How funny can you get?

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Friday afternoon, three years ago. We are doing "the uses of the electromagnetic spectrum in medicine", part of the health physics topic in S3.

"Anyone had an X-ray recently?" I ask, hoping to bring in some stuff about lead aprons and radiographers in shielded booths. "I had to get one when I broke my arm playing my Gameboy," says Liam.

Forget lead shielding. I just have to know: "How did you break your arm playing your Gameboy?"

"I was riding my bike at the time."

I love those moments of surrealism that punctuate, if not permeate, life in the classroom. For anyone about to offer me a regular hour of surrealism with Int 1 last thing on a Thursday, lest I be missing out on some while on secondment, fear not. I'm still receiving regular doses when I go out to model lessons.

A few days ago, I was in a primary school doing a Thinking Science lesson on fair testing. Thinking Science is a cognitive acceleration programme that presents pupils with challenging situations which they have to tackle in groups, articulating their ideas and reflecting on how they attempted to solve problems.

Fair testing is fundamental to science. When investigating a relationship, you must only change one variable at a time. It is a concept I have been teaching for more than 20 years without the aid of a cognitive acceleration programme.

It is a concept that I thought I had been teaching for 20 years. An incident, both bizarre and illuminating, made me think again. I had given every group a worksheet on which scenarios that might or might not have been fair tests were depicted. One showed identical plants, one in a black box, the other in a glass box. Was this a fair way of testing whether plants grew better in dark or light conditions? I reckoned so, as did the first primary 7 girl I asked in a group at the back of the class.

Rather than praise her for being correct, I did the Thinking Science thing of asking her why she thought it was fair. It was then that things started to unravel.

"Well, it's a plant, right?" she said. "It's no as if it's got feelins.

Whit does it care if it's in a black box? So it's fair enough."

Even my Morrissey tape couldn't wipe the grin off my face as I Kia'd it back to base. I thought that what the girl had said was funny, but that only accounted for half my smile. The rest was from the wry realisation that I had believed that you could teach fair testing without taking into account the connotations of kindness and compensation that the word "fair" holds for children.

Clearly, I'd been in the black box myself for too long.

Gregor Steele is now completely out the box.

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