Category Archives: Reading

We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For

Thanks to an episode of pinball reading (and its offshoots) which I can now barely recall, I received a free DVD of David Putnam‘s*  film, We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For.

Narrated by John Hannah, it explores the huge problems which today’s young people will inherit and investigates how well or poorly current educational practices across the world prepare them for this future.

The conversations and cast (Sir Ken Robinson, Dr. Cream Wright, Dr. Sandra Leaton Gray, Dame Ruth Silver, Zoë Redhead of Summerhill SchoolHenry Winkler amongst many others) will be familiar to many but I found it instructive to see an extended piece on this topic with input from many countries: UK; USA; Sweden, South Africa, Netherlands.

If anyone in my weekly orbit would like to borrow this DVD, just give me a shout.

*On the sleeve of the DVD the film is described as having been inspired and guided by David Putnam. The directors are Daryl Goodrich and Caroline Rowland.

p.s. re the title – never end a sentence a preposition with 🙂


Having been interested at first mention of WolframAlpha, I decided to spend some time on it to see what it’s all about. The site is not short of explanatory material – ranging from an explanation of its goals, through examples to a video demonstrating what’s possible.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the six major towns of East Lothian featured and decided to find out a little more about population etc. (I imagine that the info might have come from the 2001 census and, in some cases more than others, might be qutie out of date by now). Why not see if you can predict the populations of these towns – or rank them in order before clicking the links? Dunbar; North Berwick; Haddington; Tranent; Musselburgh; Prestonpans

I was also curious about the population of towns which feed into larger secondary schools e.g. East Linton; Longniddry and couldn’t help wondering if all the schools were being located from scratch now, if Cockenzie/Port Seton would merit its own school. The population, at nearly 6,000, must rival that of larger towns at the time schools were establishing themselves.

Then, simply to test-drive Wolfram Alpha, I simply entered random terms in the search box:

a chemical element e.g. Boron; a chemical compound e.g. NaCl (Sodium Chloride); ozone

Pi; a calculation e.g. 7.39 + 17.5%; 10 Factorial aka 10!

today’s date; my date of birth (it seems I’ve been alive for 18,159 days); a random year – 1939

the note Middle C; the interval of the perfect 5th; the major 7th chord; C diminished chord; the term Hertz; human hearing range; speed of sound; speed of light;

the sum of £21.34 which, without asking, was converted into other currencies

a random temperature e.g. 37 degrees C, which was converted into more scales than I knew existed

a random length e.g. 100m; Sun distance Earth; Moon distance Earth; volume of sea;

and finally a random word – sound, which is explored in all its uses – the etymology and first recorded use of words are given – very much like another favourite of mine – etymonline

The results of searches can be saved as pdfs – which must be handy for many classes.

Why not try it out?

The Brain That Changes Itself

On Tue 15 Sept I went to an event in Glasgow Caledonia University organised by the Centre For Confidence and Well-being. A capacity crowd turned out to listen to Dr. Norman Doidge discuss ideas from his recent book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Formerly, I could never decide whether, before attending a talk about a book, it would be better to have read none, some or all of the book. I had read about 1/3 of the book before attending and so was familiar with a little of the territory. I must confess to being no nearer a solution to this dilemma as I felt that prior knowledge of some chapters made those parts of the talk easier to follow (and film footage of some of the characters certainly reinforced my memory of what I had read). However, nearing the end of the book, I also feel certain that having been present at the talk enabled me to get more out of the remaining chapters.

I would say that the central claim of the book is that the metaphor of hard wiring and the perception of the brain as a computer are not supported by evidence of the brain’s capacity for change – as cited in the book’s wealth of anecdotal evidence of near-miraculous recovery from strokes and neurological disorders.

In person and in his writing, Dr Doidge effortlessly guides the lay listener/reader through what might hitherto have been regarded as difficult territory. I got a great deal out of reading the book but would like to concentrate on three nuggets which I feel immediately applicable to professional and personal development.

Learning Difficulty. Dr Doidge suggested that we all tend to equate this term with the same few deficits – difficulty with reading, writing, auditory processing etc. Our society has come to prize these activities/tools. Had things turned out otherwise, many more of us might find ourselves categorised as having a learning difficulty. I for example, have no sense of direction whatever, and precious little visual acuity. I wouldn’t have survived half-an-hour in a hunter-gatherer society and it’s lucky for me that I appeared here and now.

