Into a classroom.
In which Alice encounters some strange values and meets some of the school community.
Alice drifted through the looking glass in a daze and landed softly on the cushions of the sofa on the other side. As she came to her senses she could see that the room was as before, similar but eerily different from the one she had left. Everything was back to front again. The first thing she saw was a door on her right, or was it her left? She was already confused. The door had a number on it. The entire door was rather dirty, and the bottom particularly looked as though it had been kicked several times with shoe marks on it and even a few dents. Further up were some rather grubby handprints, and the handle was loose. There was a small window in the door at head height for an adult. Alice tried to peek in but could see nothing as a piece of paper was attached to the other side covering the glass. Alice knew instinctively that this was a classroom door.
As she contemplated whether or not to open the door, the decision was taken away from her. It flew open accompanied by a noisy charge out of the room by a number of small pawns. Some were red and some were white, they were all running, most had smiles on their faces and they were chattering away to each other, to nobody in particular, to the air around them and to themselves. They bounced off each other, off the suffering and bruised door, the corridor walls and even off Alice until she stood back to let them pass.
“There was a time,” said the door to Alice’s surprise, “when doors were respected. I was opened carefully, held back by the teacher and she shook hands with each child as they calmly walked out in single file. Now look at them. Look at the state of me! No respect!” Alice had never met a talking door before, and certainly not a grumpy talking door. She looked to see where the voice was coming from, and found that one of the cracks, about half way down, was in fact a mouth. Alice was not sure about the correct way to address a door, so she felt he should err on the side of over politeness.
“I am very sorry Mr Door, but would you mind if I pass through?” She asked with little bow.
“If you must.” Responded the door.
Alice walked into the classroom. The walls, the back of the door and even some of the windows were covered with pieces of work, posters and complicated evacuation instructions. The largest item, most centrally placed looked like this
The School Values
The School Community…
There was more writing between each of the statements but it was too little to read, and Alice was already so struck by the tone of the main statements, that she did not feel it necessary to engage with the small print.
“My”, she said, “What a fascinating set of values! I wonder why they chose them.”
“Did you say something, dear?” said a voice in the corner of the room, tucked behind a desk and a pile of books. Alice had not noticed anyone there before and, with a start, realised that this must be the teacher. He had a kindly face with a slightly distracted smile. He was dressed in a white outfit with a slightly clerical appearance. His glasses were perched on the top of rather pointed hat. Alice guessed that she might be the White Bishop.
“I am sorry,” said Alice, giving a little bow, “I should have introduced myself. My name is Alice and I am here to take up a teaching position.”
“I know who you are, dear, I wrote you the letter of appointment.” Alice was about to interrupt, but the Bishop continued, “Yes, I know it said Red Queen on it, but that was after a pp. That stands for per procurationem, which is Latin for ‘through the agency of’. It means I can write letters from the school with the authority of the Principal and she doesn’t have to sign them herself. School Principals don’t have time for all that kind of stuff you know. They are far too important.”
“I am sure they are.” Said Alice, somewhat taken aback, “What exactly do they do?”
“Well, nobody is entirely sure exactly what they do, but there is a lot of research that shows their role is very important. Having a good Principal is one of the most influential factors in having a good school. That is very clear from all the studies.”
“But, if you are not sure what a Principal does, then how do you know if they are any good?” Alice was finding this conversation confusing.
“Well that is obvious,” retorted the Bishop with increasing agitation and volume, “because they run a good school! If they weren’t a good Principal it couldn’t be a good school. I have told you about the research.”
There was something in the logic of this that concerned Alice, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on the problem. She understood that the evidence was clear that a good school has a good Principal, and that a good Principal runs a good school. That much is obvious, as the White Bishop had said. But if, the only way we can find out if the Principal is any good is to see if the school is any good, then aren’t the results of the research bound to be true, by definition? There seemed to be a certain amount of circularity in the argument. As she pondered, the White Bishop calmed down and was able to elaborate a bit more on the key role of the important Principal.
