Thursday, 2 July 2020

Flexible Thinking by Steve Way

It’s an interesting responsibility we share as adults writing and working for children. Naturally, we want them to enjoy and benefit from the work we produce and the lessons we teach them. I don’t always believe that arbiters of the decisions, such as the educational authorities, in deciding what and how material should be presented to children always get this right. The knock-on effect I’ve observed is that this then leads to some publishers, teachers and others being misled but influenced by these edicts in their actions and thinking. Despite good intentions these ideas appear to be as fickle as changing fashions and sometimes as disastrous. Most importantly they seem to me to be of no great benefit to the children we are all trying to support.

Several years ago, an educational publisher was showing interest in some of the pieces I’d written incorporating ideas about mathematics. I’d created a character called The Wise Wizz of Woo, who amongst other achievements (allegedly) determined the shape of the numbers we use. The publishers were vehemently opposed to my Wizz. According to them it was completely unacceptable to use witches or wizards, or references to magic, however oblique (he was only a ‘wizz’ after all) in modern publications as apparently this would be unnatural and unrealistic and confuse the children. The theory seemed to be that the children would have difficultly recognising that magic of an imaginary kind doesn’t exist and that it might confuse their understanding and appreciation of their own or others religious beliefs or sensibilities. Wizards and witches were definitely a no no. For me this was doubly a shame as I’d also been writing a couple of stories about a couple of gormless wizards who were the least able students at their school of wizardry.

Unbeknown to me and the staunch anti-magic brigade at this particular publishing house, elsewhere in the country the first edition of a series of stories about a young orphan with a distinctive scar on his forehead was being discovered by an enthusiastic readership. Curiously, even though a few religious zealots made a fuss about it for a while, most children seemed to cope emotionally and spiritually.

Of course I wouldn’t claim that my scribblings concerning The Wise Wizz of Woo and his associates are in the same league as Joanne Rowling’s stories about Harry P but as the absurdity and irony the situation became clear it did seem irksome that my publisher’s thinking about what was acceptable fare for children’s consumption seemed unnecessarily limited. As well as returning The Wizz to the drawing board!

I was amused once, shortly after the Literacy Hour and Numeracy Hour were strictly imposed as each morning’s fare for children – no cross curricular activity allowed! – when after being invited to do a school visit to present my maths stories that this seemed to pose a worrying dilemma for the class teacher. ‘I don’t know whether to have you in the Literacy Hour or the Numeracy Hour,’ she wailed. Goodness, how confusing for the children! It was certain they wouldn’t be able to cope!

I was less amused on another occasion when I was presenting a story about rounding numbers to a class of eight-year-olds. The idea is that Kings Hundreds, Tens and Units go to war and due to rounding numbers differently the army with the least men is mistakenly thought the largest causing the others to retreat. In order to show how this worked I needed to use the board to calculate how many soldiers each of the kings had in their army. There were only three numbers in each case, for the cavalry, archers and infantry. I began showing the first calculation in a column when the story was interrupted by a scream from the back of the classroom. Seconds later the class teacher had run to the board and practically wrenched the pen out of my hand. ‘We don’t add up that way!’ she cried hysterically as seemingly alarmed as if I’d just inappropriately exposed myself to the class. This was when the fashion was for the children to learn to add up sideways rather than in columns. (And at the time in no other way So Help Us God!)

This dramatic mathematical event seems to me to highlight two different schools of thought when it comes to children. One insisting that children can only be taught in certain ways or exposed to certain ideas and characters, the other camp, including me, that believes that children are infinitely more flexible in their thinking than we usually give them credit for. There are many classic children’s books in which the language is highly complex. Is it likely that the children understand the meaning of every word, reference, idea? No. Has that prevented them from gaining an infinite variety of benefits and joy from the novel? Also no. Will they later gain different insights when they read these books again – perhaps as adults to their children – definitely yes.

Instinctively and intellectually I refute the idea that children should be taught in only one way. I’m glad to hear that these days in many schools children are shown a variety of ways in which to carry out calculations and then allowed to use the method which they are most comfortable with. I’m sure this encourages intellectual flexibility, particularly most recently after teaching a couple of eleven-year-old girls English here where we live in France. The girls couldn’t be more normal for their age but like all students in France they are taught only one way to carry out calculations and that is very definitely it. When I started teaching them language related to maths I was astounded at how poor their mathematical skills were, far behind those of similarly able children their age in the UK.

Another educational fad that fazed me was the ‘only teach from the children’s experience’ idea. I was in an international school in Lyon and during the lunchbreak described the science-based sketch I was aiming to present to the children, covering the concept of friction. The idea is that Professor Crackpot visits the bank to ask Mrs Friction, the manager, for funds to finance his inventions that contradict the law of friction, such as bumpy slides and smooth tyres. The teacher was horrified, certain that the children wouldn’t appreciate the piece since it broke the golden rule of only teaching from the children’s experience.

I was very tempted to suggest that if we were only supposed to expose the children to learning based on their own experience that we should immediately send them all home, since the home environment was presumably what they had experienced most up until now. Since the children were around eight or nine-years-old I strongly suspected that they knew what money was, were aware there were places called banks, which some of them may even have been inside in the company of the adults who sometimes have to visit them in the course of their daily lives. I was even more strongly tempted to warn the teacher away from exposing them to any popular children’s books on the off chance that they didn’t actually teach magic at this particular school, or that the children didn’t have bedroom furniture without a back that led into Narnia or… (obviously here we could all have a field day so I’ll leave it at that.)

I had incidentally already shared that sketch with hundreds of children all over the UK and elsewhere and they all seemed to come out of the experience unscathed… as did the children in Lyon.
You may be interested to know that The Wise Wizz of Woo did eventually see light of day with different publishers. A cartoon poem can be seen at  while this and further exploits can be read in Using Stories to teach Maths Ages 4 to 7 ISBN 978-1-90986-002-5

However the inept wizard students are still languishing in a bottom drawer…


Moira Butterfield said...

Yes, I remember being told that children no longer related to stories about magic...just before HP hit the shelves. I was also told that children didn't like talking animals any more. Such stuff is utter nonsense ands betrays those parroting it as being shamefully out-of-touch with kids. I'm currently being told - due to US publishers - that we can't mix fiction and non-fiction ideas in a book because kids won't understand the difference. Thus many creative printed projects that would have appealed to many kids are being stifled, I imagine. TV, movie and computer game guys don't seem to have such weird nonsense to hold them back.

Steve Way said...

And bizarrely Moira when my stories that were too 'magic' based were being suppressed my publishers were however quite happy to publish stories incorporating science and maths! It really seems as though these daft ideas change with the weather or the phase of the moon or something - certainly not due to any application of logic or reality! I don't know about you but I sometimes wish publishing houses were staffed by children and not adults! :)

Susan Price said...

How do you write any fiction book without mixing fiction and non-fiction ideas? Every fairy-tale does it. Nursery rhymes do it. Hans Anderson does it, Beatrix Potter and Richard Adams do it.

Penny Dolan said...

There's definitely "fashions" about What's Out and What's In in the publishing world and the education lobby can be a very strong-minded creature, imo.

Anne Booth said...

These books sound so much fun. I would have loved to have been taught Maths that way, and I know my children would have loved that too. And maybe your inept wizarding students can still come out of the drawer and have their chance in the spotlight...?