Happy 21st Terence

The first play I ever wrote and directed was a piece called Terence, the story of a quick witted teen who struggles to play by the social rules and so is treated by suspicion by his peers. He falls in love with a girl called Toni and must muster all his charm, and cunning to find his way into her social world. Ultimately though, he decides the price he is asked to pay to conform is too steep and the play ends with him standing up the girl whose heart he has finally won.

Terence represents as good a point as any when I’m looking for the moment that marks the start of my writing career. Certainly it represents the first time my writing was presented in public. This year Terence turned 21. It was first performed on stage in 1995 by a wonderful cast at Onslow College, two of whom I’ve stayed in touch with, having had the great pleasure of later attending their weddings and meeting their lovely children. Teaching is a rare privilege, much of the time.

Last week I directed Terence again, with another bunch of 15 year olds at Hutt Valley High School. This time we did it as a drama class production, which meant we performed it over three nights with three different casts, and again they did a fabulous job. The lesson I never tire of learning in these situations is the way the particular chemistry of cast and audience, crammed together in a small theatre, produce a show that can not be reproduced. The way an audience member laughs in the first minute, the way a particular actor holds a pause, the way a touch lingers, or a movement across the stage is punctuated by a sigh, all of these things somehow set in train a chain reaction that the actor can feel and feed into, but not control. Over three nights, I saw three entirely different, and each quite splendid, shows. And despite having been the director, working with those actors over the two preparatory months, the particular nature of each performance was ultimately a surprise. And that’s why I love live theatre.

The last of the three performances re-taught me something else: the subtle interplay between comedy and narrative. Terence was always intended as a comedy, and was loaded with as many gags as I thought it  could bear, and part of the actor’s responsibility is therefore to manage the comedy: building to punchlines, trusting them enough to wait for the laugh, and then trusting themselves enough to let that laughing breathe and so on. But Terence is also a love story, and a kind of social commentary. In teen theatre, comedy is often the mechanism by which we bring the audience to the story, making it accessible and indeed palatable. Although I want the kids watching Terence to laugh, the ending is ultimately a contemplative one, and I want them to reflect upon all that is contained in Terence’s ultimate decision.

On the last night, an interesting thing happened. The audience didn’t laugh early on, in the way they had on others nights. The actors were undoubtedly just as funny, and looking down from my position in the  lighting box, I could see the audience were attentive and engaged, but somehow the lead actor was veering more towards a naturalistic, rather than comic performance. I doubt he knew this is what he was doing, but the emerging tone was one of quiet focus (weirdly, although I can’t identify the physical markers, the difference between bored and absorbed silence is obvious even to the stage-light blinded actor). The cast instinctively went with the mood. The performances too a person were more authentic, less adapted to the laugh track. They weren’t better performances, necessarily, the work the comedians did on the opening nights was often outstanding, just different. And the experience of the audience, as a result, was profoundly different too.

On the previous nights, the audience were entertained, whereas on the closing night, they were absorbed. The silence during the final revelation stretched longer, and after the show, they lingered longer too, wanting to talk to the actors and discuss what they had seen. It was a lovely reminder of the compromises involved in genre work. Sometimes genre writers (and Terence is definitely a genre piece) are frustrated that their work isn’t taken seriously, and on one level that’s absolutely fair. To write successful comedy, or crime, or thrillers or musicals for that matter, is every bit as demanding of one’s craft as pure drama. But on the other hand, there’s a sense in which pure drama just is more serious. The more readily we can believe in the people before us on the stage (or screen, or page of a book) the more deeply we will connect with them.

While all theatre demands a level of artifice, genre work explicitly requires the actor to sacrifice the depth of this connection. Every time the actor is asked to burst spontaneously into song, pause to let a laugh run its course, or recap for the audience’s benefits the list of suspects, we are reminded that these people before us are not us, and that we are watching is a contrivance. This hardly relegates the non-naturalistic to a lower theatrical rung. After all the poetry of Shakespeare is as clear an example of theatrical contrivance as you might hope to find, and it’s not hurt his reputation one bit.

All of this makes such an obvious point that it’s slightly embarrassing that I would need to be reminded if it at all. Luckily I work with a tremendous bunch of talented young people, who are more than happy to reteach me these things from time to time.


In Memory

Having recently commented here on the deaths of pop icons Bowie and Prince, or rather the public reaction to them, it would be remiss of me not to note the passing of another great, in March of this year. I remember visiting a student flat in 1997, shortly after the death of Princess Diana, and the residents had cut out the full page newspaper headline ‘the world mourns’ and beneath it pasted the small, half column obituary of a relatively obscure academic who had died at the same time (an academic whose name I have since long forgotten, so rather proving their ironic point).

