The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

What is your favourite needle?

Imagine if you lived atop the most beautiful mountain in the world; each morning you would wake up and pull open the curtains in your idyllic little log cabin and the vistas would be breathtaking. Rabbits would hop around beautifully lush fields and the sun would shine upon a whole rainbow of delights, deep down in the valley. And the chances are that you would be utterly oblivious to all of this because this is what you see every sodding day. So it is, I think, with teaching.

This is just a short one to celebrate the arrogance of the human brain. We love to extol the intricacy and complexity of this 1.5kg pink, fleshy, foldy thing. It’s amaaaaazing. It somehow is who we are. We are what it is. Are we it? Is it us? And as teachers, we are charged with shaping the brains of the people we work with. As managers, ditto. 

do like books and articles which challenge this understanding of the brain. In fact, I need to go back and read through the books I have read recently so that I can start taking better notes on who said what and when and where. My brain decided that it didn’t need all of this extraneous nonsense. And my brain was wrong. As brains often are.

But this isn’t meant to be a long treatise on how utterly useless, inefficient, ineffective and misleading our grey matter is. In fact, it is just a whimsical reflection on something that I have become increasingly aware of. The hope is that by sharing this awareness with you, it helps you look at your luscious alpine scenery with fresh eyes.

In order to make ends meet, I work as an IELTS examiner. Ends don’t meet, but the distance is shortened by millimetres. As an IELTS examiner, you have to ask people the most banal questions. What is amazing and worthy of celebration is how the brain comes up with answers to any old crap that you throw at it. So reluctant is it to admit defeat that it quickly formulates a rational explanation for its beliefs and has the arrogance to think that this explanation is OK to push out through your mouth – even if it makes you sound like an utter idiot. 

The most infamous example is probably the one time IELTS speaking prompt, “Describe your favourite piece of water.” For those of you unfamiliar with the IELTS exam, there are three sections. The second section is when the candidate is given a prompt card and tasked with speaking for up to two minutes on a given theme. Once upon a time, one of the cards asked candidates to speak on their pelagic paradise.

Of course, the most rational response would have been to say, “You what?!?!” Bu the brain doesn’t work like that. It has been set a task and to stutter and stammer would call into question its right to rule the roost. So it starts to build a new reality wherein everyone has their favourite puddle, river, lake, sea, bath, ocean. And then it starts to fill in the detail. It’s the auditory and visual equivalent of pushing a snowball down a huge mountainside. 

All of a sudden, the candidate now has a favourite piece of water. And the brain is whirring away, convincing the candidate of the virtues of this liquid love. Oh! How wondrous the waves! Oh! How marvellously moist! Oh! How tight the bond betwixt H2 and O! And for many of you reading this blog, the cherry on the cake is that when we witness this, our students are doing it in another language! How on earth can we ever justify not giving them the highest possible marks for this?

Brains hate bafflement. And they are so averse to it that they will refuse to acknowledge it if they think that it will make them look bad. This is where the odious comparison between opinions and the posterior openings of the alimentary canal comes from. Like the latter, everyone has the former – and it’s frequently full of feculence. But while comical, this is also worthy of celebration.

If you want to marvel at the human being, when you go to class today, ask your students some bizarre questions…they don’t actually have to be particularly bizarre: why are buttons round? What’s the worst place for dust to gather? Why do we have to have five fingers? If fish could talk, what would their singing sound like to humans? What do you think elephants would like to say to a giraffe? What’s your favourite type of grass? Then sit back and be amazed by the gymnastics the brain goes into as it creates a new world where it is rational and normal to have opinions about such things. Boggle as it does this in an alien language. And feel privileged that we get to see this happen on a daily basis. 



21 Mar 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Hi Secret,

    What a lovely post, if lovely means observant and true. The fact that us souped-up monkeys are often becoming our rationalisations through the language we are sometimes forced to produce is maybe one of the defining features of being human. Or maybe not. Anyway, another fun trick I like is to ask a question you know the student is going to answer in the negative. Than just tilt your head to one side, keep your face blank, and wait. Human’s have this amazing need to justify a negative answer (something about maintaining group dynamics, or getting a mate, or something else I read a long time ago and have now forgotten). So if you do this gonna-answer-no question with the pause and a very mild expression of possible disbelief, your student is compelled to justify their answer, leading to much more language than you would get out of one of those “open-endedy” questions.

    Looking forward to your next post,

    Comment by kevchanwow | 21 Mar 2014 | Reply

  2. Hi Secret

    Thank you for your blog and this post. I used to work as a DoS myself some time ago and I find your reflections fresh and thought-provoking.

    Decided to comment on this one, because I often keep thinking about the tasks in international exams (you mentioned IELTS and I examine for Cambridge ESOL). A couple of questions I ask myself: what rationale is there for the tasks like ‘describe your favorite piece of water’, etc.? (will it help students in their communication, or achieving goals outside their classroom – besides passing the test, of course) You rightly wrote: ‘our students are doing it in another language’ – indeed, they are taking the test to prove that they can communicate in L2. One things that surprises me is that we (almost?) never have to think or speak about such things in our L1 in real life (by ‘real’ I mean not in class in not in our blogs). When I test kids in Starters exam, there is a task when a child listens to an examiner and puts the picture cards where the instruction goes. For example, ‘put the dress on the sun’ or ‘put the clock on the tree’. I wonder why kids never ask the ‘why’ question 🙂

    Looking forward to your next post!

    Comment by Zhenya | 21 Mar 2014 | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Teacherpants and commented:
    DoS makes some interesting points here. I like how he can be at the same time so cynical (in his assessment of IELTS) and so lyrical (in his description of the creative process). It’s also good to remind ourselves of what an achievement it is to produce all this in, as he says, “an alien language.” We often lose sight of that when we complain about our students.

    Comment by joannalw | 21 Mar 2014 | Reply

  4. The combination of the cynical and the wonderment is what makes this blog so great. Perhaps it is the bizarre nature of those questions which pressures the brain into coming up with something creative – I’ve no idea.

    Anyway, the worst place for dust to gather is any place in our house which is low enough for me to see, but too high for my wife to see – as this means that while I continue to see it, it doesn’t get dusted!

    Comment by paulsimonduffy | 21 Mar 2014 | Reply

  5. And if you run out of bizarre questions, there are always thunks:

    Comment by Sandy Millin | 13 Apr 2014 | Reply

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