“Pupils to be taught maths the Chinese Way” (The Times headline, 12 July)

So: we’re going for wholesale adoption of “Shanghai maths” in the UK. 8000 primary schools will be switching to the traditionalist style of maths teaching used in South Asia. There will be greater emphasis on class teaching; children from age five will learn through drills and repetition; more work will be done from textbooks, and who knows – maybe in a few years our children will have made up the three years that we are behind Shanghai?

We have a Chinese lady at our church whose husband is a doctor in Beijing. They have a five year old son, who has just started school. Why has she chosen to live away from her husband for most of the year? Because of the education system in China. Because the pressure on children to achieve is such that they spend practically every waking hour either at school or doing school work at home. The average school day runs from 7.30 – 5.00, with two hours for lunch. A 12 year old will typically spend 3-4 hours a day doing homework, knowing that when he or she graduates in a few years they face the dreaded high school graduation exam, the Gaokao or “big test”, which examines high school leavers on their Chinese, mathematics and English, and another science or humanities subject of their choice. Shanghai maths is not just a system that can be cherry-picked off the whole Chinese education  cake: it is part of the mix. The 15 year olds who have achieved “mastery” have done so because they have survived spending their childhood in a pressure-cooker. However we are told nothing about those who haven’t…

The Gaokao
As a recent BBC TV documentary showed, a student’s Gaokao result will determine which university they can attend, and therefore much of the rest of their future, so they are under huge pressure from an early age. For the first time this year, any candidate caught cheating could face jail. Gaokao revision is all-consuming, often at the expense of the necessities of life. A good result means status and a high paid job; failing the Gaokao almost guarantees a lifetime of low-ranking employment, and family disappointment. The shadow of the Gaokao falls right back through the education system, so that even children of primary school age are under its thrall. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently announced that about 500 children commit suicide each year under academic pressure brought about by the examination-based education system, often by jumping from the balconies of their high-rise flats.

From what I remember from my first school days 60 years ago, we used the Shanghai system at Hedsor infant school – or something pretty similar. Maths drills, chanting tables, whole class teaching – isn’t that it? And those “thick” children who just couldn’t keep up, and fell further and further behind – weren’t they in the picture too?

Of course the text book publishers will feast on this like sharks, and doubtless there will be children who will achieve higher standards. Meanwhile we will be around with our new dyscalculia kit, which will be out in September, to pick up the pieces as our schools are Shanghai’d back into a bygone age. Sadly, though, there are some pieces that can never be picked up. The cost will be a lot more than £41 million of textbooks and training.

Plus ça change…

This has nothing to do with phonics or visual stress, but there is a connection with spelling, and also some mathematical content…

On a day when our woeful performance on the football pitch has “booted” us (sorry) out of Europe for the second time in a week, I’ve just found some material on our fileserver that I’d picked up some time (ie years) ago that serves to illustrate that, in the broad scheme of things, appearances may change but realities remain the same. So with acknowledgements to whoever it was who compiled these anagrams, I hope you enjoy the following…

Dormitory Dirty Room
Desperation A Rope Ends It
The Morse Code Here Come Dots
Slot Machines Cash Lost in ’em
Animosity Is No Amity
Snooze Alarms Alas! No More Z’s
Alec Guinness Genuine Class
Semolina Is No Meal
The Public Art Galleries Large Picture Halls, I Bet
A Decimal Point I’m a Dot in Place
The Earthquakes That Queer Shake
Eleven plus two Twelve plus one
Contradiction Accord not in it

This one’s truly amazing:
To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

And the Anagram:
“In one of the Bard’s best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”

And for the grand finale:
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” — Neil Armstrong

The Anagram:
“Thin man ran; makes a large stride, left planet, pins flag on moon! On to Mars!”


SpLD Central Update

As some UK readers will know, we are launching a new conference on June 20th this year, called SpLD Central. It will have a dyslexia focus, and we are delighted to have the excellent Neil Mackay presenting two keynotes on the theme “Getting it right for Dyslexia, getting it right for all”. There’ll be about 15 exhibitors (not just ourselves!), excellent food, a free shuttle bus from the station, b&b on site if you want it – the full monty. Basically, we’ve been to so many events since we started in 1993 – good, mediocre, and absolutely dire – we think we know how to put a good programme together. If you want to know more, visit

There have been two changes to the programme since the conference was launched. Here they are:

1) A new workshop. 
Originally I (Bob Hext) was going to present “Visual Stress: What it is and what to do” in both the afternoon workshop sessions (we’re running two sessions of 9 parallel workshops in the afternoon, so there’s plenty of choice), but I decided a few weeks ago that I would present “Dyslexia, Learning, Games and Puzzles” for the second session. I used to do this workshop regularly before we got so involved in visual stress support, and it was always popular, so I’m looking forward to doing it again: it’s going to be a bit of going back to our roots.

