mind Maps, concept maps, process maps, fish bones, bubble and spider diagrams are the same.

If you type ‘Mind Map’ into Google you get 51 million results. Many of the apps and software packages that claim to be Mind Mapping tools break most of the true Mind Mapping Laws. The laws are there for a reason and are based on psychology so the more you break the less effective your thinking will become.  The iMindMap Software is the exception in that it follows all the Mind Map Laws and creates true Mind Maps.

In ‘The Mind Map Book’ Tony Buzan warns of the danger of Mind Maps that aren’t really Mind Maps, “At first glance, they look like Mind Maps and seem to obey the fundamental Mind Mapping principles. There are, however, a number of differences. As both figures develop, their structure becomes increasingly random and monotonous. Furthermore, all the ideas are reduced to the same level and each one becomes disassociated from the others. Because the laws of clarity, emphasis and association have been neglected, what appeared to be developing into order and structure has in fact resulted in confusion, monotony and chaos.”

4) Mind Maps don’t appeal to logical thinkers.

A Mind Map works as either a ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’ process. For a holistic thinker you can start with a serious of main branches and dart about the Mind Map adding ideas as they come. In this case you start with a ‘big picture’ approach and refine it as the Mind Map develops. If, on the other hand, you prefer to think is a logical step by step approach you can draw the first main branch and fully develop the ideas from this before moving on to the second,
and so on. The resultant Mind Maps are much the same regardless of how they were created. One of the most powerful features of a Mind Map is that you can see the details, interconnections, relationships and overview on a single page.

Despite the fact that I have a scientific and computer programming background making me very analytical and methodical, I have learned the flexibility to switch between holistic and logical thought depending on the situation.

That’s it for this month. The next newsletter will be dropping into you inbox in early October.

Phil Chambers

You can download the basic iMindMap software for free here.

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A couple of years ago, I enrolled on the course offered by the School of Phenomenal Memory. Here is the article I wrote summarizing and reviewing the system they teach.

I admit that the way I originally worked through the course was the worst possible way to do it (apart from giving up entirely and not completing, of course). I never had a consistent study schedule. I pushed myself to complete the exercises while distracted, tired, hungry or ill. Because of the lack of time in my personal life, I was taking screenshots of the lessons to print out and do in bits and pieces while squeezed in like a sardine on a packed commuter train, or while snatching a quick refreshment break at my desk.

I was happy enough with the results I did achieve, even under these totally non-optimum conditions. But for obvious reasons, I do not feel that I really got the best benefit out of doing the course.

So, after acquiring some state-of-the-art brainwave conditioning equipment, I decided to start over with the GMS course.

There was little point repeating the “bootcamp” lessons 1-12 that teach the basic memorization techniques; I just worked with the “Improve Memory” software and practised random numbers at increasing speeds to get back into the swing of things, and then got started again from Lesson 13, the Database course.

Interestingly, what had once been a tiring chore to keep concentrating and visualizing image connections for a couple of hours or more at a time, was made significantly easier when practised in conjunction with the light and sound equipment. I used to reach a “wall” where I just got too physically tired to visualize any more, but while hooked up to the machine I would reach that point, bust through it, and then hit a sort of second wind where I could just keep going and going.

I have yet to finish re-doing all the lessons. The goal, when done, is to far exceed the passing standard of the course.

I’m still finding my way around the equipment and what it can do. However, rather than become “machine dependent”, I expect to refine my ability to find various brainwave states without needing the machines to tell me I’ve got there. Michael Hutchison, author of “Megabrain” and “Mega Brain Power” writes about how these gadgets have a “training wheels” effect – you learn how to do it on your own.

Together with the study techniques that I used to teach, it will be interesting to explore the use of three of the most powerful mind technologies I have come across, in various combinations. There is little use in having raw potential if it isn’t harnessed, directed and trained. Time to become an Olympic athlete of the mind.

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