How many “poker chips” do your students have?

In a previous blog, I discussed my strong belief that IQ is a false measurement of intelligence. Perhapds I should have clarified what I believe to be a very good indicator of a students educational progress.

Attitudes and behaviours will, to a large extent, dictate a students personal development while in school or college. For example, almost every student I know who has professed to be “too stupid to do maths”, has clearly indicated their unwillingness to re-engage in the learning process due to fear of failure. In almost every case, I have been able to develop that persons maths skills. Also in each case, it has been necessary to resolve underlying self-esteem issues in conjunction with gradually introducing new maths skills.

The Poker Chip Analogy

I remember some years ago being told this story by a very experienced teacher, which I would like to share with you, and which might help explain this:

Imagine a typical classroom. Sitting next to each other are two students. Each have very different social backgrounds. Student “A” comes from a secure and loving family. He is well fed, well dressed, encouraged to participate in sports by his parents, and is allowed to express himself and strive for success. He is confident, self assured, and willing to take risks in order to advance his education and knowledge. This student could be described as “owning a large stack of poker chips” relative to hiw self-esteem. When teacher sets a question to the class, this student will be more than willing to risk that he has the correct answer, even if he is not entirely sure. After all – what is the worst that could happen? So, he will put his hand up and give the answer he thinks is correct, thus using up one of his “poker chips”. If he is right, then he gets congratulated, earning him more chips. If he is wrong, then he has lost one chip. But, no matter – he has many more to gamble and no harm is done.

Student “B” may come from a broken home. Perhaps a problem family where he gains little encouragement from his family or peers. Surviving each day is a struggle, and due to domestic issues and instability, his academic performance is poor. This student has little self confidence and is not optimistic of the future. He is not encouraged to strive for success and, because of his poor grades, thinks he is less intelligent than others in his class. As a result, he has a very small stack of poker chips to gamble, relative to his self-esteem. Perhaps he even has only one. When teacher sets a question to the class, the risk for him is too high. Even if he thinks he knows the right answer, he will still not put his hand up. He decides that if he is wrong he will lose his poker chip, and the loss of this single poker chip would have a very substantial impact on what remains of his self esteem. So, better to be quiete and let others take the risk.

The end result is that although he clings on to his little pile of poker chip, but never gets the opportunity to win more.

And that, I think, is my job as a teacher. I need to ensure that I identify those im my group who demonstrate these behaviours. More than any other thing, I need to make sure that every student leaves my lessons with more poker chips than they came in.

It is NOT my job to take poker chips from any student.

If we spend time building self-esteem and encouraging risk-taking within the classroom, then we help students understand that there are no stupid questions and that the most important learning always comes from the mistakes we have made.

Extra focus should be placed on encouraging and congratulating even the small achievements of those we have identified as low in self-esteem. Then, when they have enough, perhaps they will be willing to gamble a few.

Until next time…

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Can I really write a (readable) novel?

To get straight to the point, I would really like to write a novel. No, that’s not quite right – I feel compelled to write it. Let’s set aside any question of talent or ability for now: I don’t know if I have any of either.

But, I have had a plot idea banging around the inside of my skull for a couple of years, and I think it has real potential. I’ve made some effort over the past year to carry out some research, complete a plot outline, and complete a course on creative writing, which has helped me build a rough framework.

And yet, until two days ago, I had not penned a single word due to apprehension and fear. I have no experience of creative writing. I have written dissertations, business reports, instruction manuals, class lessons, lesson plans, etc., but none of these really prepare me for the task. At least I think I have a reasonable grasp of the english language and can structure a written document, which is some sort of a beginning….

