Chipping away inside the coal mine

30th May 2003 at 01:00
I've been reading a book. Not a set text or the latest guide to ADHD, but a real book, a story. It was the Easter holidays and, having completed the ornamental fountain, there was nothing left to do in the gardenI I'm not sure why I chose this book, a biography about a 19th-century engineer called William Smith. A man with a vision, whose wife went mad, who had his work stolen and was imprisoned for debt.

Apart from being an intriguing personal tale, the book unravelled the story of how Smith discovered something about the world we live in that others hadn't realised and which we take for granted today. A bit like Darwin and evolution after he'd visited the Galapagos. Only Smith went down a coal mine - the many shafts of the Mearns Pit in north Somerset. His discovery? Geology - or being able to predict how layers of strata would appear, and when and where there might be coal.

Reading about his struggle to convince others, I started to think of all the other given truths that we take for granted. It also made me think how amazing it must be to have that "eureka" moment.

I guess, with age and experience, teachers forget those moments; they become less frequent. At secondary level, they become less frequent among the children we work with, too. Learning evolves. Fact builds on fact. New skills are based on those learned at primary school.

Not so for the children I work with. Their earlier learning is interspersed with failure, just as Smith's strata observations were by coal measures - and often just as easily predicted. These children's failures and behaviour issues lead to them being permanently excluded. We attempt to rekindle a desire to learn, a degree of self-confidence - success, even.

Often we have to abandon national curriculum targets. If the concept of a sentence has not been grasped, then what chance Shakespeare or probability? We have to go back to the topics that caused grief.

And suddenly it clicks. Eyes open. The pencil falls to the table. A eureka moment.

Although we aspire to GCSEs, lower-grade qualifications are more realistic for our kids. But, with pressure to get them back into school, or to reach an academic level, and with so many gaps in learning to be sorted out, time for a eureka moment is at a premium.

How sad that we find it easier to say "wrong" than "well done". How sad that we feel obliged to skip to the next topic. It may not be the theory of evolution. It may not be the accurate prediction of a coal seam. But somehow we must find time to savour each eureka moment if our kids - and not just the ones who have that permanent taste of failure - are to have any chance of really succeeding.

David Watson works with excluded students

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