The scourge of learned helplessness

Quite a number of years ago, when our daughter was still at primary school, her headmistress, adopting the earnest and concerned expression which I have come to associate with bad news, took us to one side.

Our daughter, we were told, was displaying signs of dyslexia: would we like her assessed? Having already been in teaching for some time at this stage my heart sank. I knew the drill; I'd seen it played out many times before. Of course we'd agree to the assessment - how could we not? We'd part with our £900, Ruth would undergo her assessment and weeks later we'd be presented with a badly formatted report from a grandly titled educational psychologist.

The report, we'd be told, would enable teachers to understand our daughter and come up with 'intervention strategies' to help her. To those not in the know it sounds so beguiling - hand it over to the professionals and they'll take care of things.

But let me tell you people - in most cases these assessments are a complete waste of time and money. The educational psychologists who profit from them are charlatans and the schools which peddle them are weak and naive. If someone is struggling it's easier to call in professional help than it is to spend the hours needed going 'back to basics'.

In my own daughter's case sure enough, several months after the assessment, the report arrived. And sure enough, just as I had feared, it was poorly formatted and littered with spelling mistakes including, believe it or not, the misspelling of my daughter's surname. Vast chunks of the report had been lifted wholesale from elsewhere; it trotted out banal, catch-all statements that put me in mind of a Barnum statement.

Now I know what you're thinking - was this just a one of bad egg amongst basket of otherwise very good ones? Not in my experience. I've been in the teaching game for 15+ years and have had many Ed Psych reports stuffed into my pigeon hole during that time. Without exception they've all fitted into the same sorry category. Here are some of the problems with them:
  • Although parents believe they'll suggest some magical strategies to help their child and that the scales will fall from teachers' eyes at the ineffectiveness of their former methods of instruction this is never the case. Quoting from my own daughter's report the following are suggested: writing plans and techniques such as story frames and mindmaps; grammatical and syntactical practise and - a particularly revolutionary one - getting her to read aloud. Hardly transformational stuff. These reports never suggest things that good teachers (even bad ones, to be honest) don't do most of the time anyway.
  • They rely heavily on credentialism. I have yet to see one where the author's extensive qualifications are not strung out for line after line on the front page. Come on, who are they trying to kid? Most of these people struggled at school themselves. They may have a very noble heart-felt cause but a lot of the stuff they trot out makes me seriously doubt their impartiality. Just see how angry they get when you present them with an article like this. Dispassionate seekers of the truth they are not.
  • There is a degree of emotional blackmail here that makes a sale an almost near certainty. What parent would refuse to pay for an assessment if it's being offered as a silver bullet for better results at school? What most parents don't realise though is that their child would be far better off being banned from the internet/TV for a while and obliged to sit down with a book, practise a musical instrument or attend to their homework. I am amazed how often parents let their children run feral at home and then look bemused when told they can't sit still and learn at school.
The biggest sadness of all of this though is that the poor child who is subjected to all this professional probing and prodding comes to believe what he or she has been told. Being dyslexic (or dyspraxic or dysgraphic, or having ADD, or APD, or any of the other host of loosely defined conditions) becomes a crutch to hide behind. And the damage is lasting and in some sad cases permanent. The elephant is being held back.

It is my firm belief that most children have no such conditions. Sure there are lazy ones, poorly taught ones and even (hold breath) poorly parented ones. But the majority given the right conditions to succeed are just fine and are far better off without a label.

In our own daughter's case her teachers carried on doing their jobs well. They used good, common-sense teaching strategies many of which - surprise, surprise - had been outlined in the report but which I know full well they would have used anyway. For our part we encouraged her and made a point of gently pushing her to confront her demons.

A good few years on she's doing just fine and the earnest-faced ranks of educational experts have not been in evidence. She's all the better for it I reckon.


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