Attention: Dr. Doidge makes it very clear that lasting cognitive change is impossible without the full attention of the learner. We all know this but it’s rewarding to hear the evidence put forward from such a physical, as opposed to pedagogical, point of view.

Habit: we are all familiar with the adage, use it or lose it. Unless I’ve missed something, there does not seem to be a similarly snappy phrase for the other side of this coin – repeat it and benefit from/live with it. As a teacher of physical techniques I feel vindicated in having been such a stickler for technical correctness. Poor habits, once instilled, are very difficult to shake off and the thousands of reminders-per-week have not been in vain. The idea of fuss being made of posture, hand positions etc. can summon up images of terrified pupils, sitting bolt-upright, their limbs and digits exhibiting the flexibility of wrought-iron. Au contraire. What I am describing is natural technique where the skeleton does its own work and the muscles do only what is required. This could be summed up as follows: the strength is in the technique – not the person. That reinforcement in this regard should come from a book about neuroplasticity is no more of a surprise to me than the fact that my approach to natural technique came, not from music college, but from here.

The brain that changes itself

Since hearing her highly resonant talk at the 2007 Scottish Learning Festival, I’ve been a great admirer of Carol Craig and of the work at the Centre for Confidence and Well-being. I’ve never actually set foot in the centre but the forthcoming visit of Dr. Norman Doidge on Tuesday 15th September should change that. He is to give a multi-media presentation on the theme of his recent book, The Brain That Changes Itself.

Music Matters

Increasingly, differences between some aspects of the real and virtual worlds feel virtually negligible – with one notable exception. Walking past the bookshelves in the hall, my eye is frequently caught by the spines of books I hope soon to read or re-read. Undeservedly neglected blogs seem to reach out less and I often return to one to find a treasure trove of fascinating reading/watching/listening/testing matter. One such is Music Matters* – a music cognition blog put together by Henkjan Honing of the University of Amsterdam.

This morning’s visit threw up the following topics:

How well would you do as an expert?

Can music cognition save your life?

Gene for music?

Although apparently published last week, this study was thrown my way by Hilery Williams last term!

Can you point at it?

Is beat induction special? (Part 5)

Does rhythm make our bodies move?

Infant-direct speech

* somewhat confusingly, this is also the name of weekly podcast in my feed-reader from the Radio 3 programme of the same name.


World Book Day

Thursday, being World Book Day, I took my current read into school, as suggested – Proust And The Squid by Maryanne Wolf. Although it is pure coincidence of timing, it seemed to me that there could be no book more fitting. Aware that the title did not automatically yield clues to content, I said simply, “it’s about reading and the brain.” Most pupils had a quick look at the front cover. Only one, a girl in S1, read the back cover – and then said, “cool.”

I thought that this would be the ideal opportunity to conduct a short survey on reading habits. The aim was to have four straightforward questions and for the entire process to last 30 seconds, so as not to intrude on lesson time. The sample group represent, I would contend, the motivated pupil – people prepared to carry an instrument to school at least once-a-week; prepared to practise 5 days-a-week at home; prepared to catch up on work missed while at their instrumental lesson; prepared to spend lunchtimes and Friday afternoons rehearsing in school and local authority ensembles; prepared to represent the school in several concerts each year.

The sample comprised 23 pupils – 13 boys and 10 girls – the age range S1 – S6. Percentages have been rounded up/down to the nearest whole number.

Question 1:   Apart from school reading, are you reading anything else – for interest or pleasure?

Whole group – 48%      Boys – 38%      Girls – 80%

Question 2:   Is there a book which you plan to get round to reading?

Whole group – 65%      Boys – 54%      Girls – 80%

Question 3:   Do you ever read a book more than once?

Whole group – 48%      Boys – 23%      Girls – 80%

Question 4:   Do you enjoy writing – anything at all – even funny emails to friends?

Whole group – 52%      Boys – 31%      Girls – 80%

The difference is those currently reading for pleasure and those planning to read could be explained by the timing of the survey – various SQA folios were due in by the end of the week; the SQA Music practical exams were imminent. The interest in re-reading seemed the most straightforward way of trying to distinguish those who read to find out what happened next from those who experienced some joy in the language or created world within any given book. Almost without exception, the response to being asked about enjoying writing was, “school stuff?” The tone implied horror at the very suggestion that this could be enjoyable. Perhaps this conveyed a feeling of being beset by deadlines.

