A neat equation

Educational Psychologist Fraser Lauchlan on his unusual journey.

I can vividly remember the moment when Psychology grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said ‘Hey, spend some time with me! You’ll like me…’. I was 21 and had been studying undergraduate psychology at Strathclyde University for three years, but I had no intention of following a career in psychology at that point. I had the unusual position of studying both Psychology and Mathematics in my Joint Honours degree, and saw myself as going on to become a Maths teacher as soon as my studies were complete. However, my lecturer shoved a pocket-sized book into my hand and told me to read it.

It was Margaret Donaldson’s seminal book Children’s Minds, published in 1978. This was 1993 – but it was still relevant and fresh, and I loved it. It was a game changer. And in my mind, Donaldson’s book is still relevant to this day – it set me on a path of understanding how children learn and how fascinating it is to study and work with children while they develop both socially and cognitively. I still cite it in my lectures and workshops.

I went on to study educational psychology both to a master’s and doctoral level and worked as an educational psychologist (EP) in Scotland for many years, both as a local authority practitioner and as an academic tutor on the initial EP training course at Strathclyde University. Here I was reunited with the man who set me on that path several years previously – Professor Jim Boyle. Jim continued to guide me and act as a mentor in my burgeoning career as an academic and practitioner educational psychologist. Many people – myself included – thought I would be his natural successor as Course Director as he veered towards retirement, and he would often preface our meetings with, ‘Fraser, listen carefully, you’ll probably need to learn how to do this…’

However, all of that came to an abrupt halt in 2009, when in the middle of an everyday, humdrum meeting, I received a text message from my Italian wife: ‘I’VE HAD ENOUGH. I WANT TO GO BACK HOME’.

After an initial panic of where my wife was precisely located at that moment (far from our Edinburgh home, I presumed), I slowly realised that despite living in Scotland for almost 10 years, ‘home’ for my wife meant the beautiful Italian island of Sardinia, slap bang in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Luckily, she hadn’t had enough of me, but of the Scottish climate, and so she invited me along. My life was about to change dramatically at the (relatively) grand old age of 36.

To Italy
My career in educational psychology has had a few highs and lows since moving to Sardinia. I initially managed to secure funding from a Visiting Professor scheme at the local university – Università degli Studi di Cagliari – where I was able to stretch out the research funds for three years investigating the cognitive benefits of Italian-Sardinian and English-Gaelic bilingual children. The research received a lot of interest in the media as well as in the academic community.

However, the funding dried up, and despite several attempts to apply for various temporary and permanent posts within the university, I could see that an academic career in Italy was going to prove difficult, if not impossible. I wasn’t alone. A culture of ‘raccomandazioni’ (‘recommendations’) was rife, and still is. There was even evidence of discrimination against British academics working in Italy. I decided to bail out and pursue something else.

I set myself up as a trainer to deliver workshops in the UK on the topic of my PhD – dynamic assessment –  focusing on how to implement it as an educational psychologist. Dynamic assessment, based on the theories of Lev Vygotsky and Reuven Feuerstein, is an alternative method of child assessment, where in contrast to standardised cognitive ability tests, the assessor works with the child in a collaborative environment. Using strategies of ‘mediated learning’, the assessor can explore the cognitive processes and affective factors in the child’s learning – not just those that are fully developed such that they are revealed in independent activity, but more importantly, those that are about to develop. The notion is that by working on these cognitive processes and affective factors, one can provide suggestions to those working with the child in the classroom setting.

With the help of an ex-colleague in Scotland, Donna Carrigan, we published 2013’s Improving Learning Through Dynamic Assessment: a practical classroom resource, and this helped the growth of the business enormously. I would travel over to the UK once every two months or so and deliver a week’s worth of training, ensuring I wasn’t away from my young family for too long. I offered to work on the Editorial Board of Educational and Child Psychology, helping me to keep ‘up-to-speed’ with what was going on in the profession in the UK. I continued to contribute to several of the EP training courses as a guest lecturer, and secured an Honorary Lecturer post at my long-standing academic ‘home’ – the University of Strathclyde – that I still hold to this day.

Full circle
In between my visits to the UK, I decided to pursue a qualification on how to teach English as a foreign language. There was plenty of work going in and around Cagliari, where we lived. I worked in secondary schools, primary schools, even nurseries, taking in my guitar and subjecting four- and five-year-old Italian children to indie-inspired versions of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ and ‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Once I caught a fish alive’. I loved it.

In 2016, a new international school opened in Cagliari, offering a bilingual curriculum delivered in both Italian and English (Sacro Cuore Ludum | Scuola Internazionale a Cagliari). The school were looking for a mathematics teacher. I applied and got the job and have been teaching there ever since. It felt like my career had turned full circle, but enriched with all the Psychology ‘bag of tools’ that I had worked on in the intervening years. I draw on psychology every day: my skills in mediated learning, knowledge about cognitive processes, and the social, emotional factors of learning. I deliver Circle of Friends interventions in the school, and generally adopt my educational psychology role wherever I see fit, as well as teaching logarithms and equivalent fractions to teenage Italian children.

In 2018, after much cajoling from friends and family upon reading my Bill Bryson inspired blogs that depicted the more comical side of my life in Italy, I self-published my first attempt at a mainstream book, Being Scottish in Italy. Reviews started to filter in from people whom I didn’t recognise, and it gave me the confidence to have the book translated and published in Italian. At this point, things began to take off. The book was reviewed by the Sardinian daily newspaper L’Unione Sarda, and I was interviewed on radio and local television. In 2020, I was an invited speaker at the ‘Strangius’ International Festival of Literature held in Serramanna, where the book was shortlisted for the Franco Putzolo Literary Prize. There is no doubt that I drew upon my psychology background when writing the book in attempting to provide a keen observational eye on some of the social psychological nuances of life in Italy, while at the same time trying to make it humorous and accessible for all.

An eclectic bag
My educational psychology life still burns strongly. I am now General Editor of Educational and Child Psychology, and still contribute to many of the EP training courses all over the UK. I continue to organise and deliver workshops on the topic of dynamic assessment and also on working with bilingual children, influenced not only by my research, but by my personal experience of raising three bilingual children.

Recently my work in promoting dynamic assessment has taken on a new and exciting direction. After obtaining British Psychological Society CPD approval of our training and workshops, we now offer a certification process for those wishing to develop their skills in this area of EP work. With the help of Dr Clare Daly, my co-director, we established Dynamic Assessment UK (www.dynamicassessmentuk.com), which is the first of its kind. It’s a ‘one stop shop’ for all things related to dynamic assessment, where practitioners are able to network with each other to share resources and practice, and where they can advance their skills in this innovative approach under expert supervision. It’s an exciting development and one which I passionately believe can lead to improved delivery of practice by educational psychologists while trying the often-futile task of making a positive difference when working with children and young people.

I often reflect on what would have happened had I not received that text message from my wife all those years ago. I’m sure I would still have been happy and challenged as a psychologist, but the life experience that has taken me on this interesting journey has probably led to a more eclectic ‘bag’ of work experiences that I might not have had otherwise. It’s a salient reminder that as psychologists we draw upon, and are influenced by, our life experience just as much as what we experience at work.

- Dr Fraser Lauchlan is an HCPC registered educational psychologist and co-director of Dynamic Assessment UK Ltd (www.dynamicassessmentuk.com). He is also an Honorary Lecturer at the Universities of Strathclyde and Manchester, and General Editor of Educational and Child Psychology. [email protected]

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