I eventually came to the conclusion that, even if it turns out an awful catastrophy, I should just go for it. My inner voice tells me I will learn as I go, and will improve through making mistakes. Unfortunately, my book idea is based on ongoing scientific discoveries in the field of bio-chemistry (DNA to be as specific as I can without giving my “gem” of an idea away), and I know I will have a challenge ensuring that I write with a degree of scientific accuracy (so that the plot will be plausable) while making the concept easy enough to understand to fit “thriller” genre. At this point, you will just need to imagine all kinds of corporate conspiracies, cover-ups, double dealings and perhaps a little murder. Although I hate to admit it – it’s inspired a little by the “Dan Brown” school of writing, but hopefully not so “clunky” (sorry, Dan – I’m sure your success / millions will cushion you from such minor criticisms).

Nontheless, I want to try. And so I reach out now to those in the blogging world to share with me their experiences of writing their first novel. How did you begin? What compelled you to believe you could do it? What doubts did you (or others) have? How did you overcome these. What was the end result? What advice would you give to some poor soul who has deluded themselves into thinking they could be a writer?

Please try to be kind, and in return I will keep blogging as I make progress or hit metaphorical walls. Maybe I can get to the end of this and finally “scratch the itch”.

Over to you…

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Is IQ really a measure of intelligence?

For quite a number of years, as a Further Education lecturer, I have had to deliver “Functional Skills” subjects (Maths / English / Employability) to students who have few or no academic achievement. Many have been socially discfunctional and often have had behaviour issues.

In most cases, they have very few skills to offer a potential employer and, as a result, have experienced long periods of unemployment which has further undermined their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps due to social conditions (but not always) they performed poorly at school and this has deterred them from considering further education. Now, that’s fine if you have practical skills you can build on: academia is not necessary for everyone. But, I have found that the hardest thing for these students to grasp is the notion that you can plan for, and take some control of, the future. Setting short / medium / long term goals is an incredibly hard concept for them to grasp, and a study of their time management skills demonstrates that large parts of their daily and weekly schedule is empty, or filled with menial and pointless tasks. The result is very poor planning and problem solving skills. Worse, they cannot identify possible opportunities and feel helpless to improve their own situation.

However, I have come to the gradual conclusion that what hinders these individuals most is their attitude towards themselves and the world in which they function. Quite often, it is their own behaviour and inability to take personal responsibility for their actions (and learn from their own mistakes) which results in low self-esteem and withdrawal from any effort to participate constructively in society. These behaviours and attitudes are often reinforced within their own peer groups, and sometimes through an abusive partner.

My observation is that very few of them have the type of mental disfunction which would prevent them from achieving far higher things should they desire to do so. The main task for me as a lecturer / mentor / facilitator has been to attempt to raise their self esteem and help them see the world as a place they have some degree of control over, and to seek out positive solutions to barriers to their own pesonal growth. This is sometimes referred to as “Emotional Intelligence”.

My point is that I can see that the potential exists, and that they are as capable as any other person who walks this earth to have successful and fulfilling lives (in whatever form that may take). It is how they feel about their place within this world which makes the biggest difference.

So, does having a better than average IQ make me confident, or the other way around? I am passionate about the world around me and love to learn new things all the time. But I don’t think there is any thing I know which I could not teach to my students. It’s how I feel about it that seems to explain the gap.

Now, I think that perhaps there is very little proof of varying intelligence from one person to the next. Many studies have proved that if you want to be an expert at something, then hard work is the answer, and talent has very little to do with it. And yet we continue to lable individuals as “clever”, “stupid”, “gifted”, “slow”, etc, which then impacts the students behaviours and attitudes for the rest of their lives.

Is it possible that someone who records a high IQ in tests has already “learned how to learn”? In almost every case, students I have observed who have failed exams have done so due to lack of study, or through fear and anxiety. Not because they are intellectually incapable. Had they adjusted their attitudes and behaviours, there is no doubt they could have passed. So, failure is no indicator of intelligence, but of behaviour and attitude.

If we put a far higher focus in school curriculums on time management, setting targets, and (perhaps) sociology, then we could see better results. If we acept that we all have similar abilities, and stop using words such as “talented” and “clever” then we can cease brainwashing young students into believing that learning is beyond their ability and take more control of their lives.

