In this newsletter we will be saying farewell to the Cummings family whose brief sojourn with Learning Unlimited was to prepare the twins Jenna and Joshua for their transition to the Irish schooling system.
I will briefly outline my “Just You and Me” program that builds sound conceptual knowledge as a foundation for learning mathematics and science.
There are also articles by myself and Norman Bernard which focus on why reflection and self -reflection are such important and often overlooked keys to educating our children.
Learning Unlimited assists emigrating families to transition to overseas institutions.
Farewell to the Cummings family!
The photo above is of the twins and their mom Carol at Learning Unlimited as they explore together the concept of “measurement”.
Jenna and Joshua Cummings had just turned 11 when their family was given short notice that an opportunity had arisen to move to Ireland. Their schooling until 2023 had been that of the Waldorf system; derived from the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 19250) an Austrian esotericist who founded the Anthroposophical Society and whose philosophy informs the Waldorf schools worldwide.
Over the years I have taught a number of students of various ages from the Waldorf school. I affectionately refer to Waldorf children as “the barefoot brigade”: My son Joe attended Waldorf schools until the age of 6 and did not wear shoes until his first day at Bishops when he needed to put on sandals as they were a compulsory part of his school uniform. The absence of shoes is indicative of the emphasis placed on children’s connection to nature, the earth and earth’s cycles.
I concur with Wikipedia’s description:
“Steiner believed there were no essential limits to human knowledge and that alongside intellect, educating the will and feelings of the learner was just as important. Steiner’s approach to early years education encouraged child-led, fantasy-based imaginative play, stimulated by natural resource… Core components of the educational program include the student-teacher relationship; the artistic approach; working from experience to concept; working from whole to parts; use of rhythm and repetition.”
Unsurprisingly the twins were full of enthusiasm and curiosity. Learning was an adventure and their curiosity was boundless.
In short, they were a delight to teach. A lesson of ratios became an exploration of mixing paints to form various shades of colour and then the shades of green and brown were turned into paintings of trees.
Learning Unlimited’s tutors, including myself (mathematics), Norman (English) and Charles (Cognitive Assessment Tests CAT4) embarked on the journey to prepare the twins for 11+ level studies in a limited time frame of less than two months. The ISCT kindly provided a suitable venue for the administration of the CAT4 tests.
“Just you and me” program
Over many years of teaching children and parents together I developed foundation programs to build the key concepts in mathematics and science.
Can you hear the sea inside the shell? Building concepts of shape using natural materials Joe in a tree to investigate “gravity”
My approach to teaching foundation concepts is similar to that advocated by Steiner. I am not keen on fast tracking children’s schooling. My approach is to follow the child, to encourage creative imagination and free play and to teach from the whole to the parts. I emphasise the child’s connection to nature, teach from the concrete to the abstract and demonstrate tools to aid learning.
Parents testify to the benefits of this approach to instruction.
“Sharon is an extraordinary teacher. Visionary in her approach, she is led by the child. The teacher-student relationship is one of equals. The child experiences a sense of adventure in the lessons and the quest to learn is therefore fueled with enthusiasm”. (Cathy Bor, parent and clinical psychologist).
“Sharon, you have taught my boys that there is no limit to their intellectual curiosity. You have taught them the value of thinking for themselves”. Justine Gevisser, whose two sons Leo and Josh are now pursuing careers in music (Julliard school of music) and biological sciences (completing his A levels in the UK).
Where I differ in my approach is that whereas Steiner placed imagination, intuitive knowledge and inspiration in the realm of higher knowledge (Rudolf Steiner: “The Stages of Higher Knowledge”), it is my view that these innate abilities are unlearnt due to the acquisition of language and the under-emphasis of these faculties by modern materialistic values.
For this reason, I have emphasized in previous newsletters the importance of the enlisting all the senses in the child’s perceptual apparatus.
