When the western political situation took a turn for the worse with the previous inhabitant of the White House and depressing shenanigans this side of the pond, I decamped from Radio 4 to 3 avoid it all. This time, I’m taking refuge in the Thinking with Pinker podcasts, a short course in cogitational improvement. One episode is called ‘You Can’t Say That’ and it’s on ‘taboos, heresies and counterfactuals’. I’m swum in the seas of religion all my life so I know a bit about these. I like to think that makes me reasonably sharp at spotting myth, sentiment, falsehood and claims of destiny. Before you get cross, Pinker isn’t talking about the language of racism and misogyny: rudeness and oppression are always wrong. He’s talking about the ruts of acceptable thought in which we stick ourselves.
We love this in education. We’re counterintuitively keen on confining thought and easily attached to totems. Exams, for instance. Rather than looking at the current circumstance as a chance radically to reform the whole outlandish structure, we’re swimming frantically back through the shark-infested waters of memory testing and cheap proxies to replant our flag in the Land of the Forgotten Third. And we delude ourselves and yes, I have an example, a sub-heading on the BBC Family and Education page asking ‘How will my exams be different this year?’.
This makes no sense. For a start, a child wouldn’t ask it. Barely a one sitting public examination this year will have ever taken one before. Year 13 didn’t do GCSEs. They have no idea what’s different, or similar. The question actually being asked, by anxious adults, is ‘are exams children take this year worth anything to the elitist calibration mindset we’re trapped in?’. If it was a child asking, the question would be ‘What’s happening and what do I need to do? Will I need a pen?’
I’m not opposed to exams. It's reasonable to measure learning, not least to assess current aptitude for choices at 18. It’s also perfectly legitimate for the state to want to measure its system. But we could do so much better. My counterfactual would run: ‘If we already knew that exams were a flawed way of measuring children’s learning, we would have seized the opportunity of the pandemic to ……’ Why can’t we think about that? If not now, when?
Children, however, can turn their minds to other things. Wandering about to spy on the choices Deputy Head candidates made at break I chanced upon the conversion of a bench seat to a table tennis table, requiring the game to be played inelegantly at the stoop, then the peer-review of an engineering prototype. This latter was a small boy whose friend claimed he’d made a device to extract apple juice from apples. I thought it needed further development, myself. Squeezing the air out of one of those tiny soy sauce bottles and trying to jam it into the side of a Gala didn’t appear to be extracting a marketable product, and at least one of the potential investors thought it was disgusting, but a refined model may have legs? Or show signs of being remotely able to work.
Year 8 have been thinking about what they can do to help children in Ukraine. They settled on a sort-of sponsored walk (steps in tutor time) for War Child. This seems like a sensible way of expressing concern and fits with one of our repeated sayings, on every Christmas Card since 2014, Eglantyne Jebb’s ‘all wars are wars against children.'
Good for them. Meanwhile, in peace time, we were trying desperately to track down some Food Bank vouchers.
But by the time you read this we’ll have appointed a new Deputy Head and that’s always exciting. Deputies forecast, control and make the weather in school and good ones are beyond rubies. Lots of people have been involved: students, teachers, classes, year groups, support staff and governors over a two-day grilling process. I did this twenty-five years ago. I didn’t get the first one I applied for, largely because I couldn’t express a thought about the curriculum. I got the second one and it changed my family’s life. It’s a great job in the right school.
I have put some time into thinking about the curriculum since then, despite national lurching from one set of ossified prescriptions to another ever since. We think a lot at Tallis, and we try to teach the children that an unexamined life is perhaps less rewarding than one where you create informed choices. As a colleague said at the end of term, we try to link our epistemology to our ethos here, which is great if you can remember what epistemology means. As we say to the children – we know we’re learning when we’re thinking very hard – but within the bounds of kindness and respect, the blessed exam specifications and the impartiality rules, we can think what we like. Impartiality is the child of considered thought