Watch Your Wallpaper

Imagine a 6 year old child that can spell the following:

  • Great Uncle Bulgaria
  • Tobermory
  • Madame Cholet
  • Orinoco
  • Wellington
  • Tomsk
  • Bungo

Nothing remarkable about that you might think but the same 6 year old struggled with spelling high-frequency words and actually didn’t do very well in his spelling tests.

Some of you will recognise these as characters in Elizabeth Beresford’s The Wombles, a secretive group of creatures who live beneath Wimbledon Common, collecting and recycling the litter left behind by the “everyday folk”.

I grew up with them and yes, that 6 year old is me.

So what’s my point?

Well, when I was a young boy my parents decorated my bedroom in Wombles wallpaper and I loved it. I spent so much time looking at the characters and they all had their names printed underneath. I looked at them all the time and could soon spell Orinoco forwards and backwards! I also found out where the names came from and this improved my geography and history skills too.

When I my parents mentioned to my teacher that I could spell all the Wombles characters, she was taken aback.

My point is that we are influenced as youngsters by our surroundings and especially what’s on display around our homes and in schools.

This reminds me of a Russian mathematician called Sophie Kowalevski in a book I read called Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World by Rachel Swaby.

Sophie acquired her number skills at an early age and this relates to wallpaper too!

Sophie’s father had ordered some wallpaper for their home but when it arrived there wasn’t enough to decorate the nursery. Rather than ordering more, he decided on something else as an alternative.

Guess what he used?

He used lithographed lectures on differential and integral calculus from a course he’d taken as a young officer in the military. These were pages of Ostrogradski’s lecture notes.

As Swaby notes on Headstrong, “If there is an event that catalyses the imagination, sending us, for the rest of our lives, restlessly after our passions, for Kowalevski, this was it. Her governess could not tear the girl away from the equation-layered room.”

Although at the time Kowalevski was too young to understand the equations, she absorbed them and they acted on her imagination which inspired and fed a brilliant mathematical ability. Studying the wallpaper was Sofia’s introduction to calculus.

What we display in our classrooms is important although some classrooms are drenched in displays that actually do more harm than good – less is more.

Think carefully about what you put on your walls and whether they will inspire the next Sophie Kowalevski.

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