Unconditioning the human brain
“So we are asking a very fundamental question: what is a teacher? It is the greatest profession in the world, though the least respected, for if he is deeply and seriously concerned the teacher is bringing about the unconditioning of the human brain; not only his own brain but the brains of the students. He is conditioned and the student is conditioned. Whether he admits it or not, this is a fact, and in relationship with the student he is helping both the student and himself to free consciousness from limitation.”
The relationship between teacher and student is a key to education, that is education that is not merely intended to provide exam results. The human brain has been limited by the conditioning of the social milieu and excludes the possibility of a fresh and open curiosity to learning.
When a child expresses beliefs and views parrot fashion, it is clear that this is merely an imitation of what he has heard from others.
Education is about reflecting on these views and being willing to place them under scrutiny.
“Why do you think this is so..?”, “Could there be another way of looking at this?” These questions apply equally to the teacher and the student. In this way they are looking and learning together.
This questioning approach and the freedom to explore alternatives is key.
Self-reflection as a key to educating our children for the future
In our previous January 2023 newsletter I argued for redefining our humanness as a necessary precondition for redefining education. A more holistic view of what it is to be human requires us to expand our view of the human being to include intangible qualities such as consciousness, intentionality, values; and not merely the chemical functions that make up the human body.
In this newsletter I will take this further. If the human being comprises more than the material body, then what is this “self” by means of which we identify/ characterise ourselves? There is both the objective (measurable) quantitative aspect as well as the subjective (inner) dimensions or qualities.
Education then, of necessity, must take cognisance of this broader definition of our humanness, including the subjective and lived experience of each individual. Knowing myself becomes a key goal of education.
Socrates said it most succinctly in his guiding principle, “Know myself”. The Tao Te Ching stated: “Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom” And in Hamlet Shakespeare wrote: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” My former school motto is: Quisque sibi verus,” “To thine own self be true”. But who or what is this underplayed “self” that we should know and be true to?
In my many years of teaching experience, one particular incident stands out starkly in my mind. I had offered to teach a 14 year old boy who had lived in a remote rural area and who had made little progress in his mental development over that time. I noted that he was unable to retain or remember what I taught him as though his mind was a sieve and it dawned on me that he had not acquired the ability to reflect upon his own thought processes. In other words, he did not reflect upon what he was thinking about. Through guided instruction (mediation) I was able to point this out to him and this feedback mechanism enabled him to retain and process the information he was receiving. With this came the emergence of the “self” and recognition of his own individual identity.
The ability to reflect upon my own thoughts, emotions and beliefs begins with education (not schooling which presupposes being conditioned to various values, beliefs and norms).
However, in our modern materialist world, thoughts are regarded as second class citizens.
“We regard the paper on which we write down our thoughts as having a reality that must be denied to the thoughts and emotions for which they serve as a vehicle. Matter, rigged out in the attributes of colour, texture and form which it borrows from our senses, has taken centre stage, and thought and consciousness, the other actors in life’s cast, are given only subsidiary parts to play.” Kenneth Walker “Meaning and Purpose”.
Yet our thoughts/ ideas/ beliefs/ ideologies unless subjected to scrutiny lead to prejudice and bigotry and conflict. In this article I posit that the transmission of ideas is a key determinant of how we construe reality.
“The New World fell not to a sword but to a meme”. Daniel Quinn
Memes are to culture what genes are to biology: the base unit of evolution. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The selfish Gene. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via imitation.
The transmission of memes, ideas and beliefs is particularly relevant to education today where our students are bombarded by these in social media. Now more than ever educators have a responsibility to develop in students the capacity to think for themselves, to become aware of their thought process and emotional responses so as to navigate the competing and conflicting views and values of our time.
Learning Unlimited’s tutors are acutely aware of the urgent need to address this deficit in modern education.