“They do uphold our values, of course,” he continued in a quieter and rather unenthusiastic tone, “They enact them and the repeat them at every available opportunity, and they put up notices in classrooms and around the school so everyone can see them.” By this stage, any excitement or interest that could be detected in Bishop’s voice had dwindled to imperceptible levels. Alice decided to try and inject some enthusiasm because she had, indeed, been intrigued by the values on the poster.
“Please tell me about the values. Why do you Pursue Mediocrity? Surely your students should be striving for excellence”
The Bishop took a deep breath. “Well,” he began, “I have to admit that Excellence was what we started with. It is not the most original of school values. Most schools have that one somewhere in there. Indeed, it would be hard to find a school that didn’t espouse Excellence as an aim. But then when we looked at what we actually do, we saw that in reality we put more effort into promoting the mediocre.”
“How?” stuttered a rather confused Alice.
“We do exams!” answered the Bishop.
“But surely exams are an incentive for students to excel.” Blurted Alice, “A way of measuring how excellent they are, a celebration of their excellent achievements?”
“Oh dear. You really don’t understand very much do you? When you were at school, I imagine there was a range of ability among your fellow students, from those who struggled with an academic curriculum to those who were quite brilliant and sailed through with ease. You, I suspect were somewhere between the two extremes?” Alice just nodded cautiously, so he went on. “Well, that was a fairly safe bet, because of course almost everybody is somewhere between those extremes. Now, when did you take your exams?”
“I took some at 15, and some more at 17.” Alice replied.
“Exactly, and when did those who really struggled take their exams?” He asked
“Er.. At the same age as me.” Said Alice beginning to see where this might be going.
“And what about the really brilliant ones?” The teacher continued.
“Well, also at the same age.” Alice answered.
“And, I suspect they even took them on the same day, mostly in the same subjects and with the same exam questions. Some will have found it very hard to achieve even reasonable scores on most exams, but others will have scored the top grades in every subject without really having to try too hard. It is the same here. We looked for excellence in all of this and found it certainly was not at the bottom end. You cannot really call a series of failing grades excellence by any measure. We found it wasn’t at the top end either. These students were achieving well below their capabilities even by getting it all right. They certainly weren’t excelling in any meaningful sense of the term.
“So when we looked for who these exams were really good for, we found it was the group right in the middle, those who were genuinely and triumphantly mediocre. We felt it was only honest to celebrate their achievements and proudly say that was what we did. So we are possibly the only school you will ever find that trumpets our value of pursuing mediocrity. I would not want to boast here, because there are many other schools that pursue mediocrity just as successfully as we do. We just say that we do so.”
“If you want any more information you had better go and see the Red Queen in the office across the corridor. I am going for a cup of tea” And with that the Bishop glided diagonally out of the door and across the chequered floor of the corridor.
Meeting the Red Queen
In which Alice meets some old friends end seems to go round in more and more circles.
Alice followed the Bishop out of the classroom and saw the office he had referred just down the corridor. The door was much cleaner and shinier than the classroom door and it bore a brass plaque saying “Director of School, Red Queen, Knock before entering.”
Alice knocked tentatively and heard a booming voice saying “Enter”, which she did. The office was cluttered with books, the walls festooned with artwork done by children of various ages, a large poster of the Values of the School, and piles of paper and files that covered every available space.
“Madam Queen, how lovely it is to see you again after so many years. How do you do?”
“I have done very well so far thank you, and I expect that to continue. Welcome to my school. Now then, here is your timetable. Is there anything else you need to know?” With that, the queen handed Alice a rather crumpled piece of paper that seemed to be a series of lists of three letter abbreviations which meant nothing to her. However her first concern was to make sense of the conversation she had already had about mediocrity and exams.
“I do have a question actually,” she began, I have been speaking to the White Bishop and he has explained to me why you espouse mediocrity because of the nature of the exam system. My question is: Why didn’t you just change the way you did the exams? Set different ones at different times, or even drop them all together if they were useless?”
“You really are extremely foolish, aren’t you?” returned the Red queen, wagging a finger in her direction. “Perhaps, when you have been in education as long as I have, you will not come up with such ridiculous ideas. You cannot just change the way schools run or exams are managed. They are a part of the structure of what we do, what we are. What would parents say, if we just decided to change things or drop them? The very idea is unthinkable.”
