Stumbling over the .. Truth

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 Photo from Times Online

 Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.  Winston Churchill

The 2 year old in my extended family has progressed, with the development of an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary and understanding, from merely biffing her older sister to blaming her for all sorts of misdemeanours (at times with some justification). Yesterday while alone for a moment she fell off the sofa. When asked the source of her distress, she said ‘Leila did it.’  And where was Leila? At school. Totally innocent.

I frequently astonish young people by declaring that it’s okay to lie – when we’re using our imaginations at least. After all, the most exciting and engaging stories are fabrications. The most interesting people can create different worlds, envisage alternative solutions to problems – and be aware of this ability and when it is appropriate to deploy it.

Of course, a moral stance is an imperative. One important task for society, particularly for parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice. People who know the difference between fact and fantasy, integrity and falsehood.

As Bertrand Russell wrote: ‘If we were all given by magic the power to read each other’s thoughts, I suppose the first effect would be to dissolve all friendships’. It is not only children who lie.

The ability to tell fibs at the age of two is a sign of a fast-developing brain. A team of Canadian academics have found that the more plausible the lie, the more quick-witted they will be in later years and the better their ability to think on their feet.

Lying involves multiple brain processes, such as integrating sources of information and manipulating the data to their advantage. It is linked to the development of brain regions that allow executive functioning and use higher order thinking and reasoning.

Dr Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at Toronto University, and his team tested 1,200 children aged two to 16 years old. They found at the age of two, 20 per cent of children will lie. This rises to 50 per cent by three and almost 90 per cent at four. The most deceitful age, they discovered, was 12, when almost every child tells lies.
These researchers say there is no link between telling fibs in childhood and any tendency to cheat in exams or to become a fraudster later in life.

‘Parents should not be alarmed if their child tells a fib,’ said Dr Lee. ‘Almost all children lie. Those who have better cognitive development lie better because they can cover up their tracks’.

 Dr Lee continues: ‘They may make bankers in later life.’ Well that’s another story of course. You have to wonder if that is the same kind of ‘executive functioning’ that got all the big banks and subprime homeowners into trouble and is threatening to implode the whole economy.

 I shall watch our little one with care!


Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies. It happens when society adopts new behaviours. Clay Shirky

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Thomas West states:

Some have estimated that more than 50% of computer graphics artists are dyslexic. Brains that seem ill adapted to one technological context can be superlatively well adapted to a very different technological context. The child who has struggled most with conventional academic skills may be perfectly adapted to lead the way with these new and powerful computer visualisation technologies.

 The Curriculum for Excellence gives permission for teachers to celebrate and develop those attributes that have traditionally been accorded less value. Our new (or perhaps re-awakened) perspective tells us that insight and innovation are more even important than book knowledge. Technological change is re-defining the kinds of things that need to be learned and the ways in which we can express our knowledge and understanding.

Many learners with dyslexia are creative and enterprising, while they often fail in school-based clerical and memorisation skills. It is amazing to observe those dyslexics who excel at very high-level maths but who still have not mastered the ‘basics’. Sophisticated mathematical thinking contrasted with poor computation is akin to mature facility with oral language and poor spelling and punctuation. The Tortoise Mind cannot always compete with the Hare Brain, despite deep and thoughtful understanding. 

Sometimes the very terminology of different subjects defeats those with processing difficulties; even when their imagination and vocabulary is wide ranging and rich and even when they know the stuff. I wish I had kept the picture one student produced in a maths exam when asked to ‘show his working’. He painstakingly drew himself seated at a desk, head in one hand, and pencil in the other.

Some brains seem designed to do the high-level work while the elementary is stubbornly problematic. CfE encourages educators to acknowledge the differences in learning and cognitive styles and to celebrate the various approaches to learning adopted by our students.

One of the most important and distinctive characteristics shared by many learners with dyslexia (within great diversity) – when it comes to details they falter. They are not so good at remembering exactly what the teacher said or the exact argument used by this author or that. They may be a bit vague about the numbers cited or the lists of names given. However, sometimes, perhaps often, they can be very good at listening carefully and drinking in the whole situation in all its complexity – and slowly working toward seeing a much larger integration of many divers elements.

We are re-thinking what we are trying to do in education and what our unspoken and unexamined assumptions are. We are using the newest technologies to prepare our students for the realities of the modern world – and in so doing tap into talents that have rarely been noticed or developed before. We are moving beyond fixing problems and discovering where unconventional learners thrive.

Medieval Clerk to Renaissance Person

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Thomas West’s ground breaking book In the Mind’s Eye was first published in 1997 and was up-dated last year. It challenges many myths about the nature of intelligence, exploring the visual strengths that many non-traditional learners, such as those with dyslexia, have.  His new chapters investigate how tapping into new technologies greatly enhances creative potential.

In the Foreword, Oliver Sacks writes:

People with dyslexia are often regarded as defective, as missing something – a facility in reading or linguistic thinking – which the rest of us have. But those of us who are predominantly verbal or ‘lexical’ thinkers could just as well be thought of as ‘avisuals’. There may indeed be a sort of reciprocity between lexical and visual powers. West makes a convincing argument that a substantial section of the population, often highly intelligent, may combine reading problems with heightened visual powers and are often adept at compensating for their problems in one way or another – even though they may suffer greatly at school, where so much is based on reading.

Some of our most original intellects (e.g. da Vinci, Edison, Yeats, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Lewis Carroll, and Winston Churchill) relied heavily on visual modes of thought, processing information in terms of images instead of words or numbers. How many visual thinkers in school today are languishing for lack of understanding of their extraordinary talents and insights?

As our technology, economy and society are transformed at ever greater rates, while our institutions hold fast ever more tightly to outmoded ideas, perhaps it is time for some really fresh thinking – especially from a quarter where it might have been least expected. The old measurement scales don’t fit any more.

West’s blog can be found here. Posts tend to be long and infrequently added; but are worth reading.

Animation for Amateurs

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One of my personal development aims this session is to learn more about visual literacies. I am sure that texts in traditional print form will always be used to good effect, but I know that many learners – especially but not exclusively those with literacy difficulties – can also be engaged by texts in digital form and texts that are multimodal.  As my natural method of accessing information is through print I felt a strong need to develop practical skills to support the rhetoric about 21st century learning. I am a passionate bibliophile but am also committed to the broader definition of text outlined in Curriculum for Excellence:

the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.

I attended a course run by Peter Kingsbury at Pencaitland last week on using the software, I Can Animate.  A group of us produced the above clip. Now, it’s hardly Shaun the Sheep (one of my favourite programmes ever) but it does take aardman productions a year to make a film with 100 technicians apparently. So this, in a couple of hours starting from complete ignorance to this, is not bad. I am, truth to tell, inordinately proud of it although the good ideas and construction were achieved by the others in the team. My contribution was to click on the camera icon multiple times and make the titles and credits. I’ll work up to more creative stuff.

Many thanks to Peter for his gentle introduction. Now I just have to find some pupils to practice with.

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

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I am not a big fan of the Harry Potter books. I find them somewhat derivative and a little formulaic. Despite my love of a good yarn I did not have the stamina to read beyond book 4.
Nevertheless I admire J K Rowling, and never more so than when I heard her Commencement Address at Harvard in June last year. Her talk is amusing but – more importantly – passionate and thought provoking. She discusses the role of failure and imagination. Do listen.
But here are some snippets if you prefer reading:

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.