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.
I 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.