The thrill of the drill

2nd October 2015 at 01:00

IN 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Lex Luthor muses: “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

I’m no genius, but there’s plenty of truth in the proposition that you can tell a lot about megafauna by looking at spoors and pawprints; a good tracker can tell you the height and speed of a bear from the angle and depth of its muddy trail; and the cleanliness of a restaurant’s fridge can – I can verify – be estimated from the depth of dust and dread matter on the customer cisterns.

And you can tell a lot about schools from the way pupils blow their noses, tie their scarves and a thousand other tics that together comprise what could be called its style. At school today we had a fire drill, and I was delighted and amazed to see 1,500-plus children pile sensibly out on to playing fields and line up, by form, in as close to quiet as could be imagined from a population three times the size of the Vatican City.

In and out, back in their rooms in under 20 minutes, no bunking, no tumbling, no steam from the pot.

That – and things like it – say a lot, I think, about a school. Every form had a sentry, every sentry a list, and every list a wealth of ticks.

I am by nature a disorganised man; my desk, like my mind, is a garage sale of jumble. It’s why I appreciate order and systems and lists, as compensation for the invisible demons that caper and compete for my attention. These structures are the skeleton, vertebrae and scaffold of endeavour; the climbing frame of human ambition. And the sight of so many souls, wandering from Brownian motion into order, like entropy in reverse, was gladdening.

One tragedy of contemporary pedagogy/ideology is the notion that by training children into habits of action, we injure their poets’ souls, or that the word “train” itself conveys both bondage and jailer. But nowhere will you see the value of a school culture built on boundaries, built on love, so clearly aimed at the common good, as in a well-executed fire drill. It tells you a lot about how the school is run, how the kids conduct themselves and the relationship between the two.

Of course, it’s possible that they turn into Lipizzan stallions when the fire alarm goes off and revert to Morlocks in the classroom. But it isn’t likely.

The danger is that we over-extrapolate from one instance to many; we tour a school with its finest students and assume that everyone is so polite. One might comfortably call this the “Ofsted fallacy”, where – my, my – aren’t the corridors empty today, the assemblies so brimming with vision, the playgrounds so carefully patrolled?

The last time I checked, more than 100 cognitive biases and conceptual schema could make us see what we wanted to see and not what is there to be seen. But dirty toilets usually mean something. And so do fire drills.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert

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