A syllabus for REAL learning

One of the luxuries that I am most grateful for is the opportunity to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum. Some might think it’s decadent, given that my youngest child is already 16 and her older siblings (eldest one is 31) all live abroad. But apart from my time at home with my other children and my parents, the rest of my time is wholly dedicated to Georgina, as is her father’s. She is our last offspring to cap off our long parenting journey and we are savouring every moment of our time with her. We both would be in the car together as much as possible when we ferry her round, be it to football practice or her boyfriend’s house or even just to a party down the road. During the car journeys, we talk non-stop about many things. I think her “real” education happens here. Below is an example.


So, what do you remember about Chemistry from your own school days? Many of you would say remembering chemical reactions (what colour when you mix A with B, etc). Many of you would say equations. Many of you would say test tubes.

I had a wonderful teacher called Cliff Haskins, an Oxford man. He would tell us, “Just remember the first 15 minutes. We can talk about other things after that.” Little did I know then, but dear Mr Haskins actually worked very hard before each class to put all we need to know for a particular topic into 15 minutes of teaching time. Because we had such a sweet deal with him, we always paid rapt attention for the first 15 minutes. The other 45 minutes, well, we spent talking. Either gossiping with each other (he never minded) or taking part in his interesting, offbeat discussions.

I decided to teach my child this way. She had to learn benzene in class today. but here is what I was preparing at home for us to have fun with.

Step 1: Getting excited about C6H6

What’s so special about benzene? Its structure, of course. Try drawing C6H6, taking into consideration the covalence of C and H. What did you get? Scientists couldn’t figure out what it looked like for a long time. Codswallop about dreams of snakes swallowing each other’s tails and 6 monkeys holding hands. Finally, it was proved by looking at the bond lengths and Delta H.


Step 2: So what?

Its shape gives it its special properties. It does not undergo addition, but substitution happens quite a lot. Aspirin, paracetomol, solvents. They are all benzene-based. Sorry dear child, you have to memorise the key reactions, but I have summarised the key points for you. It’s not too bad if you print this out and stick it on your wall. Look at it before you fall asleep at night instead of your boyfriend’s photograph.


Step 3: Let the fun begin!

In my book, Catching Infinity, I wrote that exciting things happen at the boundaries. That’s why daredevils leap off tall buildings and biplanes. But we can do the same sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes IF we allow our brains to leap into the unknown. Real education after all is about exploring and thinking the improbable, rather than memorising. So I put this to my child: think about the extraordinary properties of benzene because of its delocalised pz electron cloud. Now think about superfluids. Can benzene possibly be a candidate for superfluids? And imagine what a world with a benzene-like spacetime feel like? Would it be like Alice In Wonderland’s treacle world?


Yes, I was wrong to criticise the International Baccalaureate syllabus. After all, she goes to school to learn the rudiments to pass exams. It is up to me, her parent, to teach her about excitement and the boundless possibilities, and I am loving the journey.

She conquers the world

My Ma expressed some concern that my youngest daughter Georgina, who is in the midst of her IGCSEs, is helping me with my new parenting book and that she has a full-on football training schedule. And a busy social life to boot. My Ma – who is a strong proponent of the theory that all human beings need to live happily is fresh air, love and sunshine – thinks that her youngest grandchild has too much on her plate.

“Oh, Jac, you weren’t brought up like this at all,” my Ma admonished me. “You were on the beach before your exams!”

But, Ma, I have a child who is wired differently. She has her snout in many pies, by her own free choice, and thrives on the pressure and challenges. What stress?

“With smart organisation, you remove stress,” Sixteen year old Georgina explained patiently. “A Game Plan brings order to the chaos.”

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It is indeed true. I was at University with three young children and no helper. In those days, I had to be very organised. Monday was washing day, Wednesday was catching up with University work day and Saturday was house-cleaning day and preparing freezer bags of food for the following week. It was only by being super-organised that I managed to survive those years and get a degree to show for it.

But often, children and teenagers don’t know how to organise themselves. This is largely due to helicopter-parenting: control-freak parents micromanaging children to the extent that children stop thinking for themselves. What is the point? Mummy/Daddy has planned the day down to the last hour for them. They just have to show up for the free ride, no need to switch the brain on.

In the parenting book that Georgina and I are working on, I explored this issue of disempowered children. How to cultivate motivation and initiative in children?

“Get off our backs for starters!” Georgina exclaimed. “Give us space.”

