Matilda is a book child.

From the time she was just a few months old she sat in rapt attention, under the crook of a loved one’s arm, listening to words that flowed like the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River; words that told of hungry caterpillars, patchwork elephants and wild things in faraway places. She has been bathed in rich language.

At 4 her vocabulary, analytical skills and comprehension were immensely well developed and she is now well on the way to attaining high grades in all her exams. Crucially, Matilda loves to communicate. Her first recognisable writing was on a postcard to her grandma; who correctly decoded the message, love from Matilda. Her reading skills developed in harmony with her desire to make connection through the written as well as the spoken word.

By the age of 7 she had become a fluent, enthusiastic reader and writer.

Mind you, Matilda’s exuberant approach to life and learning is diminishing as she goes through school. She now evaluates herself against others, and finds herself wanting at times. She is afraid of not being smart enough. Through no one’s fault, she judges herself and her peers with set criteria, with a fixed mindset. She is in danger of rejecting opportunities to learn. She somehow has got the impression that kids who are successful don’t make mistakes; they are always clever. This means that she rarely takes risks with her learning. But she writes well-constructed, beautifully presented essays.

And now we come to our 2nd child: Leo.

He had a similar love of stories learned from his earliest experiences. However, Leo’s brain is wired differently from Matilda’s.

He gets stuck on words like pulling and pushing, because and table.

He keeps switching letters round. It’s not deliberate, just something that he does. He sees letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents, occupying a zone beneath the threshold of the comprehensible, and tries to pluck and stick them to the page as best he can. But it’s an imprecise science: by the time he’s got a few words pinned down, the others have floated on ahead or changed their meaning, and Manchester’s’ ‘chest’ has turned into an old oak coffer, the queen’s coronation into a pink flower. (Tom McCarthy,  ‘C’)

While Matilda scribbles neatly and assiduously, and always faultlessly, inscribing each word as it falls from the teacher’s mouth, Leo, bathing in the phrase’s afterglow, usually gives up after a few lines and just lets the words billow around him, losing himself in their shapes and patterns, bright and alive.

Whenever he can, Leo communicates in a different way, in which reading and writing form only a part and not the whole. He uses images and sounds to demonstrate his knowledge and understanding and to make his point. He persists in making himself heard and seen, communicating with the tools he finds comfortable using. He is, together with others, building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression.

Leo’s skills lie in making sense, not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Leo has found that learning to think for himself is more important than simply learning to read and write. His deliberate, serious and sustained practice in creating multi-modal texts arises from his constant self-criticism, a  restlessness, a passion to aim just beyond his capability. He has resolved to dust himself off and try again if he falters. He has a daily commitment to becoming better.

Unlike Matilda, he understands that talent is a process rather than a thing. He has learnt from his earliest days to regard failure not as a verdict on his potential but as a doorway to an unlearned skill. He has learned that it is safe to fail, to experiment, to explore a multitude of possible answers; to develop his own voice. Sadly much of Leo’s energy and effort are more often deployed once he gets home from school!

Which child is most likely to thrive in this new era?

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