Podcast Ep 6 - My educational experiences at secondary school
Hi there, and welcome to episode six of the Stephens Evolution Podcast. I'm Stephen McHugh, your host. I have Asperger's, a form of autism, and I make fortnightly episodes on my lived experiences with the condition. For this episode, I'm going to talk about my educational experiences from my secondary school days. If you're listening to this podcast for the very first time, a very warm welcome to you. Towards the footer of the homepage of my website stephensevolution.com, you can find a link to a page where you can sign up to receive news of newly released episodes.
And now down to the main content. I arrived at secondary school with some people I already knew from primary school, which helped me to settle in better. The music teachers quickly spotted my musical talent, and would select me to play in the orchestra during my first year. The following year, I was given another opportunity to play a solo piece to an audience of several hundred people. At the time, back in the late 1980s, little was known about autism from a school's view. Having said that, the education system was beginning to learn more about it.
French was a subject I quickly displayed an aptitude for. In terms of writing French, I find some books to read over grammatical rules and phrase explanations. Doing this helped me to familiarise myself with patterns concerning grammatical rules, and how to write French sentences. I would also look for tips on pronounciation and phrase explanations in the cases of non-direct translations. Over time, this would eventually give me the encouragement to write and speak about certain things in French, once I felt I'd built up a good enough vocabulary and gained sufficient knowledge of grammatical rules.
Nowadays, I still look at words in my own time, especially related to my interests, preoccupations, and other related personal experiences. Doing these sorts of things helped me to build up vocabulary, and contribute to question and answer sessions during French lessons.
Once I felt more confident I wrote letters in French to two aunts who are naturally good at languages. They would even take the time to correct any errors made, be they grammatical, or incorrect words. Whenever I had my standard of French complemented by them, this gave me the confidence to develop further my knowledge of the language. One important piece of advice they gave to me in the event of not knowing the French for something I wanted to say was to use something that you knew meant similar.
I also found it interesting to note that the French put the noun before the adjective. For example, 'une maison petite', which translates to 'a small house'. Sometimes our language teachers would have pictures, example weather pictures, where we'd have to say what the weather was like, whether it was hot, or rainy, or sunny. Pictures in illustrated dictionaries would act as prompts and memory joggers too. French was a subject where I sometimes found myself in demand for helping classmates with their written homework tasks. There were also sing songs, most notably when learning how to say the alphabet in French.
In my French lessons, I couldn't help but notice a list of numbers and words in German. This, I believed triggered my interest in other languages. Whenever I've seen words in other languages, in French friend is 'Moi'. In Italian, it's 'Amica', and in Spanish it's 'Amico'. What stands out for me here is the close resemblance in some of the spelling's between the words when comparing the different languages. To me, this is a sign that French, Italian, and Spanish all belong to the same language family.
Maths was another subjects I began to accelerate during my life at secondary school, I would develop good mental arithmetic skills. This, along with my interest in large numbers, led me to calculating the number of hours, minutes and seconds in a number of days, weeks, months and years. When it came to solving equations, I would read maths textbooks, and follow similar techniques used to work out solutions to equations similar to the ones I was working with.
When it came to number operations, the use of a table would be beneficial for me here, it would be easy to see that two positive numbers would equal a positive operation, and a positive and a negative, a negative operation, and two negative numbers in a sum equals a positive operation.
Trigonometry became a favourite maths topic of mine. This is a branch of mathematics where one can use functions known as sine, cosine, and tangent. When calculating angles and the lengths of sides in triangles, our teacher informed us it was a challenging topic, worth lots of marks. This fuelled my determination to master it.
At first we'd work with right-angled triangles. In a right-angled triangle, one side opposite an angle concerned is called opposite. The adjacent side to the angle is so called because it runs pretty much next to it. The hypotenuse side of a right-angled triangle is always the longest side.
Understanding which trigonometric function to use. If you're working with the opposite and hypotenuse, you'd use sine. If a question involved, adjacent and hypotenuse, you would use the cosine function. And if the opposite and the adjacent were concerned, that's when you'd use the tangent function.
Another interesting mathematical topic I readily mastered was Pythagoras' theorem. This involves calculating lengths of sides of right angled triangles using squared values of the length of the sides to work out the length of the longest side, which is the hypotenuse. You square the known values, add these together, and then take the square root of the total sum of the squared values of the shorter sides added together. So let's suppose the shorter sides were three and four centimetres, squaring them, gives 9 and 16, respectively. Adding these two together, you get 25. Taking what's known as the square root of 25, gives you five, which is the length of the hypotenuse in this case.
