The dark side of the whiteboard - My brain hurts - and no wonder

28th January 2011 at 00:00

A few weeks ago, I happened upon a fascinating TV programme, The Brain: A Secret History. It was tucked away on BBC4, so you probably missed it. I only caught it because I was avoiding some A-level essays and I had run out of diversionary tactics. I had done the dishes, polished the hob and was close to rescuing some socks that had been trapped at the bottom of a laundry basket for 15 years, when reprieve came by way of the telly. The Brain: A Secret History was more of a "Shocking Things We Do To Nutters" job, dressed up in a bit of BBC finery. But instead of graphic documentary footage intercut with celebrity vox pops from Boy George, Fearne Cotton and a bloke who once edited Viz, this was a sedate tour of 20th century experimental psychology, led by Dr Michael Mosley. Halfway through the programme, I experienced a Damascene moment, like when it finally hit home that bottom-set Year 9s would never need to use a semi-colon, or that Frankie Boyle is really Bernard Manning in disguise.

My revelation was this: our schools are simply bigger versions of psychologist B F Skinner's conditioning chamber. According to Dr Mosley, Skinner's boxes shaped the behaviour of pigeons or rats through positive and negative reinforcement: for example, peck a panel, get a treat. In schools, we also condition pupils. Do well and you will get a Starburst, a star sticker, or an A* grade. Do badly and you will be locked in a classroom with the other underperforming monkeys, force-fed DVDs, wordsearches and pointless colouring-in, until you beg for algebra homework and a second stab at life. Even teachers are conditioned by a reward system, except that we are more likely to dance for money and management points than we are for a pack of Maltesers.

But it wasn't only Skinner who gave me a new take on school life. Psychologist Stanley Milgram's research on how far we will go to obey authority, in which subjects were asked to inflict electric shocks on actors, reveals why target-setting is such an uncomfortable experience for teachers. It demands that we shut down our moral compasses. Take last week. We collapsed both the timetable and our professional integrity to hold "mentoring conversations" with our pupils in which we earnestly discussed their imaginary progress towards unattainable targets. Yet none of us challenged the data. Why? Because it was set by "authority", and as Milgram pointed out, we're suckers for a man in a white coat. If a real teacher with laddered tights and a Debenhams store card had set the figures, we might have quibbled. But these targets were set by our superiors: Daleks from the planet Fischer Family Trust had brainwashed our SMT into making dodgy predictions based on unreliable KS2 data, Mystic Meg's latest forecast, some glue, string and a sheet of sticky-back plastic. And when a Dalek commands "Extrapolate, extrapolate", you know that the SMT will obey.

Even though the target grades were unrealistic, none of us stood up for the truth. We finished the whole exercise by burying the mentoring conversations in an Excel time capsule on the staff drive, alongside summative test scores, Assessing Pupils' Progress data and a photo of Barney, the Blue Peter dog. Should any Ofsted inspectors require evidence of progression, we've got it covered. But if they insist on a polygraph test, then it's time to panic.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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