The best lesson is to expect the unexpected

21st May 2010 at 01:00

"Will Piggy come up in the exam, Miss?" Piggy will do what he likes. My ability to predict exam questions is like my sense of direction. Not quite bad enough to be useful - if she says it's left, that means it's right - just bad enough to ignore.

Pupils want to know what examiners want. We tell them and then they do it. That's the idea, anyway. We do all we can to protect them from nasty surprises and smooth their paths into the future. Fair enough, but what does this do to their perception of the world? Exams create a slot-machine view of life. You learn stuff, do well, get a job, have money, are happy and die.

How does that fit the world we're sending them into? A world of coughing volcanoes, crashing markets and spewing oil rigs. The message of school is that if you walk into all that clutching good exam results you will somehow be OK. Earlier this term, I sat through an assembly about how you get out of life what you put into it. That evening, I ran my finger through a layer of volcanic ash on my car. The volcano was telling us something.

Even its name was a shock: "Eyjafjallajokull" sounds like an Icelandic sneeze. As the volcano splurged into the skies and over us, its message was clear: "You are not in charge. I can puff you away when I like."

It even has a grumpy big sister whose name is also a surprise, Katla. That's like being called Snorrisnorkdottir and having a brother called Tim. The volcano hasn't finished with us, either. It is still harrumphing like someone saying "and another thing", when you thought they had got over whatever was annoying them. The volcano stands for what I think school ought to be teaching pupils: expect the unexpected.

Preparing for the unexpected can be fun, anyway. I heard on the news that before the general election, politicians conducted role-play exercises to prepare themselves for a hung parliament. (If only they had forgotten to switch off the microphone for that: "Right. Let's pretend ..." "Wait! I'm not ready." "Can I be Clegg this time? Please?")

How can school prepare pupils for the unexpected? They don't need us to dampen their spirits with talk of unemployment when some of their parents are losing their jobs. Young people already have uncertainty in their lives and often look to us, their teachers, for certainty. They have a touching faith in us. And it is by occasionally giving that faith a friendly jolt that we can prepare them for a world of surprises.

My current favourite trick to play on Year 7s is to make them learn ten words for a spelling test. Then in the test itself, keep going past ten and up to 13. It freaks them out, even with easy words, but they gradually absorb the shock. Apart from learning that their teacher is evil, they also discover that they are quite capable of being flexible as events unfold.

Pupils do this to us, too. One Year 11 casually told me that his mother had voted for the British National Party.

"Really?" I mouthed, like a polite fish.

"No," he said. "I just wanted to see what you'd do."

Apparently he has been trying this out on all his teachers. Brilliant. I think he's ready for whatever the world can throw at him.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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