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Amazing brains

5 October 2012

Way back, when I lived near Blackpool, we had a slightly disreputable friend, who, despite indulging in some odd practices, was commendably fond of his grandmother. I only ever knew this lady as “Howard’s gran” but I understood that she was of great age and could be a little confused. Howard’s gran was very fond of television in general and the soaps in particular. However, she failed to distinguish between offerings and believed that there was a single drama, with some baffling but acceptable variations in location and character. Fast forward to the present, and my Twitter feed reminds me of Howard’s gran’s experience of the soaps. However, I find that it is possible to follow a series of complex threads while staying sane and just about keeping up. My feed includes science education chat, a bit too much information about resources, a cultural update, education politics, general politics, election results from around the world and so on. I check Twitter for 12 minutes each day, for the part of my commute that takes me into the city. It is invaluable in helping me to feel as though I’m up to date and knowledgeable  – and I don’t get addled at all.

There is a general point to this, which is that we shouldn’t underestimate what a human brain can and will do when working as it should. One of the stock science education researcher tests comes to mind. How many of us have asked children to draw a picture of a scientist and tutted when we received a pile of images of aged, wild-haired, bespectacled chaps in white coats? We assume children really believe all scientists look like that, without stopping to consider that children are completely at home with cartoons and shorthand representations, and will give us the response  they think we expect. What children actually believe could be something quite different.

So, if brains can be surprisingly agile, and children can attempt to second-guess what is being asked of them, is it odd that an externally set examination paper could be answered in a way not anticipated by the question setter? I would suggest not. The business of setting and marking external exams is complex and requires adjustment post the exam sitting, based on what happens in the exam hall. This doesn’t excuse the recent debacle in any way. It illustrates yet another facet of education which is complicated - unsuited to soap box politics and the trumpeting of headlines. As we wait for common sense to prevail, we can only wonder as to what Howard’s gran would have made of Twitter.

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