When it came to rounding numbers, what I found easy about this was we were taught to round a number ending with a 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 up. One example here can be 78, which rounded to the nearest 10 is 80, and 45, is rounded to 50. For numbers ending with a 1, 2, 3, or a 4, we were taught to round them down. An example here 33 is rounded to 30, which is the nearest 10. This methodology, shown to us here was easy for me to apply to questions related to rounding numbers.
Science was another subject that I was keen on and showed potential there. Later in the third year, which is year 9, we were asked to carry out our own space projects, something which excited me due to the fact that space was a topic which already fascinated me.
One fascinating fact I learned was the speed of light being around 186,000 miles per second. Seeing the distance of stars inspired me to work out distances in terms of miles. This was partly linked to my interest in large numbers.
Having a science dictionary at home proved useful too, as it contained colourful illustrations to aid one's understanding of scientific terms and concepts. However, it wasn't just about recall of scientific terms and concepts. There were times when we had to apply our knowledge and understanding of these terms and concepts. This meant trying to work out what the question actually meant. The fact that I had difficulty in understanding what questions asked often made it hard for me to attempt sensible answers. This hampered my progress considerably. In essence, when I look back, it can be about identifying relationships between various sections of science syllabuses. However, I did not let this stop me from exploring further to gain a clearer idea of how things worked in the world of science. Science questions can also ask you to draw conclusions from given data, such as graphs and results of described experiments. Having said all that, I liked to try and spot patterns in data.
For religious studies, we would all study the same subject material for the first three years of secondary school, helping us further on our spiritual journeys and development, and how we could use those learned ways in later life. When it came to the fourth and fifth years, we had to make one choice from two. One choice was GCSE religious studies, which involved more in the way of essay writing. This made it unsuitable for me, since language was one of my important weaknesses here. The second option, which I chose, had no related exams, and seemed a lot more straightforward. This particular course, has so much less emphasis on reading, writing, and understanding. There were plenty of occasions when we could cut out pictures from magazines, and other similar literature to express our thoughts and feelings about certain things. We could also produce work and charts based on recall of simple facts, and even memories of certain past events and personal experiences.
When it came to art and design, I didn't see myself to be one of the most gifted from a drawing or painting perspective. During my early years at secondary school, one technique that we were taught and I found beneficial, was dividing pictures we wished to copy into grids of squares, and have them as your own coordinates there. The idea here was to then copy from the picture into the same coordinates in the same position on the drawing paper itself. After some time, I noticed a marked improvement in my technique of drawing shapes of objects. In addition, I would also do some creditable pieces of work, including making some objects out of clay, including a house, dog, and a duck.
When it came to English, we continued our development and knowledge in the use of the English language in terms of reading and comprehension, writing, listening, and sometimes speaking. When I first came across punctuation, regarding speech, during junior school, I felt lost. I'd already understood that full stops indicated ends of sentences. I also knew that capital letters marked the beginning of new sentences, names of people, and places and important occasions.
Soon the rules regarding punctuation during speech began to make more sense gradually over time. One rule that was easily understood by me at first was a new paragraph for a new speaker. I would also recognise that speech marks would come before the spoken words, and after question marks, commas, exclamation marks, and full stops. As I kept applying these rules over time, they became second nature to me before long. One thing you can do on which I do now is refer to storybooks when trying to work out what form of punctuation to employ in a given situation. For me, the idea here is to search for certain rules that closely match the ones you're looking to use.
Another tip that we were taught, that I found useful was not to keep using the word 'said' on its own, before the name of a speaker. Over time, this got me into the habit of looking into using a variety of more colourful words, when trying to convey feelings, and actions of characters, atmospheres, and settings. Sometimes, whenever we had spelling tests in English classes, for homework, we would have to write sentences associated with the words we had to learn for our spelling tests. This approach quite easily helped me to understand that you could work out the meanings of words from contexts in which they are used.
Back in my first year at secondary school, we would study a novel called 'The Turbulent Term of Tyke, Tyler. I quickly became interested in this book. One activity in class that stands out was a quiz related to it. What interested me about this book was the times when Tyke and his friend Danny Price got up to mischief, including the alleged theft of a teacher's five pound note. I was keen to see what punishments awaited them for their actions.
Back in primary school, when it came to arranging words in alphabetical order, I knew that cat, bat and ant would be ant, bat and cat in alphabetical order. However, when it came to an example, like cat, country and clock, that's when more difficulties started for me here. Early in my life at secondary school, I would recognise it was a matter of simply looking at and comparing the first letters of each word to begin with. Clock country and cat all begin with C. Take a look at the second letters of each word here. Cat has 'a', country has 'o' as its second letter, and for clock, 'l' is its second letter. Therefore, cat comes first, clock second, and country third. And if the first two letters of each word were the same, you'd move on to the third letters.
