The Joy of Geek

That is what’s being a geek is, it’s not just having an interest. It’s not going to an observatory once and then being pleasantly surprised you’re not bored! It’s not being able to tell a Harley Davidson motor bike from a not-a-Harley-Davidson-motor-bike. It’s knowing as much as you can possibly know about a thing and being at least a bit weird about it.

Why are you so cross?

Because those of us who are geeks, ok, real geeks, who earned our geekhood at school through sweat and loneliness and wedgies will no longer stand idly by and watch our geekly identity taken from us by people who think geekhood is nothing more than wearing cute glasses and an asymmetric fringe! Particularly not when they are the very people who gave us the wedgies at school!

John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme

I did a rash thing recently.

I was doing a revision lesson with some sixth formers. I needed some exam questions on a topic, but knew that there weren’t any spare questions from our exam board; I collate the mock (sorry, internal) exams, and had used up the good questions there. There were some nice questions from other exam boards, but the content in the question was ever so slightly different.

(In the unlikely event that anyone’s interested, they were questions about gravitational fields. My group do a specification where they need to know about forces, others need to know about forces and energy. Don’t worry, this doesn’t have much to do with the point of this story.)

I’ve been on the exam prep training. I know that the prudent thing to do is to focus on What’s Going To Come Up. Preferably as a spreadsheet. Ideally with traffic light ratings. These questions wouldn’t have fitted on that spreadsheet, and I shouldn’t have done them. The rash thing I did was to teach my class how to do them.

It didn’t take long; it was basically joining up some things they did know with some ideas they had learned in A level maths. The class got the point quickly, and were happy enough answering the questions. I’m sure that the exercise made them better at doing physics. The trouble is that I know that, if pressed, I would have struggled to justify teaching it… because it didn’t directly move them on a grade.

There seems to be a lot of sadness in the teaching blogosphere at the moment. I wonder if some of that is because the dominant model in English schools at the moment involves taking a checklist and gradually ticking off all the points on it. By looking so hard at the boxes on the checklist, it sometimes feels like the subject behind the checklist has vanished from view. If so, that’s a loss.

One of the reasons that I do what I do is because of all the teachers I encountered when little who were able to be unashamedly, geekily enthusiastic about ideas. The content wasn’t the important bit; I remember people corresponding with Antarctic research bases, discussing tactical voting, crushes on Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre (never understood that one myself), contaminating civic fountains, John Wyndham’s novels, why cold fusion was almost certainly a flop… None of it was on an examinable syllabus, all of it mattered to someone.

There’s no doubt in my mind that schools are more efficient at ensuring that students leave with a useful set of qualifications than they were (ahem) years ago. That’s a good thing, in that it opens doors for people. If an unceasing quest to improve this efficiency leads to squeezing out anything that doesn’t have a certifiable payoff, that’s a problem, for me anyway. If every minute of 5 years at secondary school is really needed to prepare students for a reasonable range of GCSEs, we’re probably doing something wrong.

Partly, I must to admit, I like geeky enthusiasm because that sort of teaching is fun. But also, students need to experience the culture where the Joy of Geek is celebrated, and they can maybe start to recognise where theirs is.

I still wouldn’t dare do it if a manager was watching. They might give me a wedgie.


4 thoughts on “The Joy of Geek”

  1. Key stage three is an excellent opportunity to get geeky. It does get trickier as exams approach. We need a very different kind of exam, that tests broad knowledge of the subject, not a narrow range in a fiddly way.

    1. Absolutely. In the pre-2000 A levels, the same could be said of lower sixth. Learning and exam prep were seen as different, and there was a rhythmic alternation between them. Nowadays, there is an expectation that the class should be on exam alert all the time. It’s effective (though that might be because the underlying pedagogy isn’t very effective, and lots of checklists are needed to hold it together) but it’s not very humane.

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