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The benefits of focused thought


It was painful to drag myself into school after the temporary respite afforded by the October week. At least there were no children in attendance. So I set to making the most of the in-service day, wherein I hoped to finalise our Internet communications strategy, a development which should greatly enhance our electronic standing within the educational community - not to mention my own career prospects.

Unfortunately, Richard Dick had arranged a morning session with BrainScape, a (self-proclaimed) revolutionary approach to learning which promised to rid staff of all barriers to creative learning. After today, the course organisers proclaimed, we would never view the "learning curve" in the same fashion. How true their prediction proved.

It started awkwardly as a lecture-room gathering. Helena asked the entire staff to bow their heads and "think themselves into another dimension".

"Imagine you're in a field," she whispered seductively. "It's a green field. The sun is shining, and there's a stream flowing nearby. Relax. Chill out. Focus your attentions. Focus your beings. Focus your souls I" Rather unfortunately, George Crumley broke wind at this point and the spell was nearly broken. But Helena brought it round again and urged us to move ourselves spiritually from Greenfield Academy to have "an encounter with our inner selves so that we could re-energise our vocational impulse to learn".

Several of the staff seemed to have nodded off by now, though Sandra Denver of history still seemed attentive. I couldn't help but agree with Helena's suggestion towards the end of the session that we would all improve our cognitive abilities if we "blocked out some time for ourselves".

"It's so important," she elaborated, "to make time for yourselves to reflect and regroup. You need a buffer zone to channel your positive energies into a more focused direction.

"In our office, we often block out entire mornings," she emphasised, "to redirect our strategic thinking, and you've no idea what a difference it makes."

"Great idea!" trumpeted Crumley, apparently awakened from a conclusive torpor. "I'm blocking out period 3 this Thursday if that's OK with you!" Helena was momentarily taken aback, then seemed pleased. "Why, yes, er, George," she said, peering closely at his name badge. "That's what it's all about, blocking out time to reappraise your priorities, and I" "Good," confirmed Crumley. "And you'll take 2N, will you? They're a particularly nasty collection of misfits, but I'm sure you'll have no trouble re-energising them with a thirst for learning. Tell them to think about green fields for a start. And then try taking them out to a green field and leaving them there.

"Meanwhile, I'll be 'blocking out' in my 'buffer zone' in the third floor staffroom!" "George," Helena oozed conciliatory friendliness. "I see where you're coming from. But I think you've failed to grasp the essentials of the learning curve."

Crumley looked angry. "No, Helena. I know exactly where I'm coming from. And I know where you're coming from as well. How much has this morning's BrainScrape session cost us?" "Well, it's BrainScape actually, and the cost's not really I" "Don't bother," Crumley held up a hand. "Whatever it cost, it's at least 20 times more than I'd have paid for a session with a shrink who's paid to tell me I'm a wonderful human being if I only released my inner self.

"And whatever it cost, it's keeping you in a bloody good living if the car I saw in the car park is anything to go by. Don't give me learning curve," he scoffed, "more like earning curve, if you ask me!" It seemed a definitive end to the morning's proceedings, and the staff departed for the lunch hall in a spirit of buoyant scepticism. All except for Miss Denver, who engaged Helena in further conversation.


The school website (phase one) went live as planned this morning and should prove a source of essential and immediate information for staff, pupils and parents. We've already posted this week's homework requirements (admittedly sparse, owing to the October week) plus a list of sporting fixtures (even sparser).

All we need to make the jigsaw complete is a listing of 2001 exam dates from the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Mr Dick advises me that this is a forlorn hope.


I've been disappointed with the number of "hits" on the school website, but Jim Connolly, our assistant principal teacher of computing studies, advises me that these things take time to catch on.

Anyway, he has had (different) concerns of his own with which to contend. "I'm losing all of my mouseballs," he informed me with worried countenance at morning break. I raised my eyebrows in polite, if guarded, enquiry.

"Some little bastard's been disassembling all the computer mice and taking the balls out of them," he elaborated. "Harmless fun, I thought, when the first one went. Unpleasant vandalism, as far as the next four were concerned. And criminal activity when 25 went missing and I got a ransom note this morning."

