‘Why can’t we just learn the way other animals learn? Through playing, through doing?’ It’s Iggy who says this, my nine-year-old son. He’s been asked by his dad to do some maths exercises on his own after their lesson. He is sat at his desk and I am working on the sofa at his side. I can feel the tension in his breath. I glance across at him. He is a slim, muscular boy with large blue eyes and a thick head of dark blond hair. He has beautiful posture: people comment on this all the time. That he walks like a dancer, head held high, shoulders back. But he is small where he sits now, folded in on himself, fighting back tears. ‘I feel sick,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a headache.’
It is a scene that might be familiar to many parents: the exhaustion at the end of the school day, and the resultant opposition to homework. The big difference being that, with Iggy, it is the way he approaches any desk-bound work he is given. And no, it is not that he is lazy or incapable of understanding. He can grasp complex ideas, he asks sometimes brilliant, original questions, but this does not translate into the structures of conventional learning.
‘He doesn’t concentrate,’ his reports have always said. ‘He doesn’t listen. He has his head in the clouds all the time. He never puts up his hand. He needs to try harder.’
He was finally diagnosed with ADD and dyslexia last September (and I say ‘finally’ not without irony, as if this diagnosis might in any way be the solution). The psychologist who tested him prescribed a programme of re-education, twice a week, at 60 euros an hour. A year before the diagnosis, an educational psychologist spent hour after hour with him, refusing to name the problem. She was charmed by Iggy. She told us it was the school’s fault. She had been through the French system herself, and had very little good to say about it. In her company, with the games they played together, Iggy was normal.
But take him from that one-to-one context of play to a structured learning environment with thirty other kids and he can’t relax. When he can’t relax, he can’t concentrate. When he can’t concentrate, he doesn’t learn anything. He stares into the distance, his page remains blank, he scores below his potential.
You trust as a parent that where you have failed with your child, the teachers will know how to help. Like most mothers, I have always believed deeply in Iggy’s intelligence – he is witty, at times genius, unorthodox, defined by an innate empathy and a strong sense of right and wrong. But these qualities don’t seem relevant at school. Iggy can listen to endless stories in bed at night, where he is relaxed and his imagination can run free, but being asked to read something himself under pressure and answer questions on it is a challenge. Writing makes his hand hurt. There is an emotional element, too. Anything that might mean failing in the process of trying – even failing in the smallest of ways – is too much for him to bear. And failing is an essential part of learning. If you watch an infant learning to walk, they fall over time and time again and push themselves back up. Of course, Iggy did this too, but the same approach is needed in every element of our educational development. Without it, within the school system, there is a delay. Knowledge and skills lag, and each year the gap becomes more apparent.
There were clues early on that I wish we had heeded. Hindsight is 20/20, of course. For example, when we took Iggy to swimming lessons, he protested and protested until we stopped taking him. When his dad decided to teach him to swim himself, disguising it as fun and games in the pool, Iggy loved it and overnight was swimming independently. Iggy has watched all the Star War films multiple times and can tell you at length what happens in each of them. He is happier dressed as Anakin Skywalker than he is dressed as himself. Crowds have always overwhelmed him. The few times we had a birthday party for him in our flat, he would rapidly retreat into our bedroom and ask to be alone. ‘I can’t stand the noise,’ he’d say. The same went for music on long journeys: he couldn’t tolerate it. ‘I want silence,’ he’d say. And there is a paradox here. He is one of the loudest kids I’ve ever met. If his younger brother takes something of his or if his elder brother so much as touches his shoulder in a way he did not invite, you’ll know it immediately. There is an almighty, almost existential cry.
We chose the French system before these signs became apparent, almost by default. We were living in Moscow at the time and the boys had been going to the local state kindergarten. Then Putin invaded Ukraine and sanctions hit. There was xenophobia in the air and a fierceness to the education system that did not sit easily with us. Plus, Putin was on the wall of every classroom. We couldn’t afford an English international school. The Lycée seemed an obvious choice as it is state-subsidised, hence the fees are much lower. Plus, I have a degree in French, so I knew I could help with homework. But the French system is not for everyone: it is dry and old-fashioned. Children sit in rows from age six; they learn to recite poetry; they learn to conjugate verbs and do regular dictations and endless grammar exercises. By the time they leave primary school they are expected to know their own grammar better than any French language and literature graduate does in the UK. There is very little in the way of creativity and sport. Everything that is ‘extra-curricular’ is provided by after-school clubs that must be paid for additionally.
We almost gave up on the system a year ago, but Iggy went ballistic. He told us he didn’t want to change schools. He liked his teacher; French was by far his favourite language; he liked his friends. But with the diagnosis, we began to look again.
And then confinement happened.
On the Monday of week one, one of the many things Iggy had to do was read a text and answer some questions. He sat and stared at the task, then flicked through the pages, then complained at how long it was. After some coaxing, he started reading and then abandoned it a couple of lines in. We agreed I would read every other paragraph. We began again. The text was a single chapter of a short novel. Maybe six, seven hundred words maximum. Not even a paragraph in, he stopped. He was staring at the illustration: a boy at an open window, leaning out, looking down at his neighbour’s house. Iggy said, ‘What’s the boy doing?’ I said I didn’t know and suggested we keep reading to find out. ‘Do you think he’s going to climb out?’ I don’t know, Iggy, I said, come on baby, let’s read. ‘I think he could hold on there and put his leg on there and he could use that as a ladder.’ That’d be fun wouldn’t it? I said. ‘Do you think I could climb down from my window? Do you think we could make some ropes like spiderman?’ A task that was meant to take thirty minutes took two hours, with several breaks between.
