Sitting at the back, with raffia

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
I WAS going to make some jokes about exams, but facts beat me to it, wilder and more improbable. There was the girl who sat eight hours of exams in one day, the accidentally pre-marketed pure maths paper costing pound;400 a peep, and then the famous Impossible Physics Question about the moon from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. Top marks to the school whose pupils were visibly "distressed" by it; most of those canvassed didn't actually notice anything wrong.

That's physics A-level for you. My husband, reminiscing happily about his, has warned the new generation that physics practical is always a joy, involving grandiose yet cheeseparing questions along the lines of: "Given that the speed of light is constant, use the beaker and string provided to prove the second law of thermodynamics."

But, since exams this year come into the couldn't-make-it-up category, I shan't. Rather, let teachers note a small report in The Times about a psychologist employed by Odeon cinemas (I know, I know), Donna Dawson. She has been identifying personality types according to where people sit in the cinema. There are four types, which you may recognise from the classroom scuffle.

Those who make for the front row, she says, are "extrovert, self-confident and assertive", bore easily, like action films and gangs of friends. This may be baffling for teachers, in whose experience the front row is monopolised by keen swots, while the easily bored extroverts make straight for the back row, to avoid close supervision and to have a wide range of necks at which to aim spitballs.

Those who head for the middle of a row in a cinema, says Ms Dawson, are "flexible, adaptable and easygoing". They head off aggression with humour. That might apply to classrooms, where humorists are certainly happier right in the middle so that as many people as possible can hear their jokes, and so that they have four directions in which to pass witty drawings.

Next, she tells us that those who go for the end of the row and bag aisle seats are "detached observers, loners and eccentrics", who want more personal space and a quick escape. Now this might well apply to cinemas, with exits on both sides; but in classrooms we have a distinction to make.

Those who choose the aisle seats near the door plainly want to bolt fo freedom. But a different, more mental form of escape is sought by those who go for the other end of the row, the window seats. They want to stare out at the sunshine and fantasise about flying out of the window like Batman. They also like the physical release of being asked to work the window-opening pole.

The fourth type of cinemagoer is the kind Ms Dawson found in the back row and identified as rebels, who have "trouble opening up to others". Where they would sit in a classroom is problematical. They might indeed join the rioters in the back, but equally they might opt for the front row and the opportunity of fixing the teacher with an insolent, borderline-psychotic stare in the hope of freaking him or her out .

When it comes to academic conferences, there is another research project waiting for the Odeon's in-house psychologist. Speaking as a seasoned chairperson of such conferences (they like an amateur in the hot-seat), I can tell you that the journalists always go for the second row, as near the exits as they can; that the front row is full of caring-professions who have sunny natures and nothing to hide; that headteachers like to be surrounded by other headteachers like wildebeeste huddling for safety at a watering-hole; that the block of intent women in the middle whose hands shoot up simultaneously like synchronised swimmers are school nurses; that the man who ignores the flat writing-surface on the arm of his chair to scribble secretively on his knee is from the Office for Standards in Education; and that if you take a question from right up near the back, it almost always turns out to be a really, really angry Scot who begins "I've been teaching for 20 years and never I" There should be more research like this. What can you learn about a teacher by whether heshe prefers to perch on the edge of the desk? Is it true that higher grades are generally achieved by pupils who tilt their chairs backwards, showing extrovert enjoyment of the subject? Would it be better if everyone sat in a circle on the floor for caring subjects such as PSE and poetry?

And was a whole generation blighted by being seated in form order, back in the days when - as the Thora Hird line in Victoria Wood's play has it - "There was no such thing as dyslexia, you were sat at the back, with raffia"?

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