And so, in the spirit of student idealism, let me pay small tribute to the intellectual giant Hilary Putnam, to my mind one of the most important philosophers of the last century: a thinker whose expertise in mathematics and deep knowledge of science were matched by the sort of restless curiosity and genuine humility that is often referenced but rarely seen. Never afraid to change his mind in public, he always gave the impression of being motivated more by the appeal of the puzzle than trajectory of his career. Putnam played a crucial role in the revival of the American pragmatist tradition, an appealing middle ground between the hopeless extremes of scepticism and foundationalism.

While Putnam’s contribution to modern thought is too broad to encapsulate in a brief remark, I’ll highlight just one idea that seems to me to be tremendously important. Putnam argued in his book The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy, that the logical positivists’ public legacy was a new sense that while science dealt in cold hard facts, areas such as aesthetics or ethics were ultimately subjective, to the point that there was no rational discussion to be had about them, and rather one should simply accept that different people have different views and that’s all there is to it. In other words, it became part of the general western view that, while one could reason carefully about elements of the physical world, the moral sphere was to be approached rather as a matter of personal intuition and taste. This rather played into the hands of the capitalist narrative, whereby collective values are subsumed by the individual’s ambitions, and any attempt by the state to interfere in matters of personal value is to be treated with suspicion.

Putnam pointed out both the dangers in this view, and also the shakiness of its intellectual foundations. Putnam never argued that there weren’t differences between facts and values, indeed he said there are many, but he was at pains to point out these did not amount to the subjective/objective paradigm so often expressed. A relatively easy way to summarise this is to consider the way Putnam represented scientific endeavour. While it is quite reasonable to think of science producing models of the physical world, he was at pains to point out both the fallible nature of these models – they represent, at any given point in time, our best guess on the matter, and are subject to future revision – and the dependence upon theoretical frameworks (and hence values) when it comes to assessing what counts as ‘best’.

So, consider our model of the solar system, which seems as close to a cold hard fact as you are likely to get. If we think about how this particular model established itself as the best way of thinking about the relationship between planets, moon and sun, we see that certain values (simplicity, consistency, coherence, elegance, predictive power etc) all played important roles in the collective decisions that have seen the model first become accepted, and then refined. There are very good reasons for all of these values, it is difficult to see why anyone would want to embrace descriptions of the physical world that were not usefully predictive, or allowed unnecessary levels of whimsical complexity. Accepting that values underpin scientific judgements does not relegate science to the mire of subjectivity, it simply cautions us to be careful in our definitions of scientific facts. Scientific facts are, in a sense, defined relative to the collective values embraced by the scientific community. This notion of knowledge being collectively defined is central to the pragmatist argument. It is also important to note that this does not suggest science is not describing an actual world, and is purely a social construction. Rather, the conventions of science allow it to be tested against that world, and so the theories are constantly interacting with external constraints.

This view of science allows us to be more sensitive to the way value systems are in play, and makes more comprehensible some of the more interesting disagreements in modern science. For example many string theorists are seduced by its mathematical elegance. Others argue, that in the absence of confirming or refuting data, the elegance in itself should not impress us at all. The relative values of elegance and predictive power are hence in play. Similarly, the search for a grand theory of everything is, in part, predicated upon the prior assumption that reality will be best be modelled by a maximally simple and coherent structure, whereas others dismiss this as a wild goose chase, prompted by an undue attachment to the hope that the real world will indeed conform to the values the observers bring to the table. Equally, the very different reaction to quantum conundrums: from the ‘shut up and calculate’ brigade, who are quite satisfied by the predictive capacity, to those endlessly exercised by our inability to produce the coherent background model.

So, we have here a model where science is objective, but where this objectivity flows from the collective values of the community of inquiry. As is clear, then, the parallel with ethical enquiry can be fruitfully explored. A community with a collective sense of goals can meaningfully, and in some sense objectively, construct ethical systems that are true relative to those values. That we can not ground these starting values with any compelling certainty, in either the cases of science or ethics, is to the pragmatist relatively unimportant. That’s just the way it is, they might shrug, and our job is to deal with these limitations, through a process of collective negotiation and exploration. What’s more, we can still make meaningful progress in creating for ourselves moral and scientific frameworks that meet our social goals of collective flourishing. In this Putnam leaves us with a most optimistic legacy.

