Not So Clever?
One of the hidden lessons of school is that we can be categorised by our ability, which then affects how we see ourselves and other people. This makes no sense within self-directed education, meaning that learners can retain their trust and joy in their capacity to learn.

“My friend is dyslexic’ said the girl. ‘But he’s very clever’. Another 10-year-old chimed in “Yes someone in my class is dyspraxic. But she’s very clever’.

My son, also 10, looked blank during this conversation. He was the only child in the group to be a self-directed learner, the others all attended conventional school.

I realised that I had never once heard him describe someone by their cleverness. Unlike when I think back to my school days, when each of my classmates might as well have had a tag attached, naming their supposed ability level. I still know who were the ‘clever ones’ in the 7th grade, nearly thirty years later. My classmates and I could hardly miss it. At the end of each term those with the best grades had their names posted around the school in the ‘Honor Roll’.

‘Clever’ generally means someone who does well at school (notwithstanding some adjustments for dyslexia or dyspraxia). At the schools these children attended it had an extra significance — because in their system, 10-year-olds take an exam and those deemed to be clever enough go to special schools with extra opportunities, more homework and (usually) extra good exam results at the end.

When I explained this to my son — who has never taken a standardised test — he was horrified. ‘But what do they test them on?” he asked. ‘How do they decide what’s important?’. We joked about how if the test was on Minecraft he would do well, but if it was on making models out of polymer clay his sister would be the one excelling. And we realised that if the test was in French, he would fail because he cannot yet read and write French, even though he speaks and understands it fluently. He wouldn’t be able to show what he knows in the exam.

Three children playing basketball
Photo by Kelby Wingert, III Corps and Fort Hood Public Affairs

Hierarchies of ability are a fundamental part of the school system. British schools separate children by ability very early — apparently from age 2 in many nurseries, and by their reception year (aged 4–5) 81% of children are in ability groups for phonics.

We know that children in school quickly develop a keen awareness of how their teachers and parents judge their ability. Attempts to hide the nature of ability groups by naming them after animals or civil rights activists do not fool anyone. Everyone can see that those seated on Owl table are reading Harry Potter and writing their own stories whilst those on Kangaroo have books with a few words per page and are filling in the blanks. They might be ‘not clever’, but they’re definitely not stupid.

We also know from research that children’s self-perception of their abilities affects how they do later in life, independently of their actual abilities at the time. That seems to me really important. If children think they are capable of something, then they perform better on that thing later in life — even if they weren’t actually that capable (as compared to their peers) to begin with.

So what on earth are we doing, dividing children by the age of 2, 3 or 4 into the clever ones and the not-so-clever ones? Isn’t that inevitably going to mean that the majority think they are less capable, and then this will affect their capacity to learn, possibly for their entire lives?

Cleverness, or brightness, or intelligence, or smartness are such common concepts at school that we rarely stop to question them. They are all commonly used as if they describe something fixed and immutable about a person — something which is so unchangeable, in fact, that you can group people by age 10 and send them off to different schools, thus in many cases defining their future.

Students taking an exam in school
Photo by Marie

It’s not that there aren’t variations in ability in my family. Ask either of my children and they’ll tell you. There’s the Minecrafting hierarchy. My son is at the top, my husband at the bottom. Then there’s the Coding hierarchy, my husband is at the top, I am at the bottom. In the Making Things hierarchy my daughter is the undisputed champion, she also heads up the Joining in with Other People leader board — as my son said yesterday when she introduced herself to the Algerian family sitting next to us in Burger King, she can make friends wherever she goes.

In the Scrabble hierarchy, I finally get to be top of something. My daughter has previously said that I am the best at Sorting Out Clothes, but I prefer Scrabble.

But all of these hierarchies are acknowledged to be changeable — I could get better at coding if I tried and was interested enough; my husband could improve his Minecraft if he put in the time. And because they are specific rather than generalised (like ‘cleverness’), they don’t imply anything fundamental about the people involved — and it’s much easier to see how one might improve, I know that to improve my coding I need to start actually doing it, but improving my cleverness? There I really don’t know how to start.

This wasn’t something that I really thought about when we decided to follow a self-directed path. I knew that I disagreed with standardised testing of young children, and categorising children by their ability before they were out of nappies, but I didn’t realise how much being in a hierarchical environment shapes how children see themselves and other people. I didn’t realise that my children and I would not define their friends by their cleverness — and that in this, we would be unusual.

Seeing yourself as competent and as someone who can learn new skills is fundamental to living a meaningful life. Unfortunately our school system is set up so that the message which most children receive from early on is that they are more or less competent learners than others — and that this really matters. One of the joys of Self-Directed Education is that learners can retain that delight in their capabilities which all young children have, without the comparisons with others which conventional schools inevitably introduce. In our lives, it simply doesn’t matter who is better at reading, except when choosing who is going to read out the instructions for a new game.

For there are times when being good at reading is exactly what’s needed, and other times when French, cooking or Minecraft is more useful. Different people find value in different things, this is the very essence of diversity. Yet schools tell children that some abilities and interests are so important that people should be categorised and divided up by them, whilst other abilities don’t count at all.

My hope for my children is that they can feel free to develop an interest and learn about anything they choose, whether that is calculus or crochet, and that they will understand that none of it ever has to define them.