Please understand that I am speaking in quite general terms, and that I accept that there is a variation in brian function between individuals, but this is not the same as realising your potential. Our mind is an amazing and flexible tool, which through mental exercise can be made to perform in superior ways. Am I achieving my intellectual potential? – no. Given the right environment and opportunities, could I do better? – yes, of course!

Could you? Do you feel that you are at the limit of your intellectual ability? And if you accept that you have limits, does that then become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Don’t be so quick to judge others. Don’t limit yourself. You don’t know what you are capable of untill you try, but you need to apply problem solving skills, logic, planning and energy in order to achieve it. These skills can be learned, and are hugely empowering, by anyone who desires it.

Until next time…

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How did I get here?!

I’ve thought about starting a blog for years. I convinced myself that I had something important to say (or at least worth saying), but I could never really get my head around what it was, or should be.

I am (I think) a perfectly average, normal person. Or, at least, I am pretty sure that all the bad things that have happened to me have also happened to millions of others.

Let me explain – I’m a 47 year old, white, anglo-saxon male. I have a reasonably high IQ (135ish) and stand at 6ft 3inch tall (in my socks). I’m reasonably fit (martial arts and occassional trips to the gymn) and hail from the bonnie country of Scotland, although I now live in the north east of England. I am educated to post-graduate level and currently earn a living as a Lecturer in Mathematics at a local college. So far, so good?

OK. I am twice married and (soon to be) twice divorced. In my adult life I have been been bankrupt through failed business ventures, made redundant, fired, hired, successful at senior management level, and unemployed. I’ve worked for global corporations and small independant businesses. My first marriage lasted 5 years and my second marriage 15 years. That one ended two years ago. I have two fantastic sons who live with their mother.  Thankfully, I have regular access to my children and an amicable relationship with my ex. As an inevitable result of the separation I moved out of my home, changed town (twice), changed job (twice) racked up debt (again) and now realise that it will take me years to financialy recover from these recent events.

HOWEVER! I’m not bitter. I rather like my life, even although I find it hard right now to make ends meet, and pay day can never come soon enough, things could certainly be much worse. I find it rather gratifying that I still have faith in who I am, and that I think I really have tried my best (most of the time) and can easily accept that I have made mistakes along the way. I honestly hope that every day I learn how to be a better person.

Like most humans in their forties, this is a time for reflection. And when I look back on my life, I can see that the path is not straight, or even crooked: it really is a twisty-turny thing. When I left school I had ambitions to become a portrait artist. When I realised that this would be a life of poverty (in all probability) I changed to graphic design. This co-incided with the advent of MacIntosh computers, and computer software skills led to a career in IT, which included Windows systems. Many years later, and through computer programming I found a love of statistics, which brought me to a love of mathematics. And here I am now – a teacher of maths. How did I get from portrait painter to maths teacher? Why did I let it happen? What about old-fashioned notions of destiny or fate?  It can’t be just me, surely? I admit my envy of those who seem to enjoy lives of great direction, so why have I not been able to keep my life on regular tracks?

Anyway, I don’t intend to use this blog to stare at my own belly-button, which would be very dull for me and you. But, my life has taught me to be tolerant of others and to forgive them their own failures, as I recognise I have more than enough of my own. An introvert by nature, I tend to be a “watcher-of-people”, and so would like to use this blog as a general platform to promote discussion with like-minded people about the world in general, and perhaps help others, like me, who are a little lost, but still feel passionate enough about life to challenge it in an intelligent manner.

Perhaps by doing so, I can continue to share the things I have learned, and continue my education through your shared comments and posts. This will not be a shouty thing – do you hear! If you want to complain about how awful life is, and how unfair the world is, then go away! There will be no place for you here. You know – the world does not care. Each of us needs to make our own happiness and find our own purpose. I’m not sure I know what mine is yet.

Do you?

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