Yes, we used to allow her to wear her mermaid outfit everywhere, even to bed. It got dirty and tatty, but she still wore it. And we allowed her to. Why not?

Georgina spends a lot of time making detailed notes. Though she has told me to get off her back, I could not help but ask, “Aren’t you wasting your time, spending hours making pretty notes instead of studying?”


“I’m organising my brain, Mum!”

OK, point taken. But why don’t you just read it from textbooks?

“Because the act of writing down the concepts in my own way and in my own words forces me to understand, Mum. I write down notes in class too which I often don’t look at again, for the same reason: it forces me to understand.”

Maybe not having an iPad throughout the years helped her in developing a good relationship between her brain and pens, pencils and paper. She is actively engaged whenever she is faced with something rather than passively entertained, be it studying or her social life.

Recently, I interrupted her whilst she was studying. She was wearing headphones.

“Can you concentrate whilst listening to music?” I asked curiously.

“It’s white noise, Mum,” she said. “It helps me to concentrate better.”

I listened in. Yikes! I had a blinding headache coming on immediately!

She grinned. “You see now why it focuses the mind?”

Our children are not us. They are wired differently from us. This is also their world. The future is theirs. And I think we have to trust them to find their own way, even if their way seems illogical. Dig deeper and often, you will see beautiful logic emerging from the madness of a teenage brain.

Why We Want To Raise Lifelong Learners

A few weeks ago, whilst choosing books on Amazon to take along on my honeymoon, I bought Professor Mary Beard’s A History of Ancient Rome. I bought the book simply because it was on Amazon’s bestseller list, but to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. I finished the whole book even before the plane landed. It was a surprise, because the British education system forces us to make a choice about our future at the tender age of 16, when we have to choose which three or four subjects to study for A levels. These three or four subjects are the precursors of our University course two years later and our career path three years on.

I did Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry. I abandoned Geography, History, Literature, Languages, Art and Humanities a long time ago, because they were not in my school curriculum. Being not inclined academically, I struggled with the rigours of getting good grades for three A level subjects, and alongside partying, chilling out on the beach and being a teenager generally, I did not have the time nor the inclination to broaden my knowledge base. Later, a demanding career and children meant that I had very little mental capacity to indulge in frivolous pastimes, which learning unrelated subjects was considered as in my overloaded life.

But my love of learning never left me. I owe it all to my mother, my first teacher. She never minded that I did not get good grades and showed me, over the years, that it made no difference to her whatsoever that her daughter was at the bottom of the exam results table. She was happy with the daughter she had and she delighted in raising me. The stuff she invested her time in teaching my brothers and I were never related to schoolwork. It was always about the magic of the world around us.

It is a wonderful gift to be raised as a lifelong learner, because my mother has given me eyes that are open to beauty and wonder, however harsh and difficult reality and life is. It doesn’t take me much – just a deep breath and a heartbeat – to remember my magical times with my mother. When I was choosing a honeymoon location, I chose somewhere not far from my home: Isle of Wight. I could have chosen half a dozen exotic locations, but I chose the Isle of Wight. I remembered our many unforgettable seaside days.

And at 47, I was delighted to rediscover them with the man I am planning to share the rest of my life with. The windswept bridle paths and coastal roads that I loved as a teenager, the seaweeds that I know as well as the back of my hands and the fossils that delight me so. On our honeymoon, I showed Thomas a part of me that he could not find anywhere else, with anyone else, except me. I showed him too, my fascination with cosmology (lying in bed, looking at Venus rising over the English Solent), the 11th dimension, mathematics and the warping of space-time that brought us, in the most unimaginable circumstances, into each other’s lives. The world around you is full of magic, if you open your eyes to it.

Thomas’s article on theoretical physics and business is here: http://agermanonthemove.blogspot.co.id/2015/10/the-heart-of-matter-metaphors-in_18.html?m=1

Legs Are For Walking

Parenting is a very personal journey, and I am sure I will be slated for this post. However, I will still post this, because I would like to see a shift in mindset towards raising healthy kids.

Each time your child whines, “Carry me” and you give in, you are not ‘spoiling’ your child emotionally. You are de-skilling your child. You are taking away his opportunity at that moment, to learn resilience. You are also not giving him the opportunity to work on his developing muscles.