“I would have thought they would be quite happy if you were going to improve things” said Alice.
“How on earth would they know that whatever changes we might make would improve things? What evidence could we give that anything would be better if we hadn’t already made the changes to see if they were better?”
“You mean that you cannot make a change unless you can be sure it improves things?”
“And the only way you can know if there is improvement is by making the changes to try them out?”
“You are getting there”
“So you can’t make changes unless you have already made them before you want to make them.”
“You have got there.”
“So changes in a school are completely impossible, if you want to keep everybody happy!” Alice thought that circular arguments seemed to crop up regularly in this conversation
“Actually,” continued the Queen, “there are even more reasons for not changing things. Parents, you see are experts in education, as are governors, administrators, politicians and, well, just about every adult.” Alice was looking confused, so the Queen explained. “They have all had an education haven’t they? And the ones who are in a position to influence education are usually the ones who have done well out of it. So, therefore it is obvious that their education must have been excellent and we can conclude it doesn’t need to be improved upon. So we mustn’t try.” concluded the Queen with a self-satisfied smile.
Alice was frothing with frustration. “But this is just another circular argument that doesn’t go anywhere. You are saying that educational policy is decided by those who have succeeded through education. So they think education is a success as it is, and have not motive to change it, then the next generation of those who succeed will be exactly the same as this one. Those who can really see the need for change, because they have failed through education are never in a position to do anything about it. These are just excuses for not doing anything!”
The Queen rose “Not excuses dear, reasons! We operate within the realms of possibility. As a young teacher you will come up with all sorts of radical and different ideas about teaching and learning that you will gather from various injections of CPD”
“CPD?” asked Alice, who was already struggling with three letter abbreviations, or TLAs as she learned to call them.
“Continual Planned Disruption” explained the queen, “We organise it to take you out of the classroom and interrupt your teaching and expand your thinking. We do it to make you feel valued, confident in the knowledge that there will be no perceptible change in your practice when you return.”
“But what about the new radical ideas that you said I would have?”
“Oh you will feel energised and enthusiastic, but then you will share them with the more experienced members of staff who will explain why they can’t possibly be put into place here.” The Queen pushed Alice out of the room and headed off down the corridor. “Time for a cup of tea.” she boomed.
Alice wandered back into the classroom muttering that “They seem to drink an awful lot of Tea”, when she heard a voice.
“That’s why they are called teachers you know. Because of the tea.” Alice couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. At first she looked at the door, but the door seemed asleep. She looked around and noticed up on a high shelf, there was an arrangement of books and board markers that, if you used your imagination, looked rather like a grin.
“Why, is that you Cheshire Cat?” She called, staring quite carefully, and just starting to make out the rest of his features, the ears, the body and finally the tail.
“Who else do you think it might be?” Purred the cat, who was now completely visible.
“Oh Cheshire Puss, how wonderful, you are always so good at explaining things to me that seem so strange.” Said Alice, “Please tell me why they always talk in circles in education. Why do they never get anywhere? And by the way, I though teachers were called teachers because they teach.”
“I will answer the last thing first, which is the standard way in education. It is called Backwards By Design.” Responded the cat, “I will also your question answer by way of asking another question, which is another thing we always do in education. Which comes first in the word Teacher? Is it Tea or Teach?”
“Why, Tea of course.” Said Alice.
“Which is why it comes first in a teachers thoughts.” The Cheshire Cat then turned to the question of circularity. “All proper, by which I mean complete, arguments must be circular. This is a scientific fact. You see any statement must have a reason, I am sure you will agree.”
“Well yes,” responded Alice, “without a reason, why should we take it as true.
“Therefore no statement can be the beginning of the argument, as the reason will be another statement that must have come before it. No then, any statement in an argument must have an effect, something that follows from it.” Continued the cat.
“Why yes. There are consequences to everything.” Responded Alice
“Therefore no statement can be the end of an argument, because the consequence will be another statement. Clearly since any statement cannot be the beginning or the end, no argument can have a beginning or an end. Therefore it must be circular.” Concluded the Cheshire Cat, who was now chewing its own tail as if to physically demonstrate the circularity.
Alice left the room deep in thought and resolved to find out about the other two values in the school.