A couple of years ago, as many of you know, I was doing the science PGCE - training to be a secondary school science teacher. As many of you also know, I didn't complete the course. But many things happened during it which I'd still like to share. Here's one of them.
A well known trick to get people thinking in science lessons is to give them a surprise. For example: Here are the four fundamental forces, which do you think is the strongest? Put them in order. Then, once everyone's claimed that gravity is the strongest, put a magnet on the table and use another magnet to make it jump up - demonstrating that magnetism is stronger than gravity.
(At least, that particular strength of magnetism is stronger than Earth's gravity. Do the same experiment on a neutron star or with a really pathetic little magnet and you might get a different result. *Update: how embarrassing. I'd missed the point of the experiment. The Earth has a much larger mass than the magnet and that is the important thing. If you put 1kg of magnetic stuff and 1kg of non magnetic stuff next to each other in space, the magnetism will - for this given weight - carry much more force than the gravity. Anyway, back to this post.)
I witnessed a similar method of teaching in a PHSE lesson (Personal, Health and Social Education) for a year 7 group (11-12 year olds). It made an excellent point. The task: get into pairs and draw what a bully looks like and what a victim looks like.
The pupils spent some considerable time at this task, getting the angle of the cigarettes and baseball caps exactly right, showing teeth and stubble, paying attention to the way people were standing. The pictures were detailed and graphic. They took a great deal of trouble over them.
The form tutor then went up to the board and drew two identical stick figures and said: "Exactly the same."
The point being that you can't tell that someone's a bully just from what they look like. And they went on to discuss what to do about bullies.
The problem with that was that those kids had really put a lot of effort into their work, only to have it universally rubbished. Next time they might be a lot more cautious about going to so much trouble. They might start fishing around for what the teacher's not saying. Get into the habit of that and lessons become a game of "Guess what is in the teacher's mind", as well as "Avoid taking any trouble, you'll only look stupid." Neither of these attitudes are conducive to learning. I don't recall there being any discussion about why bullies were perceived to be big and scary-looking, let alone the teacher acknowledging the work the pupils had done.
The very same week, I attended a day at college focussing on people whose English was not their native language. It was not taken by our regular professors, but two ladies from a public project dedicated to helping such people - I forget the exact details. Some of their demonstrations were excellent, such as one of them playing a gypsy lady who only spoke Spanish trying to get her kids enrolled in a local school, and the other playing an indifferent council worker who shoves a long complicated form at her, is embarrassed by her half-English-half-Spanish attempts at asking questions and keeps her head down hoping she'll go away. I enjoyed a lot of the day and felt even more determined to help the (very few) non-native pupils in the schools I worked in.
A complication was that this was an area with an almost exclusively white population. One of the demonstrators was brown-skinned and there was one Muslim girl in one of the classes I taught, and I think that was about it. We did have a lot of Eastern Europeans - I was living with three of them, and they were the nicest housemates I've ever had - but all of them were pretty fluent and generally I think doing fine. For me, a born Londoner, who'd spent the previous six months in Brighton, this was not my natural environment at all; and the acute, carefully-worded, self-conscious discussions about it made me extremely uncomfortable. It was like suddenly having to be incredibly conscious of the fact that the sky is blue, and that if for a moment your mind happened to drift into thinking of the sky any other way, that was morally wrong and everybody would know. And for the locals who did not venture far outside their area, this whole business was theory, not practice.
In fact, the area was so homogenous that in many schools, ESL (coded term for English as a second language) pupils often had to be protected from trainee teachers struggling to pass their course - you have to provide evidence that you have done specific work on these pupils in order to get your teaching certificate, but there were far fewer of them than of trainee teachers!
What also worried me was that the demonstrators did not seem to be offering realistic strategies to help non-native speakers. They seemed to be coming from an all-or-nothing perspective - these people need to be with full-time interpreters, for example. They also spoke at length about how gypsy children were legally entitled to a third of the year off school for "cultural reasons", but were unclear whether or not this level of absence would lead to the school being penalised for the effect this would have on the league tables. All in all, asking this much from people unused to anyone remotely different from them was, I could sense, engendering resentment and indeed jealousy, rather than being constructive.
But I may have been biased, for these people dealt me a humiliation that still stings today, two years on.
They set us an activity and sat us all down at tables of ten or so people. They kept us in strict silence, and then they went around with one of those sheets of star stickers. (I loved those when I was tiny.) Reminding us to keep absolutely silent, they put one onto each of our foreheads, not showing us what colour it would be. One guy whispered to his partner, "What colour am I?" and was told. Once they'd finished doing this, they cried out, "Now, still without talking, sort yourselves!"
"Into what?" somebody asked.
"No further instructions, just sort yourselves!"
Yes, it did dawn on me that these stars were supposed to represent skin colours. But I immediately dismissed the idea as too childish for a professional postgraduate course. For one thing, everyone knows their skin colour, but we didn't know what colours our stars were - presumably, we were supposed to find out. And they'd just done that wonderful demonstration about the poor lady unable to ask any questions. So I concluded this must be about non-verbal communication.
I waved my hands at two girls who both had green stickers on their foreheads and mimed them coming closer together. Immediately their eyes lit up, everybody else caught on and that was how most people did the experiment. I promptly found out this way I had a green sticker.
