The droll, the bright and the tepid: Living under the rule of ‘three’

‘Three’ is a powerful number in schools – and in our social conversation. More powerful, perhaps, than the biblical ‘7’, the demonic ‘5’, the superstitious ’13’, the ’13/8′ of the Golden Mean, and (for the sporting) Pele/Maradona’s No. 10. Not so significant as 3.142….. (Pi), or Zero – or 8 (giving the basic scale in Western music). Mathematics has a list of highly significant numbers which govern our lives, often with little or no awareness – 17 (the number of symmetries in the known universe), 18,000 (miles per second – the known speed of light), 2.718… (Euler’s number – the base of natural logarithms). As Matthew de Sautoy constantly reminds us, much of our lives is governed by number.

Number ‘3’, though, is somewhat special, pervasive – insidious, even. It is highly political and confirms and distorts children’s futures in at least equal measure. Here’s an example.

A friend of mine some while ago – Ray Derricott – was an educational academic who developed curriculum for use in schools. When he wanted to test something out he might approach a teacher and ask for four children from a class. This, he said, dumfounded the teacher. ‘Well – I have clever kids, average kids and ‘slow’ kids…..who’s the fourth!!?’.

‘Exactly!’, Ray would respond. And still insist.

We think in tram-lines and easy numbers.

So – here’s another ‘single narrative’ that bedevils us: ‘The quality of education can be measured by standardised exam or test results’. This one is especially hard to shift – what parent would deny that a successful education for their children is one capped with an ‘A’ Grade performance? What parent would say, ‘well – they failed their exams, but they had a fine education’?

So I’m on a loser, trying to challenge this one…?

Maybe, maybe not. But let me tell you what the high-point of an education would look like if it were driven solely and relentlessly by standardised test success. This is what we tend towards when we use tests as measures of quality learning.

First, we would have large class-sizes – they are more efficient for production-line learning. We would have rigorous, compliance-based discipline so as not to waste time. We would want young people to learn precisely what they are taught, the way it is taught – and not to question it. We would limit what young people know to the knowledge valued by test-developers, whom we expect to remain anonymous. We would prefer that young people forgot what they had learned soon after the tests were over, since learning that sticks requires a complex process of individualisation. We would want teachers not to think about their practice beyond forms of communication and discipline. We would exclude any creative expression in the student, since the results cannot, by definition, be standardised. We would not allow local knowledge or relevance to intervene , since that, too, resists standardisation. And we would promote certain cultural and ethnic values above others – because no test can be culture-free.

Well, this is a world few of us would want to live in – or subject their children to. Because, while we urgently want our kids to pass tests and exams, we also want them to question, to experiment, to be taught by teachers who reflect critically on their practice, we prefer small classes with plenty of opportunity for discussion. We may be suspicious of the values promoted by faceless technocrats (test developers), we want our children, their culture and their community (local knowledge) to be recognised and affirmed in school, just as we insist that our kid cannot easily and simply be compared with other kids. We most certainly do not want our child to fail – especially not in competition with other children – and we dread their being ‘average’.

And here is the nub. What most standardised test developers believe in (like Ray Derricott’s teachers) is the (in)famous Bell Curve. Like Plato’s historical belief that humans fall into the categories of God, Silver and Bronze, we cannot shake the notion that there are few outstanding students, few irredeemable students, but a large majority of students who more or less get by.

Bell curve

This is the Bell Curve. If, one year, an unusually large number of student score A* in a single test – or, indeed, fail – the validity of that test is immediately brought into question and reviewed.

This presents a droll and gloomy image of the uniquely loved child whom we know to be gifted in intimate and surprising ways, and yet falls into that dismal, depersonalising drabness that says ‘Most People’. How much more wholesome to be able to say, ‘my girl just doesn’t get on with school – she’s so individual – she failed and got kicked out!’. 

No?? I think so.

I was part of a project once which brought together artists and teachers to address the issue of the ‘disaffected pupil’ – the young person who just would not fit into school, who was under threat of exclusion. It became complicated – not least when artists and teachers found that the selected kids were pretty confident of themselves and that it was they themselves who were disaffected from a system that depersonalised kids. At one particular moment we watched a video of two theatre artists working with a circle of around a dozen nine year-olds. All were facing the artists in the centre. It was symbolic. What was inside the circle represented inclusion; what lay outside the circle, exclusion.

One young boy stood in the circle facing out!

To what?? Well, it turned out that he had set a target to be excluded, because he knew he would find himself in an Exclusion Unit – a ‘sin-bin’. Here, class sizes may be as small as three or four; teaching is based on caring and is highly personalised – and you are expected to express yourself, to have your say. Who would NOT want those conditions!

This young boy was to be admired for his self-possession, his courage under fire, his grit and determination – but, more than that, to learn from. I am sure that his parents went through a hard time, and no-one would wish that on them. But I feel equally sure that this child could grow up not taking what life told him to settle for. Of course, the problem is that the schooling system is not equipped to enter into the kind of exchanges that could build on the boy’s strengths and channel them in productive ways. Like other kids I met – three thirteen year-olds – who were all going through family divorces, domestic abuse and alcoholism at home. They supported each other – they agreed principles to live by, the first of which was, ‘there are no enemies – only victims’. They were thrust into an emotional maturity beyond their years – long before we would wish it on them. But they coped well alone – better than their teachers who, they said, could not handle the severity of the social issues involved. There was no conversation with the school.

What we expect of schools today is to echo our own shortcomings – our predilection for simple stories, our settling for less in terms of quality, our wanting to believe that ‘ordinariness’ is for others, not for us. And so schools avoid the complex, rest on easy assumptions, settle for the average.


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