“My child isn’t good at maths but that is fine, neither was I”
“My child will learn when she is ready”
“My child might be average academically but that isn’t everything”
These views are commonly heard from parents who just want to accept their child for what they are, to love their child whatever their strengths or weaknesses and not put unnecessary stress on that child. To set out to ‘improve’ your child seems to suggest you think they are inadequate as they are. There is virtue, it seems, in allowing a child to progress ‘naturally’ without artificial extra input.
The motives of these parents are good but they are wrong. I was wrong.
When my eldest was born I often joked about the shape of her baby head and suggested to my husband that the fact it jutted out unusually far at the back was because of the extra ‘maths pack’ inherited from her father to supplement the meagre maths ability she inherited from me. However, unsurprisingly really, her head shape didn’t help her. Her friends all learnt to count to ten way before her and her reception teacher told us she seemed noticeably stronger at literacy. By the end of year one she was a 1C and disliked numeracy. That is not terribly ‘behind’ but I had to face the likelihood that if I sent her to the prep school attached to my own senior school, (starting at age 7) I would have to pay for extra maths because she probably wouldn’t meet the required entry standard in maths. What! send my precious child to a school where she would begin ‘behind’? No way! Perhaps I should have ‘accepted her as she was’, weaker at maths maybe, but nonetheless my wonderful child, not to be labeled by a dehumanising selection process.
I chose to teach her extra maths at home. Funnily enough I was still pretty much signed up to nature over nurture but my foray into phonics around this time meant I encountered the work of Zig Engelmann. Particularly a book written in 1966 with the spectacularly Un-PC title ‘Give your child a superior mind’.
Engelmann argues that through systematic teaching you can enormously improve the academic ability and future potential of your pre-schooler. In fairness to him, his whole life’s work has been focused on improving the life chances of the most deprived children but this book shared the approach he had taken with his own children. I implemented some of his ideas. My daughter’s maths gradually improved. I remember the moment when I suggested to my husband she might get a level 3 at the end of year 2. He laughed but she did, and sailed through the entrance exam. She has been near the top of the top set ever since and is keen to do her GCSE at the end of year 8. I saw what it took to make that happen. I was there every step of the way and it I know it wasn’t ‘ability’, it was hard (but well chosen) work. My second daughter has made even better progress in maths. Maths really is relentlessly hierarchical. Engelmann’s Direct Instruction suggests a mastery approach, fluency in the basics and gradually building on that. It works.
1. I teach my children because there is no such thing as a natural level of ability
There is no ‘natural ability level’ in maths. True, my second daughter seems to have a better memory than my eldest and learnt faster but whatever limits nature places on our potential virtually all of us could have reached a high standard in maths. Funnily enough we all actually know that there is no natural level of ability. When we anxiously try to ensure our children become readers, the more books the better, what are we attempting, if not to ‘give our child a superior mind’? When we talk about the advantages of middle class children I don’t think we are talking about genetic advantages. It is well known that statistically speaking the eldest sibling does better academically. We all know how much better some countries are at maths and I know exactly why. I think what startled me as I worked with my own children was just HOW unfixed a child’s academic potential is. If a parent says to me that they are happy to allow their child to make as much progress as their regular schooling permits I fully respect that choice. However, that degree of progress is no reflection of an ‘innate’ ability level. It might seem loving and accepting to leave children to develop ‘natural talents’ but it is an inconvenient truth that progress is dependent on input. Why on earth did I think that a lack of mathematical talent stopped my eldest from learning to count to ten? All we had to do was count with her more frequently.
2. I teach my children because l want to share the beauty of knowledge with them.
I just cannot understand those parents who want to keep their children like the noble savage, as if there is beauty in ignorance. I do think some knowledge is wholly inappropriate for children but I find the idea that academic knowledge is corrupting absurd (see previous post). I taught my youngest child to read before school because I knew how to and it was wonderful to open up the written world to him. Do you avoid pointing out the cars, trees and other features of the world around your toddler until they are older because ‘they don’t need that knowledge yet’?
3. I teach my children because it is my gift to them.
I have been known to teach the odd rather crumby lesson – I admit it. However, as humble as I am, I know that I can teach, and teach well when I can really put my mind to it. If I had other skills I might perhaps have other priorities. There are endless things that are more important than being clever, being a kind and decent human being or fulfilled in life are high up there for a start. However, while I can only try to bring my children up in the way they should go, I know I can help them academically.
Teaching my own children has also been a privilege and (in retrospect at least) a real joy. If you are a secondary teacher you will know that odd feeling of disbelief when your first exam classes get their results. ‘Wow, it is because I taught them that they got those results.’ I am thrilled that I, as their mother, worked with my children as they learnt to read. I was there as they took their metaphorical first steps. I rather sentimentally hope that perhaps it was a privilege for my children that they were taught with a mother’s love.
4. Teaching my children has given me a deeper understanding of how all children learn.
This has been a surprising byproduct. For example, teaching young children maths has really opened up to me the way understanding is never all or nothing. I am no longer surprised when my own classes can’t do the thing they could yesterday. Perhaps more of this in another blog post.
In conclusion. My kids will be cleverer for the extra teaching they have received but it seems likely that they would do well enough at school without any extra input. They would have good enough qualifications to earn a living and play their part in society. Therefore, although these two blogs might be about why I teach my own children the really important implications are for those children who are at risk of getting no qualifications, and ending up without decent literacy and numeracy skills. This is an unnecessary tragedy. It is wrong to assume children have reached a natural level of potential through one’s teaching. There can be enormous challenges and all sorts of limits on what you can achieve within the time and with the resources available but primary education in our country is imbued with developmentalist assumptions (see here and here) that stop teachers even setting out to teach basic numeracy and literacy. ‘Breaking the prairie sod’ (see my last post) is unthinkable because children must be ‘ready’ and learning MUST BE FUN! Teaching numeracy and literacy systematically and providing enough practice go against child centred orthodoxies. My own experience would suggest that these orthodoxies are incorrect and harmful.
The previous post explains why I reject common argumnts against teaching young children academic content.