Yeah, you can guess what happened. Because I agreed to be sorted by colour, and because I had started it, I was shown up to be the racist, the enemy of everything they were trying to do. All right, not in so many words. "You started it, and that was good," they said in that uniquely ironic tone . . . and went on to ask two people how they'd felt - one had been the only silver sticker, and one hadn't got one at all. They played their parts beautifully, mourning how left out they'd felt.
The other science teachers to be (most of whom I didn't feel liked me very much, and who I generally avoided) had been at the back, and had seen exactly what was coming and simply all sat together. They claimed they'd sorted themselves "according to our subject" and were publicly praised and held up as an example to us all.
Ranting about this to a friend that evening, she nodded wisely and said, "Oh yes, there have been psychology experiments about that."
Can you imagine how I felt? Duped. Stupid. Mortified. Hopelessly, hopelessly guilty, as if I'd committed a crime against a sector of my fellow human beings who were already being victimised. I'd always hung around with the international students at university. I'd chatted with my Ghanian housemate in Brighton about Steve Biko and how unbelievably stupid some people could be; he'd always cheerfully told me what it was like to be black - no big deal except when people made it so. I'd lived in Spain for a year, and experienced not understanding a word of lectures, failing most of the exams through my bad Spanish, having chalk thrown at me presumably because I looked different, and having to correct hilarious assumptions about England such as that we all live like spoiled lords and have breakfast in bed (yes, really!) . . . and, on the other hand, much more importantly, I'd experienced people genuinely taking me under their wing, slowing down their talk, not minding my mistakes, lending me their notes and not expecting any major gratitude. How could I defend myself? Anyone who says "I'm not a racist" is usually about to add "but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one."
And the main thing I learnt was: never believe what other people say. If they tell you to do something, they probably mean you to do something else.
And, even if the possible trap should be far too childish and basic to be the focus, that doesn't mean it isn't.
Also, I learnt that theory and models that bear no relation to reality are still very prevalent. What has a suddenly and arbitrarily placed star sticker, whose colour you don't know, have to do with permanent skin colour? Nothing that I could see. What was the big deal with sorting ourselves into groups, when groups are how both pupils and trainee teachers did most work and how people congregate socially anyway? It would have made a lot more sense to say "Don't you dare talk to anyone with curly hair/blue eyes/who wears glasses" and then afterwards, if they must, "How did that make you FEEL?" Would I have wanted my fellow Spanish students to feel guilty that I didn't understand the lectures, that I was very pale in comparison to them? Don't be so ridiculous! Did I want a full-time interpreter? Splutter! What sort of person could possibly want that sort of thing?
Not at any point during the day did we ever get near discussing the classroom or realistic situations. Not once was the issue raised, for example, of "What do you do if some kid makes a racist remark?" or "How do you go about getting such-and-such some help with something you can't deal with alone?", let alone "What if someone's being bullied for the colour of their skin?" No, the day was about legalities, and an in-depth examination of ourselves, after which I felt unable to face the others - and which I'm still embarrassed to write about. I can hardly tell if I'm more embarrassed at being so publicly conned, or in case anyone really thinks that I would seriously split children into skin colour groups or something.
To be honest, while I've learnt to be very skeptical of claims, I'm a very straightforward and trusting person. That makes it easy to set traps for me. But it also makes other people feel safe when I'm there. They don't have to dig for extra meanings, or worry that I want something different from what I say. In the context of the classroom, I suppose that would mean it would be easy to lie to me about why you haven't done your homework - but it would also be setting a good example. As in: don't be slick, don't be devious, don't show off, there's no need. Just be curious and nice to others. That's how I try to run the Galaxy Zoo Forum, and that was how I tried to run the classroom, and it seemed to work all right. There are plenty of things I don't like about myself, but my trusting nature is not one of them. I like myself that way. Why should I become distrustful and suspicious and see tricks everywhere in order to avoid being labelled a racist? How does that make sense?
The more people start setting traps for each other, the less honest we can become with each other - and, frankly, the less we'll then be able to talk about real problems and what to do about them, for all energy will go to defence. And how can you enlist a group of people to help you deal with something when you're frightened of what they're going to publicly call you? That's how to get everyone to keep their head down and not draw attention to themselves - and when something needs sorting out, it wouldn't get done.
And is worrying and worrying about whether or not you're a racist really productive? Does guilt, self-consciousness and an avoidance of certain words really improve the situation for other people? (Update, May 2013: if said language is oppressive, of course yes.) Or does it just make you feel scared and them feel awkward? Here's an extreme example. For another, I've heard of people being condemned for saying "black coffee". That, dear friends, implies that there is something wrong with being black, but that you as a white or whatever else colour person are too sanctimoniously polite to say so. I cannot think of anything more isolating and humiliating than to be thought inferior, but for those around you to smugly think the better of themselves for using elaborate language to avoid saying so - and probably wanting a receipt, too. Get lost.
Myself, I like Allan Sandage's quote: "All humans are brothers. We came from the same supernova."
Oh, and as a parting shot, that group of trainee teachers who were publicly praised for spotting the trap and therefore being non-racist? One of them, the very next morning, referred to one of the demonstrators in disgusted tones as "That Paki".
Whether you're black, white or bloody rainbow coloured - what do you think?