2) Stress management (not visual!) timetable change
A contact of ours with a background of teaching lower ability FE students for core skills subjects has started a stress management consultancy. We originally thought it would be helpful to include a short session (including relaxation exercises) on “Stress management in the workplace” as part of the main programme, with an alternative option of detailed presentations on flagship products from selected exhibitors (TRUGS, Wordshark, and others including ourselves). However we have now taken this session out of the main programme, and included “Identifying and managing stress” and “Product related workshops” in the workshop options, making the timetable less cluttered and allowing more time for input that relates specifically to outcomes for SpLD students.

I’ll also post profiles on our speakers on this blog, but I’ll keep these updates short and sweet.That’s it for now.

Bob Hext 11/2/15

Seven Lessons on teaching maths, learnt from the students.

The seven points below are taken directly from Steve Chinn’s summary of a workshop he will be delivering a Feb 17th. I thought anybody involved in teaching can benefit from a reminder of these important principals, and having read in this morning’s paper that proposals exist for sacking head teachers who fail to have 100% of students able to repeat their times tables from memory, I would suggest that they are daubed in large letters across every wall of the Department for Education – ideally accompanied by an appropriate illustration by Banksy…

Steve used to be the principal of a beacon specialist school for dyslexic students, and has advised the government on numeray strategy. They really ought to listen to him. This is what he says:

“After 17 years of successful teaching in University and mainstream schools I had a reputation for being a ‘good’ teacher, but then the lessons from my first experiences of trying to teach maths to dyslexic students taught me that I wasn’t good enough. In this session I will explain the significance of the ‘seven lessons’:

Lesson 1: Rote learning does not work for all students

Lesson 2: If they can’t learn from the way I teach, can I teach the way they learn.

Lesson 3: Know which students have poor working short term memories.

Lesson 4: Making students anxious does not help learning.

Lesson 5: Asking students to do mental arithmetic, or any maths question, quickly is rarely productive

Lesson 6: Children rarely learn from their mistakes in maths (but teachers can).

Lesson 7: It’s complicated!”

Nicky Morgan, please read.

Steve is an excellent speaker and a leading authority on maths and dyslexia. You can get  a series of low cost teaching videos by Steve at

He has written a number of books and articles on the subject: NEW for 2015 is ‘The Routledge International Handbook of Dyscalculia and Mathematical Learning Difficulties,’ edited by Steve Chinn, with 30 chapters from experts around the world.

Academic Arguments and Anecdotal Evidence

I don’t normally get involved in the fallout from academic arguments, but on this occasion I will, because, like Mark (, I feel that this needs a response.

You can look through both ends of a portable telescope – it will either magnify what you are looking at, or make it practically disappear. It’s the same with figures. Depending on what position  you want to justify, you choose your data accordingly. So for example global warming is happening, or it isn’t. Drinking a certain amount of red wine is good for you, or it isn’t. Coloured overlays and reading rulers can make a difference to some people’s reading experience, or not. There is actually a wealth of accumulated evidence from 20 years top level academic research to say that they do, plenty of which is peer reviewed – if anybody who wants to look at it, just click on the link in the footnote below. The question is, what do you want to believe?

As one of the people responsible for the significant increase in awareness of Visual Stress over the last decade, the following (alongside the compelling scientific evidence from Essex University, Oxford University and elsewhere) is what I believe. It comes from a seven-year old girl called Maddy, and was given to me by her dyslexia tutor who is a senior professional at a highly respected teaching college:

“ …. The words look different, they won’t stay still and then I start to see ‘rivers in the text’ when I try to  concentrate on text books at my school.  Sometimes it looks like the words are almost 3D and with little lights behind them.  I try blinking a lot to get the words back into focus and then sometimes I even see colours round the text.  But then when I started to use the blue reading ruler, the “weirdness” went away …”

Ah, but there’s a problem, isn’t there? This is merely anecdotal. Maddy doesn’t exist in the cloud of figures that swirl around research like midge swarms. But she has a face, and a story; and I’m sure we could arrange for the people who said “manipulation of the visual system using colour to facilitate reading lacks scientific support” to meet her, or her tutor, if they wished. Or maybe  the American Academy for Pediatrics, Council for Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Ophthalmology, American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus and the American Association of Certified Orthoptists, who concluded that “… scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of … special tinted filters or lenses in improving long term educational performance” would like to meet the little boy that Mark quoted who, when he looked at text through a blue overlay, said “Is that what you mean by a word? Can I start learning to read now?”

