The education system and I have one thing in common: we hate being observed

27th April 2012 at 01:00
The side effects of being checked over are alarming but, in retrospect, rather amusing

A few months ago I wrote a piece about the way a knowledge of maths, and in particular proportion, helped to put claims about school improvement into perspective. This was partially hidden in a tale of blood donation gone slightly wrong. They took too much. I did think of suggesting they simply squeezed the bag to put some back but was distracted by the nurses insisting on taking my blood pressure. Mr Rational is ashamed to admit it, but he reckons he suffers from white coat syndrome. The act of taking my blood pressure sends me into a panic that they will find that it is too high and put me on pills that will have undesirable side effects best not elaborated upon.

They were actually expecting that my BP might be too low, as there was theoretically too little of the red stuff slopping around. Instead, they found it on the high side and suggested that I went to the doctor.

A mere (mumbles) later, I followed their advice. Too high again. Respecting my suggestion that I might be spooked by the act of having my blood pressure taken, the doctor arranged to have me fitted with a 24-hour monitor. This device was strapped to my arm and chose to inflate itself every 45 minutes or whenever I approached a roundabout when driving, depending on which was most inconvenient and most likely to put me in an "Argh, I'm going to crash" blood-pressure-raising situation. (I lie - it was perfectly safe and made me laugh.)

I felt that a fundamental principle of quantum physics was being acted out on a macroscopic scale - every observation disturbs the observed system. If you are trying to find out where a tiny particle is, you can only do so by flinging some photons at it and finding out how they are scattered. Meantime, you have knocked your original particle off course. There is a great joke about a traffic cop stopping a quantum physicist. "Do you know how fast you were going sir?" asks the policeman. "No, but I know exactly where I am," is the reply. Honestly, tell that to a physicist and you will get a laugh or a curt "Heard it before".

Given that education is riddled with observation, from regular pupil tests to HMIE inspections and international surveys, perhaps we should be more aware of these effects. I'm sure I had at least one crit lesson where the impression of competence was boosted by the presence of my tutor.

Meantime, the results of my monitoring are through, but will remain as the subject of a future piece. It is a tale of beetroot salad and biking but not, fortunately, of undesirable side effects.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre

Gregor Steele minged for a day as you cannot shower when wearing a BP monitor.

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