Assuming that we all believe reading and writing to be good things, it seems clear that boys are missing out somewhat.

Had the survey been about dance, the statistics would have been more stark. It seems that almost all girls on my timetables are involved in some kind of dance activity in or out of school. To the best of my knowledge no boys are.



I spent Friday afternoon at NBHS in a very enjoyable, whole school CAT/CPD event on Literacy. One of the features I especially enjoyed was the cross-curricular nature. I often find myself questioning the wisdom of our discrete Instrumental Instructor In Service days, wondering if so much micro at the expense of macro is a good thing, given the direction in which Scottish Education is currently heading.

The event comprised two sections:

  • all staff – randomly grouped – discussing and sharing what we considered literacy to mean at various age groups from 0 to 25 – led by Karen Haspolat (QIO) and Mary Howie (Literacy Adviser).

  • a chosen workshop from a list of five – I chose How We Learn To Read presented by Hilery Williams

Within a few minutes of discussing our given age group (13-16) it became clear that the definition of literacy was becoming boundless and our post-its included the following literacies: traditional; digital/web; musical; physical; social; inter/intra personal; foreign language; political; sexual (meaning – sense of appropriate behaviour); moral; economic. Many of these quickly necessitated sub categories. Language, for example, distinguished between reading, writing, listening & talking, while Music featured playing, listening, composing/arranging/improvising. Both also contain higher order skills such as critical commentary/review; pastiche; a sense of appropriate register e.g. is this level of irony suitable for a wedding ceremony?; or is a pipe band the best medium for this lullaby? I was very impressed with the presentation of each group’s findings which, without exception, seemed comprehensive – even although the given age range may have fallen quite far outside the area of professional expertise.

How We Learn To Read was entirely hands-on and practical – and fun. Hilery guided us through them with a gentle hand, which sustained a sense of challenge, and an infectious joie de vivre which belied the time of the week and the previous day’s house move! The activities had been very well designed and selected to allow us to discover, often by stealth, how we may have accrued the various literacy skills which we now take for granted. A vital part of that discovery necessitated discussing the strategies that we had used to arrive at our answers. Having turned 49 that day it struck me that my formal introduction to reading had begun 44 years before and that I had very few memories of the process – although I can recall sounding out and seem to remember using a book mark to discourage the eye from wandering into the wrong line. Again, I felt that the cross curricular nature of the teams accelerated rather than impeded effective team-work. Our table featured Art; Modern Languages; Computing; Guidance & Instrumental Teaching.

Throughout the tasks, I tried to keep a corner of my mind free to consider the parallels (no matter how inchoate) between traditional and musical literacy. The first activity involved concentrating on syllabification by means of a jigsaw whose individual pieces contained only one syllable. Within seconds of the pieces being spilled out, I found myself gravitating towards syllables which could only be found at the end of words. Why this should be I remain unsure – particularly as the capitalised beginnings ought to have stood out more. Fortunately our mercurial Modern Languages teacher had already identified and lined up the beginnings and pretty soon we were all able to predict the syllables we needed to find to complete the four words. It was interesting to note how prediction played as much a part as identification in this task. This is certainly a feature of musical sight-reading. Perhaps my fascination with endings constitutes one of the parallels with musical literacy. I would contend that one of the first steps in playing a phrase musically is to make the ending sound like an ending. It is an easier notion to grasp than making the middle sound like a middle or the beginning like a beginning. This has implication for interpretation, performance, composing/arranging. One level of listening would be for pupils to consider what it is about the content of a particular passage that makes it sound like an ending. A slightly more tricky one could include the question, “what is it about the content here which makes it seem that the ending is just around the corner?”

I won’t divulge here the contents of every activity undertaken, lest there remain readers who have yet to undergo them. Suffice to say that there were many more than time allowed and I’d have enjoyed doing several more.

I hope to engage in further consideration with Hilery of the parallels between our respective literacies as I have an intuition that the similarities may well outweigh the differences. More immediately, I’d say I have been inspired to devise more games for lessons as the animation they bring to learning is undeniable.

Games already in use can be seen here:

1    2    3    4    5