Maybe Cern could help us

11th October 2013 at 01:00

"Please could you explain Fiona Bruce?" a friend asked in a recent text message. This was a tough ask. Many television presenters take some explaining, yet Fiona, a BBC newsreader, is an especially tricky proposition.

I suggested that he might get in touch with the Cern scientists in Switzerland. Now that they have (sort of) confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, they might have enough time to insert Fiona into the Large Hadron Collider and see what happens. Projecting her repeatedly around that tube at roughly the speed of light would surely give some explanation of the molecular physics and metaphysics involved.

She might, on the other hand, simply step out afterwards and flash one of her half-smiles, as if to say, "You'll never solve me." Either way, I just don't have time to get drawn in. There are far too many conundrums within my own classroom for me to grapple with any others. Is there another with as much weirdness as mine out there in the universe, or am I indeed alone?

Let's consider the curiosities of merely the first few minutes of a typical school day. Why, for instance, does the first student who walks into the room so often say, "Hmm, not many of us here today", and assume that most of the class must be away? And why do other premature arrivals bother to ask me whether they can visit the toilet when it is screamingly obvious that they still have time to make about three such trips?

And why, when we call the register, do nearly all the girls' names in my younger classes now end in the "ee" noise, as in Chloe, Zoe, Lizzie, Izzie, Ellie, Millie, etc? And why, in their universe, is the "title" of the day's work seemingly the most important thing?

I wonder, also, whether any other teachers out there experience that curious little spell first thing when the students and I all seem to be peacefully floating in a different dimension. I will be earnestly explaining something to them. They will be sitting in silence and nodding dutifully if I catch their eye. They and I are aware that no one is actually listening. Yet we are all content to continue regardless, conspiring to pass an ethereal couple of minutes of nothingness before embarking on something that might pass for learning. The people at Cern talk about "dark matter". These moments of lesson nothingness are evidence of the even more intangible "no matter".

Why, too, does one student habitually ask me, "Can we have a fun lesson today?" His question particularly grates when, not long before, he was merrily laying waste to Cavaliers in my prop-rich re-enactment of a Civil War battle? (And why do I never plan a smarter response than, "Yes, all my lessons are fun"?)

And is it now acceptable for me to stop describing the wonderful variety of life forms before me as "learners"? Or are there some school leaders on the planet who still believe in this oversimplified description of what is going on in children's minds?

As educators, we are indeed like those Cern scientists. We may have got somewhere, but we have really only just started.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire, England.

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