A story for our times? (Post 38)

One of the greatest writers of science fiction was Isaac Asimov. He is probably best known for his “Robot” series and his “Foundation” novels. He was however a prolific writer of short stories [that is, he wrote a lot of them].

Very often it is the content of science fiction stories that attracts its readers, rather than the style. That is probably true of Asimov’s work as well, although his style is pleasingly easy to read.

It is interesting to see what sci-fi writers guessed correctly about the future (as it was to them) and what they got wrong. In the story to which I’m attaching a link, which he wrote in 1951, Asimov imagines a mechanical teacher rather than a computerised one, and – unsurprisingly, I think – had no concept of the Internet. He also still works in “old fashioned” fractions, rather than decimals.

Despite all that, however, the story still speaks to us, in my view. Asimov sets it in 2157; he would have been surprised, perhaps, to know that it already has a resonance for us in 2021. When you read it, spare a thought for what school-age pupils are missing out on, during this Covid19-related “lockdown”.

Press Ctrl and click on the link to go to the story’s site.

The Fun They Had (visual-memory.co.uk)

Are you – or ARE YOU IN CONTACT WITH – a school pupil? (Post 37)

Here in the UK we’re facing another period of schools – some of them, at any rate – being closed because of Coronavirus. It’s January 3rd 2021 as I write, and the four nations of the UK have made different decisions about closures, but each of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is going to have at least some pupils working from home for some of this month.

This blog has – since April 2020 – posted online ideas for pupils who are stuck at home, so that they can continue to develop their English language skills. The suggestions cover talking, listening, reading and writing. They don’t require much equipment at all. They develop skills such as communication, analysis and reviewing, as well as the more obvious ones such as creating stories, reports and speeches, and playing word-games. Look back at some of the earlier blog-posts if you’d like to get some ideas.

Now, here we are again, with pupils of all ages at home when they would normally be at school.

Schools will set work to be done at home, of course, but there can be problems there. Last summer term showed us that some schools managed this better than others – and that’s not necessarily their fault. Technical issues were undoubtedly a barrier in some cases. Home situations can also be difficult: does each pupil have access to a laptop or tablet for his or her exclusive use during the school day? (A phone isn’t really as good, here, because of the size of the screen and of the “keyboard”.) Is the broadband connection at home (and at school) good enough to allow the downloading and uploading of work in a reasonable time-frame? Is there a quiet place at home where the pupil can concentrate, and work without interruption? What happens when (s)he gets stuck with a work problem: is there someone either at home or contactable by phone or online who can help?

None of these is a small problem – and if you are in touch with a school pupil who has to work from home, maybe you can help. If you’re an older sibling [brother or sister], or a grandparent, can you lend a tablet or laptop to someone who doesn’t have one? Can you provide a quiet workspace for some of the day? Can you be nearby to help with any problems – and perhaps provide hot or soft drinks, and something nice to eat, when the pupil needs to take a break?

Most of all, can you help a pupil with her or his motivation to work? That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all to working from home for any length of time.

You may not think you can help a young friend of yours, but you can.

There is nothing more influential on a young person than an older one who has chosen to take an interest in him or her. (And although parents are hugely important and – although they may not think so, at times! – do have an influence on their children, they don’t count as having chosen to take an interest: it’s part of the parental job description to do so.)

You don’t have to be heavy-handed about this. You don’t need to have done well at school yourself – although it’s not a barrier if you did do well. You don’t need to be a family member (although you might be). Just by asking your young friend or contact what the home-schooling arrangements are, by taking an active interest in how the arrangements are working and how the young person’s getting on – and keeping that interest going – you are showing that it matters to you how well that person is doing.

It’s often easier to talk to someone outside your immediate family about any problems or negative feelings you’re having. If you’re that someone outside the immediate family, gently ask about any difficulties your young contact is having with working from home. If you identify a difficulty, ask whether you can help, and if so how. If the answer’s “I don’t know”, perhaps you can make some suggestions – but don’t feel that you have to solve the problem; just being there to listen to the difficulty is helping; sometimes the person can solve the problem him- or her-self after having talked it out with someone else.

Similarly, if it’s an “academic” problem in, for example, maths or physics, you don’t have to be a maths or physics person to help. You can suggest where help might be found; but even more simply you can say, “Talk me through what you’ve done so far” and “What did your teacher say you had to do, when you were taught this?” Sometimes that, too, will trigger the learner to realise that (s)he does actually remember what to do after all – or knows where to find the method that (s)he’s been taught.

You might think that if you hated school, and couldn’t wait to get out of it, you’re not the best person to motivate someone who’s still a pupil, but that’s not the case. You might say – as a great member of the estates staff [a workman] at one school where I taught often did to pupils – “You don’t want to have to do the job that I do. You want to work hard and get qualifications so that you can choose what sort of job to go for.” He was a great motivator, and he wasn’t bitter about his work, just honest.