Refection’s Place in English Language Studies by Norman Bernard
I believe it should be stated outright that education without cultivation of the capacity for reflection is simply not education. In this I am following up on a theme explored by Sharon Levy in various ways in past newsletters. For those who might think all this “too philosophical” in a pejorative sense, let me assure you that should you be doing international GCSE or AS level studies in English reflection is a survival skill if you want to prosper in the exam hall Why? I shall look at a variety of reasons why reflective thought is beneficial in education regardless of subject, beginning with the purely practical and moving on to others much more significant.
Perhaps a contrast with the NSC with respect to English language instruction will be revealing at this point. Let’s begin with a simple grammar topic, active and passive sentences illustrated with examples:
I know from conversations with Learning Unlimited students attending local schools that they are shown that in a passive sentence the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence and that the agent need not be specified and usually isn’t (the phrase “by Norman” in brackets is optional). Drill will follow, taking the form of active/passive transformations and/or the identification of passive sentences in passages. Succeed in such tasks and all will be well. In short, what is being assessed is your ability to give basic descriptions or make basic identifications.
However, when I point out that both active and passive sentence convey the same information and ask why we should have two ways of saying the same thing many are nonplussed.
A big shift in language teaching pedagogy took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a shift in which Canada and New Zealand were influential. It also profoundly affected the British curriculum. For 30 years now the basic descriptive abilities mentioned above have not been rewarded with high marks. Why not? IGCSE and AS examiners have a name for noting that a passage contains passives, metaphors or whatever: they call it “feature spotting” by analogy with “train spotting” and the term is entirely negative.
On their own, such descriptions are uninformative. They invite responses such as “So what” or “Who cares.” What we really need to engage with is meaning, why passives are being used. Whenever we try to think about meaning we are by implication thinking about choices and this is where reflection comes in.
Where can we find passives? In announcements of breaking news for a start:
A bank was robbed in Claremont late this afternoon.
Here passives allow us to talk about an event even though the agents are unknown.
A second use is in doctor’s prescriptions:
These pills are to be take three times a day at mealtimes.
Here the person is known—you—but a passive sentence is used because what matters is procedure (anyone taking these pills needs to do so in this manner). This is also why laboratory reports and the like frequently use such constructions to convey an air of scholarly authority and impartiality.
Here follows a third and much less reputable use. In the wake of a major political scandal in the 1980s President Raegan admitted the following:
Mistakes were made.
With this example we start to see that analysing the niceties of various possible formulations is not necessarily a matter of connoisseurship, like wine tasting. Here we are dealing with a damning evasion of responsibility, a determination to hide wrongdoing as far as humanly possible. In fact, identifying the main culprits might have raised questions about impeachment.
Unfortunately language, like anything else, can be used to manipulate and mislead. Reflection on how things are being framed and on why we are being told this and not that can make us more resistant to exploitation. How often have you noticed the use of comparatives and superlatives in advertisements? Have you ever asked yourself the question: “Better than what and why?” Sticking with advertisements, have you ever noticed how often imperatives are used in them? I mean phrases such as “Enjoy majestic views of Table Bay while enjoying a designer cocktail…” or “Feel the power of this turbo-charged V8 engine…” Why are such imperatives so frequently encountered, often in my experience in the advertising of luxury goods? You are being written about from the perspective of one who has already bought the relevant holiday package or car in the hope that writing about you as if you have already done what the advertiser wants will make you more likely to take out your credit card and do so.
Watching out for advertising ploys falls under the heading of enlightened self-interest, but as the Raegan example illustrated being reflective about language and one’s own opinions also has an ethical dimension.
This is not only true of political contexts where it is obviously so. It is even more insidiously so of those pat expressions which we all think we know and understand.
Surely we have all heard this piece of folk wisdom:
What will be will be
We also know that is usually taken to mean something like the following:
All human effort is useless/ineffectual.
Are you aware of the illegitimate logical leap that has taken place from the one formulation to the other? In my experience most are not when I ask the question. The conclusion overlooks the fact that our own efforts could be one of the things that “will be.” We sometimes have not merely the ability but the duty to make strenuous efforts and it is rationalising human laziness that takes us form the first statement to the second.
