During my adolescent years, I grew up on a diet of Edgar Allan Poe. It wasn’t the quite dreadful Black and White TV series that inspired me, repeating ad nauseam in the late evening on ITV, watching after my parents had gone to bed, when permitted to stay up late. It was the big screen pictures, starring Vincent Price probably more often than not, that entranced and scared me in equal measure, when they too were transferred to the small screen. The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Masque of the Red Death amongst others scared me witless and on occasion gave me the most terrible nightmares. Oh, to be young again.
Learning to wonder during the day, day dreaming for short for those that can, turns out to be one of the great learning tools we have forgotten we need to acquire. I am genuinely old enough to remember that I was rushed off my feet back in the day. As a new young headmaster in 1981, I enjoyed the services of an even young school secretary, Lynne Pollard, and her IBM golf ball typewriter. There was of course no internet, nor photocopier, 2 telephone lines in and out of school and just as much work to get done then for much of the time as now. We had to make things so much more right; planning fixtures with other schools was done by post, and lord forfend if you forgot to send the confirmatory postcard in reply to the acceptance card you had received in response to the offer fixture card you had sent out in the first place. Getting examinations ready was even harder; multiple copies were printed using Banda wax templates and methylated spirits. To be honest, as both pupil and teacher, there were times I enjoyed above all sniffing the newly printed Banda paper copy, providing a sense of comfort and a modicum of alcohol to warm the senses.
Yet it must be said too that we had to learn to dream, to plan a better future than the drear here and now. There was so much that needed to be be done, but simply neither the time or resources to achieve them. So I learned to dream better dreams, plan for a future and then learn how to map out the route and steel myself to go the hard yards to realise the dream.
I learned much of the underlying psychology of dreaming whilst at University, and since it hasn’t been important to document how that knowledge has improved since the ’70s, I don’t know when I came to my current stand-point – that introspection and self-evaluation are the skills that have permitted me to grow most as an adult learner.
Brain science now invites us to consider that the neural network of our conscious thought has a default setting when we are at rest to look inwards, providing us with much of our social, emotional and moral thinking. I like to call that activity my inner voice, and it is a really important part of what makes me ‘tick’. Take memorising new concepts as an example. Those concepts come into your working memory, and need to be worked upon so they get translated into something useful in your short term memory. If it’s important, then the same set of inner voice routines then work on it to establish the concept and context around the principles in your long term memory.
We know for example that children must not use digital devices within the last hour before bedtime. A combination of the blue light the screens throw out, and the neural stimulation from the activity concerned proves to be a deeply disruptive influence on those default introspection regimes. We do know however that trying to learn stuff last thing at night is a good idea, on the basis of ‘last in, first dealt with’ by the neural activities of the introspective mindset.
And so to the active classroom, a great place which inspires visiting inspectors, where so much learning is seen to be going on, and busy workers attend to many complex activities in the search for knowledge and solutions. There comes a time, yes in almost every lesson, where the activity has got to stop and the learner provided with the opportunity to make sense of what they have seen and heard. And therein lies the rub, be that now or then, because the active growing mind of a child doesn’t take to reflection and thinking readily. Alive and looking outwards, learners have a nasty habit of interfering with each other, and in doing so, prevent the puzzling that’s needed prior to consolidation and understanding.
Schooling, in its fullest sense, is so much more than teaching a child some stuff. Its meaning also refers to the way horses are broken in from untamed foals to obedient carriers of rider and chattels. Bringing learning, reflection, puzzling and dreaming of possibilities is all part of what education brings. I believe our school presents to children possibilities that are often beyond their ken, and that is an essential part of our success. This is no new idea, for Shakespeare wrote this 400 years or so ago: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. – Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio.
Both scientific research and anecdotal experience show us that ‘when children are given the time and skills necessary for reflecting, they often become more motivated, less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future’. In my view though there is something more that this time is needed for.
In Gary Chevin’s book, Dyslexia: Visually Deaf? Auditory Blind? (2009) he describes a childhood and early adult life doomed by his inability to learn or conform, which eventually saw him imprisoned for his sins. It was only as a fifty year old adult, watching his wife read, that he saw her lips moving and spotted the difference between the two of them – his wife had an inner voice and he had none. We learn to read by reading out loud, and hearing those words as we articulate them helps build the feedback loop from what we see to what we hear. Silent reading is also part of the way we learn to get deep into reading, but that comes at a later stage beyond the reading-out-loud practice. Before the age of 10, whilst the pre-frontal cortex is at its most pliable, we need to keep exposing our thinking, working memory that is, to multiple sounds from word languages and musics, and involve our minds in the conscious reiteration of what we have taken in.
Suddenly it makes sense why we all ‘sing’ at junior assembly, while children have to sit and listen as well as Look and Say, and utter 42 nonsense phonic sounds. We need all that external voice going on so we ‘school’ the inner voice into action. Neither Chevin or his 2 sons have that inner voice, and not only can they not read, but a vast swathe of other problem solving is beyond them too.
So shutting down the external stimulation during the day as well as night, looking into the middle distance to think of nothing in search for inspiration, or indeed the gentle wander to the water cooler, are all important ways we learn to function really effectively as learners and productive problem solvers.
Hamlet is one real nightmare of a play, in which all of importance lose either their marbles or their lives and mostly both. The story line predates Edgar Allen Poe by 300 years, but there’s no doubt Shakespeare himself would have applauded Poe’s sense of melodrama and strength of storytelling. In researching this piece, I note that there is a whole new television series on the way, as well as a whole raft of films in post production or released this year. So if you don’t know how to reflect and fathom mystery, I suggest you give yourself a mighty good ‘scare ‘by going YouTube and watch Vincent Price’s Tour de force, reciting 4 of Poe’s best poems. And believe the impossible – Vincent Price memorised them all. Could you dream to be that good?