You might say that you didn’t enjoy being at school, but you realise that you did learn something by being there – even if it was what you didn’t want to do in your life beyond school. Even having the conversation about what you liked and didn’t like, and what your young friend likes or doesn’t like, about school, will help her or him to realise that (s)he isn’t alone in that. One parent apparently told a pupil of mine that he might not like school, but that it was “a short pain for a long-term gain”; I’d hope it can be a bit better than that – but at least, again, he was being honest, and it did make his son realise that there was a reason why he was expected to do the work set by his school.

And if you happen to “hit it off” with your young friend, and get to talking about a subject that both of you really enjoy – well, there’s no end to the help you can give, and the pleasure you can both have in exploring it together.

You may think there’s nothing you can do to help a home-learning pupil in these coming weeks, but believe me: if you know one, you can help.

PS – There are some pupils who are perfectly happy learning from home and don’t need much, if any, help. There are others who think that they don’t need any help; and there are some who think they don’t want any help. Nevertheless, your taking an interest will be appreciated, and what you do after that will depend on the young person’s response. Good luck – and thank you.

Time to get writing! (Post 8)

You know that these times of coronavirus/Covid19 restrictions are very unusual, don’t you? You’ve probably heard people say that they are unprecedented (that is, nothing like them has ever happened before).

These restrictive conditions won’t last for ever, although it will take quite some time for our way of life to return to anything like what we considered to be normal.

You may not think so now, but in years to come many people – perhaps including yourself when you’re much older, and maybe your children when/if you have any – will find it interesting to know what it was like to live through these times.

There will be plenty of historical records of the nation-wide measures that were taken – the political decisions, the role of the police, of the NHS, of shop-workers and delivery drivers. What might be more interesting, however, and certainly more relevant to you and your family, is a record of what it was actually like for you, day to day, living through this time – and of how it contrasted with your life before “lockdown”.

I’m not going to suggest you keep a diary – but if you’d like to do so, please go ahead, or if you’ve already started one, keep up the good work; well done!

My suggestion is that you start in one of two ways, depending on which attracts you more.

Plan A: on paper or in a Word document, make two columns. In the left-hand column, briefly describe something that you experience at the moment, for example (perhaps) waking up whenever you want to do so naturally in the morning. Opposite that, in the right-hand column, briefly describe what would have happened in normal times, before the Covid19 restrictions: for example your alarm going off and you either springing out of bed (no, me neither) or hitting “Snooze” and eventually having to be called out of bed by someone else in the family.

Write as many of these pairs as you can easily think of, then keep adding to the document as you think of more, over the days ahead.

Remember to give your document a title that you’ll remember and – if you’re using Word – to SAVE as you go.

Plan B: write (on paper or in a Word document) a description of how you are experiencing a particular part of the day. For example, you might choose a weekday morning during what is normally school term-time. You might prefer to write about a weekend afternoon, when you would normally be out and about. Think of a time of day that strikes you as particularly strange. You might even want to begin your piece of writing with the words, “This is strange.”

Write in the first person – that is, using “I” to give your account. Make it as detailed as possible but try to avoid repetition. Remember that to communicate your experience as effectively as possible, you have to make it understandable to someone who has NOT been in your situation, or has perhaps forgotten about it over the years.

Remember to give your document a title that you’ll remember and – if you’re using Word – to SAVE as you go.

Why should you do this? Because although you think you’ll remember this time all too well, you will forget. Because in years to come – many years away, perhaps – it will interest you to be reminded vividly of what it was like. Because your children or grandchildren – perhaps – will be fascinated to learn from you what it was like when you were their age, and in a very unusual time.

Why not just record yourself talking about this? Well, by all means do, if you’d find that helpful, but (a) if you’re going to think carefully about this task and try for as much effective detail as possible, you will want to spend time over each sentence and to change and improve your description as you redraft your work; and (b) our means of recording sound have changed much more than our means of recording the written word, over the years – so a written account is more likely to remain accessible over the generations to come!

Why should I do schoolwork when my exams have been cancelled? (Thought No. 4)

Hmm … Good question, and one that many school students will have been asking themselves over the past two weeks or so.

Well, if you’re in the younger yeargroups, you’ll have to go back to school at some point. “The teachers will just start from where we were, and help us catch up,” you might say. Probably true, but you the pupils are the ones who will have lost out there. You won’t have as much time left before, for example, you have to choose exam subjects, and knowing less in each subject means your choice won’t be as well-informed as it would have been. So that’s one good reason to keep working in each subject.

Another is – and this applies to everyone who’s off school – that the longer we don’t study, the lower our IQ (Intelligence Quotient) becomes. I need to try to find the study again, to reference this, but research does show that over, say, a 6-week summer holiday, a learner’s IQ falls by 4 points!

Our study skills, like so much else, tend to operate on a “use it or lose it” basis. If we don’t keep ourselves in the habit of learning, it will be much harder to return to it and have to re-learn those skills.

If you are in the older yeargroups, you’ll be working towards qualifications – National 4 or 5, Highers, GCSEs, A-levels, for example. If you’re in the first year of a two-year course, it’s really important that you keep yourself working on it; you won’t be able to make up the time if you don’t use it now. Yes, you might be able to work harder and cram more in when you do go back to school, but that “catch-up” material won’t be as well learned as if you had spread its learning over a longer time, and the pressure on you will mean that new material has less time to “sink in”.