What about the following:
All of a man’s interests are his interests.
This is a tautology and therefore not to be denied. It is usually taken to be synonymous with the following:
All a man’s actions are self-interested.
This rationalises greed and selfishness by overlooking the fact that some people’s interests at least can be benevolent.
I am not even going to begin to talk about the way people have misused the slogan “survival of the fittest” as that could be the subject of a book (and such books have been written).
These slippages show how natural it is for us to shed burdens we should carry. In contemporary South Africa there is one issue where we can all try to do our bit: xenophobia. As I write, Zimbabweans, Malawians, Somalians and heaven knows how many others are routinely robbed, assaulted and at times murdered because they are foreigners and the national government is trying again and again to force them out the country. The imagery in which they are described is all-revealing as it depicts them as parasites and predators. We should be more diligent in pointing out to the man who burns down a Somalian business owner’s shop that he is not “taking” or “stealing” anyone’s job: if the arsonist’s shopkeeper father is creating jobs then this is no less true of his victim.
All this is true but also wearying as it makes one appreciate how little people seem to change: as Bernard Shaw observed, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” But I do not want to end on either so moralising or depressing a note. Incorporating reflection into our studies can be a source of unexpected joy and this is the most compelling reason imaginable for making the attempt.
I like to work through a short extract from Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers with my IGCSE students. Without stating anything overtly, it becomes clear that the narrator has an instinctive aversion to Mr Slope, the character he is describing. Here is a tiny extract:
I never could endure to shake hands with Mr Slope. A cold, clammy perspiration always exudes from him: the small drops are ever to be seen standing on his brow, and his friendly grasp is unpleasant.
Why the word “exudes?” I ask my students. If they realise that the word is often used not just of liquid substances—sweat or otherwise—but smelly discharges the narrator’s distaste becomes evident. Students do tend to realise that the “ever standing” perspiration seems to show nervousness of some kind, but what kind? A clue comes from the odd phrase “friendly grasp” which some students find striking without being able to explain why. To “grasp” something is to grab or take hold of it forcefully in a way that at the very least suggests great determination and quite possibly aggression. Its associations are incompatible with “friendly” in a way that suggests subtly that Mr Slope’s friendliness is insincere, perhaps a mask put on so as to take more efficiently.
Once such things are explored students come to see how much a fine novelist can subtly suggest without saying anything openly and also that he is also paying the reader the compliment of having enough intelligence to work all of this out. Some find joy in rising to the challenge and appreciate seeing more in the passage than they thought was there.
Sophia Carlyle’s testimony of her experience of studying IGCSE English with Norman Bernard.
“I started IGCSE English Language with Norman Bernard towards the end of July 2022, with the aim of writing my exams in the middle of October 2022. Needless to say, Norman and I had a very short amount of time to prepare. However, he never put pressure on me, though our syllabus and time were very concentrated. In fact, he made an effort to relieve as much pressure as possible. If he ever felt stressed about how little time we had to achieve my goal, he never let it show.
He is gracious, generous, considerate and sensitive, among so many other great things. He also has a great sense of humour which appeared in most of our lessons, making them fun and something to look forward to. The majority of my lessons took place online but I also opted to go to Norman’s house when loadshedding got in the way.
Either way, I always felt completely welcome in the space that Norman held. He listened respectfully to my personal story when we first met and was considerate, in light of this, all the way through our time together.
There is almost never a question that Norman cannot answer – he is truly one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met. Norman chooses interesting excerpts to study together from all sorts of different kinds of texts which makes the learning experience even more enriching. He is incredibly dedicated to his work and wants to help in any way he can. If there is a memo/model answer missing for an exercise you’ve been set and you feel you’d like one, he is more than happy to add the task to his heavy workload.
I went on to achieve an A* for my English exams, under Norman’s tutelage, so I truly could go on and on about what an extraordinary teacher and mentor Norman Bernard is but I’m afraid this is already too long.”