AITSL The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership

Left, right

Margery Evans, Chief Executive Officer of AITSL, 10 March 2015.

Some of my colleagues at AITSL feel a particular kind of affinity with Barack Obama, Bart Simpson, Jimi Hendrix, Michelangelo and Marie Curie. No, they’re not suffering from some eclectic delusion of grandeur. It’s a bit more basic that that. They’re all left handed. To use a sporting term, they are minority “southpaws” in an overwhelmingly “orthodox” world.

One of these colleagues of mine relates a southpaw educational story with a twist. He grew up writing and drawing with his left hand. At his local primary school in the early 1960s, it wasn’t a particularly big deal. That is, until the black lead pencils were put away in the classroom and out came the Next Big Thing: fountain pens.

All the orthodox writers filled their pens with Pacific Blue ink and off they went. But the southpaws had a problem. Their straight orthodox nibs scratched and sputtered across the page. And the odd bits of the writing that were vaguely legible were soon obliterated by the southpaws’ little fingers dragging across the wet ink. Oh, dear. Back to pencils for the southpaws. How humiliating. Weeks later, help arrived in the shape of nibs that were curved like scimitars. The southpaws could finally put nib to paper, albeit in a physically contorted way to avoid the dreaded pinky drag.

My colleague quietly sneaked a peek at his parents. Okay, mum was right handed. So what about dad? Crikey, he was right handed, too. So how could this be? In a state of puzzlement, the matter was raised with mum. She explained, almost “confessed”, that, yes, she had been a left-hander as a child. So how did the left-right change take place?

Well, mum related that back in the 1930s, she too had gone through the pencil to nib-and-ink transition. But her teachers had been a little less tolerant of southpaws, she said. It finally emerged that they had, in fact, twisted her left hand behind her back and tied it up with rope. Why? It came back to the pinky problem. As she was told, if you want to work as a bookkeeper or an accounts clerk, no business will ever take you on, because your messy left-handedness will spoil the longhand-written ledger. Hence, the “rope cure”, which eventually did have its desired effect - although the right-handed writing thereby created was apparently always unnaturally spidery. Ironically - and as you might have guessed - that job as a bookkeeper never materialised over a subsequent working life of some forty years.

Today, we have moved beyond enforcing educational compliance by literally tying people up. But perhaps we have just replaced this kind of obsession with others. Maybe the current generation of digital natives will look back on today’s insistence that exams be written out in longhand with the same disdain that we feel for tying up yesterday’s southpaws. Perhaps tellingly, this insistence on students’ handwritten copy is sometimes referred to by critics as “working with one arm tied behind your back.” 

Then there is the annual ritual of seeing where schools figure on the “league tables” of year 12 scores. Never mind how much improvement, engagement and enrichment we gave to the lives of our students over the years: what number did we get? Never mind about the passion and quality of our teaching: are all students wearing the correct school uniform? Are our most talented students really being extended? Or are we obsessed with “getting through the course” and complicit in allowing the most talented to merely cruise?

Am I really on to something here or am I being gauche? (French, of course, for being “left handed” among other things). Can we all say that we are ready to examine our own obsessions and then grab on to what is really important?

I’ll raise my right hand to that. 


Submitted by Paul (not verified) on

Ah the scimitar nibs. Some of my friends don't believe they ever existed. And I should have guessed that gauche can refer to being left handed. I'll add it to the list. Thanks for the entertaining post.

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