Geography taught us how to interpret data and describe what it was showing, such as a map showing the distribution of various important projects over a certain area. I had an interest in geography, especially with the weather and the Amazon rainforest. It's here, why the felling of trees contributes to what's known as the greenhouse effect. I would also find it interesting to note the ease with which colour codes could be used to indicate certain areas on a map, such as green for grasslands, blue for areas of water, symbols like tents were used for campsites, and grid references for the locations of various places and sites.
Having said all that, drawing meaningful conclusions from given data I found easy since things like this involved looking for obvious patterns. Sometimes, I liked the idea of there being some elements of mathematics to it, especially maps. Maps stated scales relating to how many centimetres or inches equalled how many metres or kilometres. I liked to use such data to calculate long distances across oceans and vast areas of land on any maps I found at home.
However, it was my language difficulties that would lead to my application and interpretation of geographical terms and concepts to be weak. Here, I'm going to use my now improved general understanding, to talk you through an example. An example could be where one is given a map, with a series of locations marked for a possible supermarket. Here, one may be asked to determine the best location for the supermarket. For me here, an ideal location would be close to a town centre with a railway station. One reason could be that it is within reasonable driving distance from major roads, like motorways and roads leading from populated areas, and other areas where there are larger numbers of workers residing and working reasonably close by.
If it was within walking distance of other nearby populated areas, then that would be another benefit for the proposed location. The links to motorways nearby could be useful for commuters coming home from work, especially if they needed to stop and buy some food for evening meals, and other living essentials. The same here could also be said for those living relatively close to the supermarket itself.
When it came to studying history, one thing that I learned was that one is required to understand and interpret facts and evidence from written and visual sources. Questions can require you to analyse evidence with responses more in the way of continuous prose.
Nowadays, when I look back on history, it has to do with gathering and studying various pieces of evidence such as pictures and accounts, as well as applying historical knowledge. Historians may draw comparisons between them all to arrive at their own conclusions and judgments about what may have happened. They may try to establish any links between sources. They may agree with one another, or have conflicting views regarding what may have happened during significant events of the past.
Despite my limitations in language and general understanding, I still managed to produce creditable pieces of extended writing. This was also helped by the fact that we studied topics that would be interesting to me, such as Roman Times, The Industrial Revolution, The Fire of London, and The Great Plague. The these topics featured, and still feature high on my list of fascinating historical topics.
For the fourth and fifth years of secondary school, we studied for examinations known as GCSEs. My lower grades would be in subjects where there was more in the way of language and literacy involved, notably in geography, history, English Language and Literature. It was in the subjects were essays, and continuous pros were required in answering questions. My scores and comprehension tests were still lower than one would be expected to achieve, especially with more complicated forms of language being used to convey feelings, settings, and to some degree, inferences.
My issues with language and understanding were also highlighted when it came to studying metaphoric language, and different dialects in later years. Higher grades were in my strongest subjects, where language was less of an issue. These subjects included French and mathematics. It is in these subjects where logic can be employed, along with spotting patterns. In French, this could be looking for grammatical rules about how to put sentences together. And in mathematics, too, and knowing what, let's say, trigonometric formula to use based on information already given.
In French, I had the tendency to translate too directly in reading tests and written tests as well. This, I believe, may have prevented me from scoring an even higher grade than I already did. An example could be Rue barrée. It is here I would likely have interpreted this as 'road barred'. Over time, as my language skills improved, I began to work out that it most likely means 'Road closed'.
When I did GCSEs, grades A* to C were considered passes. I would achieve a grade C in GCSE maths in year 10, which is a year earlier than one would be expected to do it. This is one achievement, I still look upon very favourably. The reason for this being that I struggled to understand new concepts, and apply new knowledge in primary school. That gave me the confidence that my language skills, understanding and knowledge application were improving, despite the fact I still had some way to go.
As well as after school maths lessons, I had private lessons locally, which continued into and throughout my final year in secondary school. Here, I would be taken patiently and painlessly through step by step processes in mathematical concepts, and applying them to given problems and questions.
And that's all there is for this episode. If it's resonated with you in some way, why not get in touch with me? You can find a link to me on Twitter or Instagram, via links at the footer of my website, stephensevolution.com. And why not let me know what subjects you were good at? And which subjects you found difficult due to maybe language difficulties like I did. If you've liked this episode, then why not give this podcast a rating and a review on a platform of your choice. You can do this on Apple, Spotify, Podchaser, or podcast addict.
Goodbye for now, and I'll talk to you all again soon on the next episode, when I shall be talking about my education post 16