A fish and a theatre light

I was reminded of a favourite story the other day, when preparing to give a speech to the NZ Association of Scientists at the their annual conference. The point I hope to make was the power of story telling in education, and in particular how the stories of science can be a fabulous hook when it comes to interesting young students  in science. As it happened, I never got to the the story during the presentation, but the  urge to recount it remains:

At the beginning of the 19th century, the popular theory regarding the behaviour of light was that it behaved as a particle. this popularity was due, in no small part, to the fact that Newton had said did, and what Newton said tended to go. Geniuses are never wrong, right?  As is the way in science, there remained a number of unresolved problem with this light theory, and one of them was how to explain the way light bends as it passes through media of different density (think of the way a straight tick put into a stream appears to bend). The French Academy held a competition to explain this. An entry came in from Fresnel, and engineer, who explained it terms of light traveling not as a particle, but as a wave.

For we theatre folk, Fresnel’s name is entwined with the business of lighting the stage, as he invented a lens that is utilised in theatre lighting (and light houses I believe) and still carries his name. The esteemed members of the judging panel were initially sceptical of this unorthodox, outsider’s view, and in particular the renowned mathematician Poisson (he has a probability distribution named after him) is said to have mocked Fresnel’s entry. in order to demonstrate how preposterous it was, he noted how one can not shelter behind a rock to protect oneself from a wave in the ocean, because waves, by their nature, can wrap around the rock and collide behind it.

Going further, he used Fresnel’s own calculations to show that if he was right, it predicted that if you shone a light source directly at a solid object, then at the right scale you would observe the brightest spot of light directly behind the solid light, in the area shielded from the light source. Preposterous.

Luckily for science, another member of the panel, Aragol, thought it judicious to set up exactly this experiment. no surprises for guessing what happened next. The spot appeared, exactly where predicted, and the wave theory of light was resurrected. For the science geek, this story has everything. The historical authority figure, the powerful cheerleader, the preposterous prediction and yet crucially, the experimental observation which triumphs these most potent forces of intertia. In science, or so we hope, data trumps prejudice.

Of course, history shows progress is rarely this clean, but nevertheless messier versions of the principle are the happy norm. Meantime, this case stands for me was, well, a beacon



A Prince and a Duke

In the way the world has of throwing up patterns, this has been the year of the death of musical icons. I’ll not be the first to draw comparisons between David Bowie and Prince, or the last.

Bowie and Prince inhabited very similar places in my musical world, the respectable faces of popular music, so vastly talented that the reach of their appeal could not diminish their cool, even to a fragile, fashion conscious adolescent. Each dominated their respective decades, Bowie ruling the seventies, from Hunky Dory through to the Eno trilogy, and Prince moving in just as Bowie’s musical star faded. 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade and Sign o’ the Times surely represents that period’s most startling run of recordings. Along with Bob Marley, Prince provided my generation with a sound track that transcended cultures, something Bowie, even in his pomp, never managed.

And yet, it is hard to escape the feeling that the media treatment of the two deaths is both different, and instructive. The death of Bowie saw not only a devoted front page in my local paper, but an endless sequence of articles over the following days, where journalists and luminaries of a certain age dwelt at length upon the contribution Bowie made to their existence. While the world section of this morning’s paper does lead with Prince’s death, neither the front page treatment, nor the mourning chorus, can be found. In Prince’s case, the coverage is already veering towards the salacious, with more interest in the circumstances of a death, that the grandeur of the life that preceded it. Along with the probing articles on drug use (Bowie’s drug use, like Keith Richards, was more often passed over as the predictable indulgences of fame and youth) there has also been a piece on Prince’s love life. And, as the controversies are brought to the fore, the musical genius fades to off stage. There is something shabby, and sadly predictable, about this difference.

It’s almost too obvious to point out that part of the issue here is race, and the stereotypes indulged by the lazier journalists. The broader point perhaps, is a reminder that the world portrayed by the mainstream media is the world of a few. As it is with music, which is in many ways the trivial case, so it is with the way the spotlight falls when it comes to social and political issues, to the way history is retold, the way our heroes are selected and celebrated. All my life, this has been a reasonably comfortable state of affairs for me, for I am white and male and middle class, and latterly of the age and concerns of the agenda setters. But, for a great number, they will never see their concerns presented back to them: not on the New Year’s honours lists, not on the political campaign, the six o’clock news, not even in the passing of their musical heroes.

One would like to say it’s a sign o’ the times, but the problem feels much older than that.



The Wizardry of Harry Potter

It’s fair to say I’m a latecomer to the whole Harry Potter thing. I’m far too old to have been the target market first time around, and it’s only now that my boys are ready to start appreciating the wonder of Hogwarts. We began reading my little fellows the books this year, and for full effect will probably try to drip feed the titles in over the years ahead so they can have the very great joy of reading the later ones for themselves.

