Celebrating
a centenary
of Learning

  • 17
  • by Julie Betenson
  • graduated 2012; 2013; ongoing
  • studied MEd in Psychology of Education, MSc in Educational Research, Doctor of Philosophy in Education (PhD)
  • from UK

I was delighted when I received a South West Doctoral Training Centre, Economic and Social Research Council studentship award to do a PhD at the Graduate School of Education.

Even as a young girl I knew that I wanted to become a teacher. I attended a traditional Grammar School for girls in Warwickshire and can still remember the look of surprise on my ‘Careers’ teacher’s face when I informed her that I wanted to go to a Higher Education College to do a BEd Degree. She felt it would be more appropriate for me to do an MSc degree in Maths followed by a PGCE. However, my determined streak was already well formed and I argued that, as I wanted to be a teacher, I could not think of a better degree to have than one in Education.

When I graduated, I spent my first years as a Primary School teacher and became fascinated by why certain children were able to do mathematics easily whilst others struggled to understand or remember different maths topics. When I was offered the opportunity to teach maths in a specialist secondary school for pupils with dyslexia, I was unsure how this difficulty would affect the pupils’ maths acquisition and whether I would have the skills to address the problems they might face.

I was soon to discover that students with dyslexia have many difficulties with maths acquisition and spent the next twenty years honing my skills to help successive years of students achieve the best level of maths possible before they left the school. My own career path took me from part-time maths teacher to Head of Maths and Deputy Head, Head and then Principal. The added responsibilities undertaken along this path were absorbing, but I never lost my fascination for trying to understand each individual’s difficulties with acquiring mathematics and I continued to teach at least one maths group throughout my time at the school. During this period of my career I became involved in a Comenius project with partner schools in Ireland and the Netherlands looking into common difficulties with maths for dyslexic students. I was asked to deliver in-service training to other teachers and was approached by the British Dyslexia Association to write a book on Dyslexia and Mathematics.

The approach of my twentieth year at this specialist school led me to question what I wanted to do with my next twenty years. I was just about young enough to consider a change in career path and, as I had already undertaken most of the roles available at the school, I felt that it was time to move on.

Maths still fascinated me, as did many of the other psychological elements of education. Consequently, an MEd in Psychology of Education seemed like a perfect qualification. The University of Bristol offered a course accredited by the British Psychological Society and, with Bristol’s excellent reputation, I was very excited when I was offered a place to study on it. I was very unsure of my ability to write at the level expected from a Master’s student because I had once had an article for a Special Needs magazine sent back for re-writing with comments from two reviewers. One thought it had been written by someone who had English as a second language and the other said it was clear, easy to read and well described!

Thankfully, all the academic staff on the MEd course were approachable and gave good constructive criticisms on draft essays so that my writing fears were overcome and I passed the course with distinction. The course units were diverse and gave me the opportunity to look more deeply into the various aspects that interested me. One of my favourites was the Counselling Young People and Families module. The exploration of different approaches to counselling – including cognitive behavioural therapy and psychodynamic approaches, as well as person-centred approaches and the idea of skilled helpers – led to my dawning realisation that I had indeed been using counselling skills to help the students with special educational needs in my school. It was fascinating to explore these concepts in more detail.

One specific module inspired me to apply for a research grant to look more deeply into a specific area as part of a proposed PhD. The Brain, Mind and Education module introduced me to the idea of how neurons firing together increase the amount of neurotransmitter released and therefore make stronger connections in the brain. Consequently, if a neuron was already firing, connections could be made stronger. This led me to a greater understanding of why multi-sensory teaching is advocated. It also clarified for me the idea of different parts of the brain being used when different elements of mathematics are being attempted.

My previous understanding of dyscalculia as defined by the Department for Education was an inability to process number – this used to leave me feeling very concerned about giving a child a label of dyscalculic, if the ‘inability’ could not be overcome. However, the understanding of the plasticity of the brain led me to question whether there may be an intervention which could help the mapping between those areas in the brain used for mathematics. If mapping between these different parts of the brain could be increased by an intervention using finger gnosis, symbolic and non-symbolic number it may be possible to help students with dyscalculia. On the suggestion – and with the support – of my supervisor Dr Tim Jay, I wrote a research proposal and was delighted when I received a South West Doctoral Training Centre, Economic and Social Research Council studentship award for 1 + 3 years at the Graduate School of Education.

The first year of the MPhil/PhD course was filled with modules which enabled me to complete the MSc Educational Research. These were diverse and led me to question more deeply and consider more sharply my hypotheses, research methods and philosophy. Thankfully, I also passed this Master’s. I am currently in my second of four years, having completed two pilot studies, and am aiming towards my upgrade in September. I am thoroughly enjoying the PhD experience and am hopeful that my knowledge and understanding of teaching and learning will continue to grow. Initial results suggest that the intervention may be successful and, on leaving Bristol, I hope to be able to incorporate my ideas into a book. The skills I have learned and the knowledge I have acquired will undoubtedly enhance my next career step, whether that be in Higher Education or in private practice.

If anyone else in the middle years of life is contemplating returning to study at the University of Bristol I would encourage them to do so. I have met some very interesting people, had the opportunity to question my own beliefs and have opened the door to many more career opportunities. Everyone should follow their dreams because you are never too old to learn new things.