We designed the Eye Level Reading Ruler ten years ago now. There are thousands more stories like Maddy’s out there, of lives that have been changed during that time because “the weirdness went away”.  We hear some of them, when people have the time to write to us, but mostly they exist in the results from schools who assess all their weak readers for visual stress and see significant increases in reading levels when the overlays have been given out; or in the research project from a London University dept of psychology (over 30% increase in reading speed in some children) that wasn’t accepted for peer review because apparently 72 subjects was not enough. To you 72, even though you apparently don’t exist, you know better, and I salute you!

One of our staff sent me an amusing post a few months ago. It went something like this: “To the optimist and the pessimist: While you two were busy arguing over the glass of water, I drank it!Signed, the Opportunist”. Whatever the arguments, there is only one truth. No doubt the midges will continue to swarm. And while they do, the “weirdness” will carry on going away as more people discover how filtering out specific wavelengths of light can neutralise the pattern glare from the repeated stripes in text and put an end to the over-excitation of their visual cortex. So to everyone in that great body of anecdotal evidence, I have one thing to say: we will be here for you.

Bob Hext

Managing Director, Crossbow Education Ltd.

(Unashamed purveyors of Visual Stress Solutions.)


Footnote: Crossbow, Cerium, and I.O.O., who are the leading UK manufacturers of overlays systems, work closely with the scientific establishment to ensure that their products meet the criteria established by the research that detractors say doesn’t exist, but which can be easily found, for example, at , or read about in Arnold Wilkins’s excellent book “Reading Through Colour”. We don’t get involved with coloured lenses: we leave that to the optometrists, whose patients will have their own set of stories of life-changing freedom from Visual Stress. The instrument they use to prescribe the correct lens tint is called the Intuitive Colorimiter. It was developed at Cambridge University and funded by the Medical Research Council. Unscientific? Really?


Reflections in China 3: Fields and Dreams


Global Centre Chengdu

A Very Sorry Marvel
On the outskirts of Chengdu is the “New Century Global Centre”. We came across it online when we were researching for this trip, and decided it was a “must-see” – an architectural marvel, with an artificial indoor beach, a “Mediterranean village” – that was intriguing – 2 five-star hotels, shops, an entertainment complex and a business centre. Said the publicity.

Architectural marvel it is – as are many of the new Chinese structures, with lovely flowing lines that still have echoes of the traditional pagoda style. And inside it’s a wonder of marble floors and gilt surfaces: I stood inside the entrance and just watched people come in, one after another, and go “Woh!” (is that how you spell the sound you make when you are so completely knocked-out – surprised by something that you just stand for a moment with your mouth open and your eyes wide?). I too had gone “Woh!”. This truly appeared to be a centre that merited international status, although it soon struck us that all the visitors, apart from ourselves, appeared to be very much local in origin, rather than global.

What we had come to do was sit with a laptop on the artificial beach and catch up on some work. The charge for entry was much steeper than we expected – about £20.00 each- so we decided to put it on a visa card rather than use up most of the cash we were carrying at the time. (For everyday expenses, £40 normally goes a long way here.) This is where things started to go wrong. The card terminal system at Chengdu’s supposedly iconic New Century Global centre only accepts Chinese credit cards. Very sorry, very sorry – global image, but only local support.  We were then taken to the ATM, so we could pay for our entry in cash. Very sorry again, but the cash machine was empty. Apart from one other group of three Westerners that we saw getting tickets a bit later, we were probably the only global visitors at the global centre – and we couldn’t get into the main attraction.

We began to realise that the Global Centre was not so much about selling China to the West, but selling the West to China. There was even a Toys r Us on the lower ground floor. H and M were by the entrance. Although many of the luxury fashion brands (Burberry, Tommy Hilfinger, Dior, Lancome and others) that had outlets in the city centre were missing (apparently they weren’t interested because it was too far out) most of the stores in the central shopping area were international names.

Choice Morsel
Everything we have liked about China has been intrinsically Chinese. This has been particularly true of the people themselves, especially their open friendliness and hospitality. We spent a few days in the city of Leshan,  which is by one of China’s minor rivers (that is still about as wide as the Severn at Avonmouth) and were walking back to the hotel along the riverside pavement, when we came across a group of men with fishing rods cast out in the water, sitting around a table eating and drinking. What they were enjoying was actually one of the fish that they had caught, which they had cooked at their table with a gas burner. I made a show of counting all the rods (there were about three times as many rods as men); the next thing I knew I was being offered the last choice morsel of the fish and having a drink with them. I wondered how often that would happen in England. (Never mind the conviviality or otherwise– there would probably be a byelaw against setting up a picnic table on the pavement, and the cooker would not have a chance against health and safety regs…).This is Sechuan province, so my mouth was still glowing from the spices quarter of an hour later, but it remains one of the special moments of the trip.