If you’re in the final year of your courses, and you know that your exams aren’t going to happen, that’s a really frustrating situation to be in, and I feel for you. Your grades will depend on the standard of the work you did before the schools closed, including mock or prelim exams. That is what your teachers will use to predict your grades for the exam boards. I know that many school students – not all! – tend not to take prelims or mocks seriously, telling themselves that these exams don’t really matter, and that they (the students) will work a lot harder for the “real” exams. Sadly, it is partly for situations like the current one that mocks/prelims exist. OK, we haven’t had as widespread a situation as this before, but the principle is the same: if a learner can’t take his or her “real” exam – for whatever reason – the prelim/mock result is used to indicate what the student might have been expected to achieve.

“Hindsight is a great thing,” you might be muttering, resentfully – and I take your point.

So – if you are not going to be continuing a subject after this school year, is there any point in working on it? In all honesty, probably not. HOWEVER, you have to be REALLY sure that you’re not going to need or want knowledge of that subject at any time in the future. For example, you may not want to be an accountant, but you’ll need to understand numbers for many, many aspects of your life beyond school – pay-slips, checking tax and National Insurance, appreciating the consequences of interest rates for borrowing and saving, to name but a few. Physics may not be a great interest of yours, but if you ever wonder why waves make the patterns they do, in the sea or in a puddle or on a river, physics is the subject that’s going to explain that to you. And of course, you’ll be using language for the rest of your life – reading (even if only for work or social contact), writing (typing onscreen is a form of writing), speaking and listening. So you REALLY do have to keep on getting better and better at using language, because you need to grow into and keep up with the use of language by people in the world beyond school.

If you’re taking a subject on to the next level, next academic year, you can’t escape the importance of keeping up your learning over the coming months.

If you’re hoping to go on to university or college to study your subject(s), you need to keep learning so that you’ll be in a place of (relative) confidence when you start your HE (Higher Education) or FE (Further Education) course. If you’re really concerned about whether you can do this on your own, it is well worth finding out whether there is tutoring help available. Some tutors – for example, students who are already on your chosen course, but a year or two ahead – might well be happy to tutor you for free. Other tutors will charge, but it might be money well spent if it gets you off to a good start at college or university. All this will have to be online or by phone (or even by post!) at the moment, of course.

If you’re hoping to move school, perhaps for Highers or Sixth Form, and you’re uncertain whether your predicted grades will get you in, it will help if you can show that you have been working with a tutor – or if you can show actual evidence of work you’ve been doing on your own – during the time the schools have been closed. Remember that this is a time of uncertainty for everyone: your new school might be glad of help such as this when trying to make decisions about which students to admit.


What matters is what you can do, and what you know. This is what employers are looking for, and it is what will be of most use to you in life. A bit of paper with subjects and grades written on it is not, when you come to think of it, a great deal of practical use.

It would be great if an employer were able to take you on for a few months to find out whether you have the skills and knowledge that (s)he is looking for. Unfortunately, that isn’t a practical proposition in today’s job market, where there are so many applicants for each post, and people will travel or relocate readily in order to take up a job. So qualifications are designed to reassure the employer (or university or college) that you really do have the skills and knowledge that (s)he is looking for.

Why am I pointing that out? Because it’s the skills and knowledge that are the important things, not the qualifications themselves. That means that it is REALLY IMPORTANT that you continue to practise and to learn the skills and other attributes that you are going to need after this summer.

It’s not the qualifications that matter, it’s what you can actually do.

Keep learning, keep reading, keep thinking. You have many skills: use them, don’t lose them.

These are strange times (Post No. 1)

As I write (April 2020), we are in the second week of school closures in the United Kingdom. The Covid 19 or Corona Virus pandemic has made face-to-face meetings of people unwise, as this is how the virus is most likely to spread.

If you would normally be at school – particularly in your secondary education phase (around 11 to 18 years of age) – this blog is for you.

Language activities can be helpful for most people, however, regardless of their age. Different ages of people come up with different responses to the same task. (In case you’re interested, that’s called “Differentiation by outcome”!)

This first task is for those of you who were at school before the recent closures, however. It will give you a little reassurance once you’ve completed it.

Choose where you’re going to keep a record of your activities: perhaps a Word document, or a paper journal of some sort, is your thing. Perhaps you prefer something else; it’s up to you – but make it something you can KEEP.

Now, take as much time as you need, to remember what you were doing at school before it shut. You can do this for as many subjects as you like, but I suggest you only tackle one at a time.

Think back to the week the schools closed, and write down what you did that week. Give it as much or as little detail as you like at this point.

Then take a different page and think back to what you did earlier in the term. Write it down.

Go back to what you’ve written and add as much detail as you can remember: put in the names of books or sites that you used, put in the types of activity you did, and the homework you were set, if any.

This will be a re-starting point for you when you go back to school. It will also remind you how much you’ve already achieved. It will be something to work on and build on, if you want to do some work with a tutor while you’re off school. If you’re in your final year at school, knowing in this way what point in the syllabus you’ve reached will be helpful if you need to fill a gap between school learning and college or university learning.