issue 164 - October 1986
Children are more obedient than you might
think. Label a child 'lazy' or 'slow' - and, as Juliet
Kellner discovered, she'll obey the label.
Penny, aged nine, came on an impromptu picnic with my daughter after school one day. Her mother allowed her out on condition that I supervised her homework first, because Penny is so 'lazy'. Homework that day was easy - just learning a list of spellings, And Penny had a particularly easy list because she had been labelled 'slow'. But Penny was struggling, making wild and hopeless guesses at the list of words. So bizarre were her guesses that they roused my interest. For example, Penny didn't misspell 'appoint' by offering 'apoint' - she spelled it 'agree', or 'coffee'. A second look at the list made it clear what was going on. Penny had simply memorised, as best she could, the whole list and offered any word at random.
I made a cautious attempt to discuss this discovery with Penny's mother in the evening. 'About Penny's homework...'
'Oh, she's so lazy!' said her mother. 'She just watches the clock waiting for the moments to tick by and never concentrates...'
I tried to explain that the problem didn't seem to be laziness so much as some kind of learning gap or block. We agreed that I should spend fifteen minutes on Saturday mornings, when Penny came to play with my daughter, trying to find out what had gone wrong.
The first few Saturday sessions were conventional enough. In fact, I was saddened to see how delighted Penny was by the smallest expression of imagination or originality on my part as a teacher. How little she must have had! By the fourth session, Penny was pleased with her new image as a diligent pupil; I was pleased that my intuition was waking up. Progress was visible, though scarcely at lightning speed.
But on the fifth Saturday, lightning did strike. That day, Penny brought along a reading book that her parents had given her. She read aloud to me, in a colourless voice, a stilted retelling of the 'Three Little Pigs' - her favourite story.
I asked her to write out one of the sentences she had just read out. In wobbly lettering, she did. Out of the eight words In the sentence, she'd misspelled two, pretty wildly. I asked her to write the same sentence out again, more neatly - hoping she'd notice the mistakes when she paid more attention to each word. But she copied it out exactly the same way.
I don't know why I persevered with this, but some idea was dimly gathering in the back of my mind. I asked her to write it out yet again, for a third time. The mistakes were still there.
Following the half-formed idea, I said: 'I won't correct this sentence for you. You do it. Pretend you're the teacher.'
She picked up the pencil and looked critically at what she'd written. 'That's wrong,' she said confidently, pointing to one of the misspellings. 'And that.'
My spine tingled. I said, as calmly as I could, 'Can you make them right?
She quickly changed the words One was now correct, the second was phonetically correct, if not dictionary-correct.
I covered up my surprise and tried the experiment again. I dictated another sentence out of the book and Penny wrote it out, once more with a couple of mistakes Then I asked her to 'become the teacher', and she corrected the sentence unhesitatingly.
We tried the experiments third time but with a difference. 'This time,' I said, 'I'll read out one more sentence to you; but I'd like the teacher in you to write it down.'
I read the third sentence out, hardly daring to look at what she was writing.
It was impeccable.
Penny and I looked at each other in silence for a long time after that. Both of us knew that Penny had uncovered something that had been a secret, even to herself. In the end I said, 'I don't think you need me to teach you any more. You obviously have your own teacher inside you. She seems to know all kinds of things that the no-good-at-spelling-little-girl doesn't know.'
I went on carefully: 'Part of you might not know some things but it seems another part does. Will you give her a chance to help you? Ask her, when you need to know how to do something. You don't have to ask the little girl who doesn't know.'
That was our last lesson. Her mother was very pleased by Penny's next school report. Last time we met she sang Penny's praises. 'I always said she was intelligent,' she said. 'Not brilliant, but she's got what it takes. She's got it in her.'
Name and illustration have been changed to protect the child's identity.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7