Field of Dreams
There is an advertising billboard for a fashion brand at the Global Centre that is written entirely in English. It reminded me of the movie, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come”. Clearly, they haven’t come yet. A hoarding in Chinese in any of our cities would be understood by a much larger percentage of people than that one in Chengdu. Chinese women wear very little jewellery – or none at all, not even wedding rings – but the city centre is full of adverts for expensive jewellery and shop windows full of diamonds. Many stores and businesses carry English translations of their names, and even their marketing tags – but the average Chinese person knows so little English (outside of “Hello”) that our taxi driver the other day didn’t even recognise the name of one of their main central hotels – until we called one of our Chinese friends and asked her to explain our destination to him over the phone.

So here we are, in the biggest country  in the world, with the oldest civilisation in the world and responsible for some of the world’s most important discoveries, be it for war – gunpowder – or peace – printing, and we see them on the brink of digging up the field of their roots in pursuit of a dream of Westernisation. We were walking down one of the main streets last night, and it was almost entirely lined with jewellery stores, mostly with three or four shop assistants and no customers. Anne said, “Why does China have to sell out to the West?” We listened to the music coming out  of the shops and came to inevitable conclusions about the globalising influence of the media, powerfully at work to create the aspirations  needed to maintain a growing economy. I wonder though – do the whole world’s aspirations really have to come out of one single mould?

There is hope
There is hope, though. The Western way isn’t always preferred. I don’t need to go into great detail to describe the difference in the plumbing arrangements of WC cubicles between “squatters” and “sitters”. Many hotels and more sophisticated public places offer a choice, and there are one or two “sitters” on offer in the row. Sometimes they even put a little symbol on the door so you know in advance what comforts await you. Well, I know what my choice will always be, and I suspect that most readers would open the same door as me. But from what I’ve seen, and from what I’ve heard from Anne, the Chinese people will always go through the other door.

And there is hope for the dyslexic, too. Even now, our education systems only really offer a single mould for success. If you don’t fit the mould – if your processing isn’t up to speed; if the printed page can look as meaningless as that poster to the passers-by in the Global Centre – the label “failure” is never far away. So it’s important to keep believing in who you are. Don’t let your field be destroyed by a dream that isn’t yours. Keep your own door open. China may toil to ape the West, but the West can never be Chinese. You may have to work harder and go through more mental hoops than the person next to you, to achieve the same results as them when it comes to conforming to the mould of educational success – but however hard they work and however many hoops they go through, they will never achieve the same results as you in the field of your roots.

Bob Hext
Chengdu  August 27 2013.

Can the Hand say to the Eye: “I have no need of thee?”

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner (Photo credit: Wikipedia) would have had the same problems…

In the original quote, (from 1 Corinthians 12: 21, in the New Testament of the Bible) the eye and the hand were the other way round, but never mind…

While I was researching an article I wrote for Special Magazine in March, I came across the following…

‘A policy statement issued by the Committee on Children with Disabilities, American Academy of Paediatrics, American Academy of Ophthalmology, and American Association for Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus stats that:

“Visual problems are rarely responsible for learning difficulties. No scientific evidence exists for the efficacy of eye exercises, vision therapy, or the use of special tinted lenses in the remediation of these complex neurological conditions.” ‘

Having got over my sense of frustration at this attitude, I had to ask myself the questions: “Just what, or whose, agenda are these people on?” and “Exactly where have they been looking for evidence?”, and even “Have they seen just how much of the brain is dedicated  to visual processing?” . I’ve been meaning to post on the subject ever since.

Unless this committee’s view of learning is limited to specific cognitive processes that take place entirely outside of the visual processing centres (and of course they understand  the brain in its entirety, unlike the rest of  the human race to whom it is currently given, I believe, to understand less than 10%…), this seems like saying “If a car doesn’t work properly it’s never got anything to do with the transmission”.

What’s worrying is that committees such as this one make pronouncements that influence policy, and that simple, cost-effective interventions that will both change lives and save large amounts of money remain sidelined instead of becoming enshrined in mainstream thinking. Nobody would deny the need for evidence-based research to underpin policy, but even if the sheer weight of anecdotal evidence of many thousands of people for whom the “words stopped moving” as soon as they read through colour is insufficient, is the scientific rigour and the peer-reviewed research of the Dept of Vision Science at Essex University not enough?

I suppose it’s always going to be that way: Science waits in the car with the engine running, while the establishment is still asleep in bed. Edward Jenner would have had the same problems introducing his discovery of the smallpox vaccine, and the science of immunology…  But if anybody has any means of contacting the above committee, would they mind sending them a copy of this link to Arnold Wilkins’s web pages, “Colour in the Treatment of Visual Stress”   and ask them to PLEASE WAKE UP?

Bob Hext   June 2013.