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Tortoise and the hare is no fable

David Henderson and Elizabeth Buie report from the annual conference of secondary heads.

Schools should not encourage pupils to specialise too early, either in formal subjects or in sport, two prominent analysts told the Headteachers'

Association of Scotland in St Andrews.

JoAnn Deak, an Ohio-based consultant and writer, said that recent research on the brain showed clearly that teachers need to stretch all areas of children's minds during their key growth years. It was counterproductive in the long term to focus heavily on strengths and ignore weaker areas.

Emotions were the main driver of the brain and negative responses to activities would turn off pupils. They would convince themselves they were no good.

Dave Collins, professor of physical education and sport performance at Edinburgh University, echoed the sentiments in a separate presentation on developing physical potential.

"Early identification is fatally flawed. There is no point. What you do is identify the oldest kids. About 65-70 per cent of the footballers in the Premiership in England are born within three months of each other. This is not star signs but through under-nines, under-10s, under-11s and under-12s, they are the biggest and look the best and get the most positive reinforcement and therefore the payback," Professor Collins said. "You measure maturity, you do not measure potential. It's also negative. When you get rejected, you get miffed, give up and walk away."

Steve Backley, Britain's most successful javelin thrower, was an 800 metre runner at the age of 15, said Professor Collins, who is sports psychologist to Backley and other elite athletes.

Some 85 per cent of elite athletes develop late. "You do not have to be super-good when you are young," Professor Collins said.

Dr Deak said that girls' linguistic skills were ahead in the early years but their spatial awareness and understanding of mathematical concepts were not. Each part of the brain had to be stretched. Albert Einstein was brilliant in maths and science, but he failed his primary tests in reading, writing and spelling.

If teachers wanted to tackle particular problems such as poor reading or writing, they had to understand that each part of the brain influenced the other.

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