Every day we sat down to work I used as an opportunity to observe Iggy. To work out how much he already knew of what he was meant to know; to get a sense of his learning capacity and what was going on in his mind. What I observed stunned me. If he was in a bad mood, the mood usually lingered all day, and on those days we achieved nothing. Even on a good day, sitting still and learning anything for the duration of a normal class – 40 minutes – was impossible for him. He could barely focus on reading for more than five minutes at a time. He couldn’t do anything without someone sat at his side to remind him what the task was. If there were any interruptions, we were lost. If there were noises inside the room, it was over. If he needed the toilet or was hungry or thirsty, it was also over. Most devastating of all was the realisation that the grammar exercises we were being sent – while not that advanced – were way too hard for him. He could barely recognise a noun, let alone distinguish a subject from an object. His primary school years, which surely should be the freest, most creative years we have in education, had become a wasteland of grammatical confusion. By the end of the term, three weeks into the confinement, we had worked out that Iggy would never go back to the Lycée. It was no surprise that he had learnt nothing at school this year. The type of exercises he was being set had no learning value for him. I had already begun to let some days go – letting him play rather than study when he was in a funky mood or exhausted. Now we decided it was time to let the whole thing go. To let school go as we knew it.
The effect is a happier child, a more relaxed mum, and a marked progression in Iggy’s schooling. Having left the Lycée, his teacher there has kindly allowed him to continue with the video calls three times a week, so during this time of confinement he still sees other children. He is not always in the mood and not always capable of concentrating. But when he does choose to take part, he keeps on amazing his teacher: putting up his hand, volunteering to answer questions, getting the answers right. ‘Bravo, Inigo! Exactly!’ his teacher says.
But there is another outcome too: a questioning of the very systems that are meant to tame our children, to lay the foundations of our society. The idea that we can outsource the education of our kids to adults with thirty in a class seems suddenly ludicrous. Equally – the idea that one single style of learning might fit all. If there are different styles of learning, surely there should be different styles of teaching.
I have been reading around the subject. What I found was surprising at first. ‘There is presently no empirical evidence for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles,’ concluded one meta study (Rohrer and Pashler, 2012). It recommended that ‘educators should instead focus on developing the most effective and coherent ways to present particular bodies of content, which often involve combining different forms of instruction, such as diagrams and words, in mutually reinforcing ways.’
If I reflect the latter back to how Iggy and I are doing the homeschooling now and compare it to what he was being given before, it makes some sense. We are persisting with the French, because that is what he wants, and so I have signed up to a French homeschooling curriculum that includes a manual for parents. We read something every day and discuss it. We watch a documentary specifically designed for children around that same subject – be it the lives of wolves, the Middle Ages, or organic rice farming in Thailand. We continue slowly with the grammar, introducing something new each day as well as revising something from the previous day, but we always make it fun, visual and turn it into a game. I write with coloured pens on a whiteboard and Iggy gets to fill in the gaps. We do conjugation this way too, using diagrams and colour. Sometimes he fills in the gaps himself, sometimes (when he needs a faster pace) he shouts out the answers. We do the odd dictation just to keep him writing and he sets his own reward (inevitably, something to do with Star Wars) for learning the words he spelt wrong. His dad does thirty minutes’ maths with him first thing in the morning and another thirty minutes late afternoon.
The entire schooling process takes about two and a half hours a day, with plenty of breaks in between. That is just the academic part. We build things together. We built a model house big enough for his little brother to play in last week. He’s been making and painting model planes. Sometimes (when he needs some peace and quiet), we lie on the bed together and he closes his eyes and I read a science or story book to him in English. The rest of the time, he’s playing and dreaming.
The change in him is striking. He’s happier. He’s re-found his self-confidence. He’s stopped telling me he thinks he’s stupid. He and his older brother argue far less. He shouts less, too. Every now and then, during our lessons, he says, ‘This is fun! I’m enjoying this!’
I’ve been reading Sartre in the lockdown for my doctorate and I keep on thinking about his ideas in relation to Iggy and how we teach and learn. There is a passage in the novel Nausea in which the hero Roquentin begins to see the truth about reality: that it is brutal and inaccessible to human categorization and understanding. ‘All at once the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen,’ he writes. And, ‘Words had vanished and with them the meaning of things, the ways things are to be used, the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface.’ It is the point at which Roquentin truly sees the absurdity of the human world. He has observed the roots of the chestnut tree in a new light and realises that all the meanings we humans have given the tree are entirely man-made and artificial. We make our own meanings: this is the only reality for Sartre. The laws are made by us and the laws can be questioned by us, too. If we apply this existentialism to education, it’s incredibly powerful. It means focusing learning on the individual’s interests and his freedom to choose his own purpose in life. It means doing away with desk-bound learning for hours each day. It means avoiding diagnostic labels.
This, in stark contrast to the ‘essentialism’ of most schools, which tend to put children in boxes and ignore their capacity for fluidity – what Sartre called ‘bad faith.’ Sartre illustrated this with his observation of a waiter who had become so set in the idea of being a waiter that he could not see he had any other choice in life. We might equally illustrate it with the story of a child who believes he is stupid, because he cannot relate to the information he is being presented with. And so he is labeled by an ‘expert’ as lacking in attention and this defines his path for the rest of his life.
If anything good has come out of this confinement, it is the time and opportunity it has given me to sit with Iggy and see the world as he sees it; as well as the box he has been put in, how small and limiting it is. The question ‘why can’t we just learn the way other animals learn?’ seems all of a sudden more wise than naïve. What the answer might look like in human practice: to learn according to our own nature, needs, interests, energies. This is where we are going now with Iggy.