Real, but not as you know it

9th September 2005 at 01:00
You have been asked to make a jelly for your brother's birthday party.

Describe what you do using particle theory to explain your answer."

I don't know. In my day, men were men, women were women and textbooks were boring. They didn't even pretend that the questions they asked had any connection with real life.

That's all changed now. Sometimes it's as if a Martian has been given a real life story kit and is puzzling over how to fit the bits together. In the end, the little story just throws into greater relief the question's irrelevance to normal life. Especially in desperate moves like this: "Tom says, 'I think warm water always evaporates faster than cold water'."

Who's he talking to? Where is he? If he's propping up the bar, this almost makes sense. If he's meeting his girlfriend's parents, it's deeply scary.

And what's this? "Chloe says, 'I think metal objects can always be picked up by magnets'. Do you think she is right?" Clearly Tom and Chloe are made for each other.

Academic subjects extract rules from real life. Textbooks bring real life back to the rules. That's fine, but you can't just plonk in something real like a mouse and expect it to sound convincing. "Nine out of 10 mice dislike cats." Hmm. Presumably the unusually trusting tenth mouse was unavailable for comment.

Come to think of it, animals are always fun: "Baby polar bears Snowy, Nadine and Blanche get fed fishfingers at the wildlife park. The amount of fishfingers they get depends on how tall they are."

Nadine? The thought of a baby polar bear called Nadine just about makes my day. But it's the subtext about sibling rivalry among polar bears that is truly gripping here: "For every fish-finger Snowy gets, Nadine gets three and Blanche gets four."

No-o-o! Snowy will never know why she hates her sisters! Nadine and Blanche will never know why they hate their body shapes, and in a confused way, fishfingers! They'll have abusive relationships and gorge themselves on Drown-One-Get-One-Free-Seals! Not bad, Mr Bear Keeper, for a morning's work and three polar bear lunchboxes.

Perhaps the real point of all this is to give pupils their first taste of surrealism. After all, few jobs will demand that you find the Fibonacci sequence on a pineapple. And very few will require you to weigh a car, a cupboard or a robin.

Right. I'm off to ask a physics teacher to apply particle theory to my sandwich. Who says that textbooks teach you nothing about real life?

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