Let us start from the scientific angle. Children need to develop muscle tone. It is that muscle tone that allows a flexible foetus to be curled up in the womb, to develop into a baby who could sit up, crawl and eventually walk upright. The primary muscles required for this is the group of muscles that are loosely referred to as the core muscles. The core muscles can be visualised as a broad belt encircling the human body. Weak core muscles are the cause of bad posture, which over time, can lead to chronic back pain. For a child with weak core muscles, you see slouchy sitting position (exacerbated by hours sitting down). A floppy child is also often tired, because in that suboptimal position, he is not breathing efficiently. Her internal circulation may also be compromised. She may not be as active as she should be for her age group. Having weak core muscles is certainly not a good foundation for a young body that still has many decades of living to get through.

As children do not go to the gym to strengthen their core muscles (and there is no need to), they need to walk at every opportunity. On the emotional development side, children also need to learn to be resilient and self-sufficient. By three – yes, during the Terrible Threes – they should be learning about their body and the world they live in. Walking is one of the fundamental movements in life, and it also moves a child towards being independent from the mother. It empowers them.

If a child has strong physicality, she feels empowered. She is not afraid of feeling breathless or hot or tired. She embraces the different experiences. She feels confident about exploring the world and confident of her place within it, once she is comfortable with her body and its many experiences. You are empowering your child, when you move her from whining “Carry me” to “Yes, I can, Mummy.”

Children need to move for their brain development, and being attached to a parent like a limp rag doll does not constitute moving.

It is also about learning boundaries. Children need to know that there are certain things in life that they have to do for themselves, which Mummy cannot do for them. And walking is one of them.

Teaching boundaries to children is one of the challenges of parenting, namely how to teach them with love so that they grow up joyous. For me, over the course of five children, I discovered that it is with love, laughter, firm rules, consistency, joy, forgiveness and unconditional love that we teach our children that they have to accept parental autonomy. Parenting is not about giving in all the time, but a healthy balance of meeting your child’s needs as well as teaching him the things he needs to learn.

So if you have a child who is older than three, I would like to suggest trying to do away with the pushchair/stroller and see the changes. You will thank me in a few months time … big smile.

Photograph: 2 year old Georgina trying to keep up with her parents and siblings in foot-high snow.

Real-world stuff for teenagers with an inquiring mind

It takes a whole village to raise a child……I never doubted that after raising five children. My children’s father and I are fortunate in that we seem to have an endless stream of engaging, inspired adults who are willing to contribute to our children’s development from so many angles. For me, it is all about taking textbook learning into the context of the real world, so that my children are excited about learning which happens when they begin to see for themselves how the world actually works. The ultimate for me when it comes to educating children is to encourage them to think and connect the dots for themselves, rather than passing exams.The possibilities are endless, exciting.

Whilst searching for a parking spot along Bondi Beach last Christmas, Georgina had a brilliant idea for an apps to solve a real-world problem. But how to take a brilliant idea off the drawing board into the real world? I have no idea. Fortunately, her stepfather has plenty of experience (as it is his work).

And the news for G is, it takes more than a brilliant idea to make something work business-wise. You need luck, commitment, some capital investment (she knows that), some legal stuff, some financial stuff and the know-how. Quite a lot for a 15 year old with so many interest to take onboard, but the conversation opened her eyes to the world of work. It also opened a lot of interesting discussions.

“She should go to Silicon Valley, get an internship with some innovative company like Google. Because developing an apps is not just about finding programmers. And she needs to have good relationship with the local council, who will be her partner for this venture.” All very sound advice for a teenager to think about – because it would probably costs only U$50k to develop this apps in Asia, but perhaps the U$50k would be better spent on airfare to San Francisco?

That’s his blog: light enough for a teenager with an inquiring mind to read 🙂 http://agermanonthemove.blogspot.co.id

I Don’t Want My Daughter To Be A Fashion Victim

OK, here are the statistics:

The total UK household consumption on clothing and footwear is € 59 billion. To put this figure in perspective, the spending on Education is €16.1 billion whilst Health is a paltry €17.9 billion. The Chinese textile industry creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year. Millions of tons of unused fabric at Chinese mills go to waste each year when dyed the wrong colour. Think about the negative impact.

Yet walk down any high street and you see a dominance of mass-produced clothing shops with happy, frenzied shoppers: Matalan, Primark, Peacock, H&M, Next, Topshop, Uniqlo, to name but a few. In the UK, supermarkets are getting into the scrum as well, with Tesco and Asda churning out their own brand at impossibly low prices. Internet companies too have sprouted from nowhere to push dubious, cut-price fashion into an already over-polluted fashion world. What do these purveyors of mass clothing have in common?