"A ransom note?" I queried, incredulous.

"Mmm," he nodded. "There it was on my desk: 'pound;2 a ball or I flush them down the toilet!' " "Gosh! What are you going to do?" "Simple. I'm going to buy 25 new mice - with balls - for considerably less than the ransom demand, and then find out who the culprit is."

Somehow, it seems an indictment of our educational system that our pupils don't even have the criminal intellect to make sensible ransom demands.


Preparations for tomorrow's second year Hallowe'en discotheque (organised by Mr Greig, physics) are proceeding apace. Or, rather, they were until Miss Tarbet's spiritual reservations expressed themselves at morning break.

"Look, I'm awfully sorry, Gregor," she urged, "but I'm a Christian and I don't approve of all this Hallowe'en stuff and its associations with witchcraft and satanism. Can't you just make it a plain disco without the Hallowe'en?" Mr Greig looked momentarily taken aback, then shrugged his shoulders. "Fine," he agreed with surprising speed. "But I presume it'll be OK if you make reciprocal arrangements at Christmas?" "Sorry?" "Well, that Christmas party you're organising for the first years. It's just that my wife and I are devil worshippers, you see, and we don't approve of all this Christmas stuff and its associations with Christ. Couldn't you just make it a plain party without the Christmas?" Miss Tarbet's jaw dropped, after which she clearly decided to take the Christian approach by (quite literally) turning the other cheek and walking silently away.


A guidance interview this morning has allowed me to assist Jim Connolly in cracking the great mouseball mystery.

Mrs Porter had come to see me about her daughter Karen, whose enduring attachment to her mobile telephone has caused much family emotional (and financial) distress.

"She just spends hours oan it, Mr Simpson," bewailed the distraught mother. "If she's no' chattin' tae her pals, she's sendin' text messages mornin', noon an' night - quite literally.

"Why, last week she wis bloody sleepwalkin' and ended up sendin' repeat text messages without knowin' it, so that when she woke up the next moarnin', the toap-up card she'd bought the day before wis completely bloody empty!" I wondered how I could sensitively broach my opinion that Mrs Porter seemed bereft of even the most basic parenting skills and would be best advised to confiscate the phone forthwith, when it suddenly struck me to question her daughter's spending power.

"Frankly, Mr Simpson," she replied candidly, "ah doan't know where she gets the money. Ah know she disny eat nearly as many sweeties as she used tae, 'cos she spends all her poacket money oan bloody toap-up cards, but I " "Mrs Porter, would you mind if we brought Karen in for a minute?" I interrupted. "With your permission, I'd like to ask her to empty her purse."

After an extremely sullen Karen had been persuaded to do as requested, it was with a sense of inquisitorial glee that I witnessed at least 25 mouseballs bouncing across my guidance desk. And so the mystery was solved. Just call me Sherlock Simpson.

I drew the fiercest frown that I could muster and proceeded to give Karen an extremely stern lecture on the perils of making ransom demands. She seemed unimpressed and I eventually dismissed mother and daughter with a sense of weary resignation.

But it was with a sense of triumph that I entered the staffroom to present Jim Connolly with my prize.

Although he was delighted with my efforts, our celebratory remarks were cut short by an impassioned plea from Miss Denver, who was sitting in a corner chair, eyes clenched tightly shut, and forefingers pressed closely to her temples.

"Would you people be QUIET?" she hissed angrily. "I'm blocking out some time and focusing my creative energies. I'm hearing running water. I'm listening to the outside world. The sun is shining and I'm imagining I'm in a green field I" "And I'm imagining I'm a ruddy great bull," whispered Crumley.

Fortunately she didn't hear. The BrainScape technique is all about focusing your energies and a comment like that would have disturbed her greatly. Although sceptical of the entire fandango, I have to say it seems to be working for Miss Denver.

In teaching, I guess it's a case of "whatever gets you through the night". Or day.

John Mitchell

Next month: Sandra Denver contrives to advance her learning skills, Morris Simpson sends an unfortunate e-mail and certain departments abandon the SQA examination diet for A-levels and the international baccalaureate

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