Affordable ‘style’, of course. You could be forgiven for thinking that these value retailers are doing the public a service by striking at the heart of elitism through making couture affordable to the mass market. For research, I popped into Primark in Oxford Street and found that I could afford to dress quite well (in a blatant copy of this season’s catwalk offering) for under €20. Teenagers, even with their limited spending power, can afford to buy a dress a week at Primark prices.

And indeed, they are encouraged to do so by mass advertising campaigns and peer pressure. Venture anywhere in a shopping mall and you will see impossibly glamorous (and heavily airbrushed) models selling the lie that you too could look like this if you part with a mere €20, never mind the genetics and artistic manipulations.

When I was in Monaco in May, the mega yacht of one of the owners of these ‘value retailers’ was in port. It was a blatant advertising of wealth, with a Jacuzzi on the deck and uniformed deckhands polishing the brass late into the evening. The math behind it bothered me a great deal: how many €20 frocks do that particular fashion chain have to sell, in order to keep the gin palace afloat, never mind its purchase price?

I made my 14 year old daughter read this report in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2007/apr/22/clothes.fashion

According to War on Want, “Bargain retailers such as Primark, Asda and Tesco are only able to sell at rock bottom prices in the UK because women workers in Bangladesh are being exploited.”

It’s never attractive to wear clothes that were made off someone’s sweat in inhumane and often dangerous working conditions, whatever the external appearance may be. But this being the real world, women and girls want to look attractive, and since most of us are not blessed with ideal proportions, perfect features and flawless beauty, we aspire to achieve some modicum of that dream through fashion. And who could blame us: our sisters from the pre-historic era had been adorning themselves with bits of bones and stones.

Ladies, hear my plea. Embrace HOBOism. It’s a style concept without a label. It’s fashion without stores (or internet shops). With HOBOism, you wear yourself instead of being a slave to fashion (courtesy of poor women in Bangladesh and other parts of Asia).

HOBOism is a battle cry to women to be comfortable in their skins, to enjoy playing and living, and to express their individuality boldly. It’s sticking two fingers up to the dictates of the fashion czars. It is a reflection of your life, your life.

Note: HOBOism is most emphatically NOT wearing unisex long shorts and shapeless t-shirts.

Examples of my HOBOism

Pyjamas top and jodhpurs at 5am
Pyjamas top and jodhpurs at 5am

I have a functional wardrobe that reflects my lifestyle: mostly old riding boots that are falling apart (but which are oh-so comfortable!) and decades-old, faded warm jackets. And I have a rule: never more than 5 minutes getting ready.

This is an illustration of HOBOism at its best: I went riding last week with a dashing Knight in my pyjamas (because he woke me up at 5am, throwing stones at my window). I hurriedly threw a pair of jodhpurs on but kept the pyjamas top. As we were going for a rather elegant breakfast after the ride, I put on a simple, old, brass tiara and a torn, tatty scarf. Breakfast lingered into lunch, into late afternoon apple-scrumping, before we slowly meandered our way from Lyndhurst to London. Upon arrival at the capital, the Knight invited me for early cocktails at an incredibly glamorous location. A quick change in the ladies transformed the tiara into a glamorous choker and the tatty scarf into a stylish top, and despite still being in my jeans and muddy riding boots, I held my own amongst the well-dressed peacocks. In the process, I won the Knight’s deep admiration for my style and made a rather big impression on him.

From dawn to sunset: tiara and tatty scarf to glamour.
From dawn to sunset: tiara and tatty scarf to high-octane glamour.

And here’s the deal: both the tiara and the scarf are up for grabs. OK, the scarf is torn and tatty, but the tiara is very interesting. It is more than 30 years old, possibly more. Its provenance is probably Welsh, and resembles entwined stalks of the filix-mas. I found it in the attic of my parents’ house years ago.

To win both, email me a photo (or sketch) of an outfit that you think defines the HOBO fashion philosophy. The best entry wins. All entries will be published on my blog: www.raisinghappystrongkids.com

Entries should be emailed to: jk@sunyoga.com by the 17th of October. May the best HOBO win.

HOBOism - you don't have to dress up!
HOBOism – you don’t have to dress up!


– British Retail Consortium
– National Statitistics Office (on UK business bysector and location)
– University of Southampton on Retail Recruitment and Graduate Schemes
– ‘Retailing in the UK’, by the Euromonitor
– Clothing Retailing in the UK, by Mintel
– Verdict Research: UK Value Clothing Retailers 2009
– British Council of Fashion Industry’s Facts & Figures 2009
– British Lifestyles, by Mintel