And what a special pleasure it is discovering this series alongside my youngsters, seeing the power of the stories to unleash and transform imaginations. The series are the publishing phenomenon of our time, with 450 million sales to their name, and J K Rowling can quite reasonably claim to be the world’s most successful author. To me, one interesting aspect of this is the way we reflexively associate mass appeal with low quality: think of the sneering attitude displayed towards The Da Vinci code, or the Twilight series (and to be fair, I’ve read neither so can not judge). A great part of the sneering instinct is the snobbery born of fragile egos, the desperate need to establish one’s superior by not being drawn into the entertainments of the masses. If it isn’t obscure, difficult and pessimistic, it isn’t art. This urge is understandable in adolescence, where finding one’s place is a central part of the whole gig, and misery still feels novel, but in adults is unforgivable. I well remember the vigour with which I rejected any music that was any sense associated with the mainstream when I was fifteen. More than thirty years later, I find that while this filter spared me some truly painful listening experiences, it also kept me from enjoying a great deal that is wonderful.

Harry Potter, I hardly need say, is in the wonderful camp, popular precisely because of its great quality. Sure, Rowling may not be the greatest crafter of sentences that’s ever lived, but there’s an awful lot more to a great story than the style of its sentences. Most obviously (and yet weirdly often neglected by the social skills support group that is the world of literary criticism) is the capacity to construct a story. And that’s where Harry Potter shines. Yes, there’s the ticking off of a bunch of tried and true ingredients (child alone, forced to find the strength to be a saviour, mateship, boarding school rituals and magic) but anyone can go the grab bag of the elements of successful children’s fiction and make a mess of it. What is clear from the opening chapter of the Potter series is that Rowling has a particularly strong instinct for constructing engaging storylines.

There’s a great set up, first building connection and empathy, while at the same time dropping all the hints and puzzles that constitute the foundation of the story contract. Then, right on cue, the arrival of Hagrid and the plot twist that marks the end of the first act, the game changer. From there, meticulous attention is paid to getting the balance right between world building, character development, and plot progression. Further, Rowling trusts her young readers to hold elements in their head, parking them up for future reference (sometimes having to wait for whole books to elapse before the pay-off). Reincorporation is one of her many strengths.

Most of all I’d nominate her ability to construct non-linear plots as the thing that sets her apart. She is supremely confident juggling complementary story arcs without losing the forward momentum of the A-plot. So, while this is always Harry’s story, and resolution hinges upon his actions and experiences, Rowling keeps a number of developing strands prodding and pushing at the primary narrative. In this, she trusts her young readership in a way that is sadly rare. Contrast this with the endlessly (tiresomely) novel and inventive fantasy stories that essentially run an and-then plot line, one damned thing after another. Who can forget the acerbic review of the Lord of the rings movies that went ‘a bunch of Hobbits walk the length of New Zealand in real time.’

While it would be a great mistake to conclude that popularity always speaks of quality (The Bachelor, anybody?) it is surely equally dim witted to conclude the opposite. In the case of J K Rowling, I would contend that she has sold more books not by dint of luck, fashion or canny marketing, but ultimately because she’s very very good indeed. So good that she managed to broaden the appeal of reading for an entire generation, taking it from the obsessive habit of the frightened, and making it a pleasure for those more fully alive in their world. And if the response of my boys is any guide, the books will produce the same brand of magic for generations to come.

My personal challenge now is to find something to read the boys in the gap between finishing book two, and that moment next year when they will be ready to most enjoy book three. The current suggestion in our household is that I write them the gap filler, starring of course two identical twin boys, and a tunnel into another world they dreamt up earlier this year. And so I am eight thousand words in, and racing to stay ahead of their curiosity, because that’s just what fathers do. (Sebastian has decided there will be a daunting ten books in the series, but has very generously started tapping out volume ten himself on the computer.)

New plays up

It’s been a delightful year for producing plays at Hutt Valley High School. We’ve trialled two new pieces, Fight or Flight, with my Year 12s, and Fracture, with my Year 13s. Fracture may well end up being my favorite play; I was delighted with the way it turned out. Both are up on the site now, if you’re interested in reading them, or using them on stage yourself. As always, feel free to mess around with it any way you like, they’re yours to play with.

I’m reminded, in posting this, that a great many of my novels have started their lives as stage plays (Lester, No Alarms, Malcolm and Juliet and Genesis) and my current novel project is based round my play Singer. Starting with a play gives the luxury of being able to explore the themes and characters in a fluid and interactive environment, and is perhaps the best prep for writing a novel that I can think of. I remain indebted to the fabulously talented students who help me bring these stories alive. Mine is a very lucky profession (and I write this in the middle of yet another set of holidays).

Value added

The problem with bad ideas is that very often they appear, on first viewing, to be very good ideas indeed. This is why the habit of critical thinking is such an important one, worthy of a much more prominent place in the school curriculum. If we don’t develop the ability, and indeed instinct, to look beneath the glossy wrapper, then we’ll end up being sold any old nonsense. And, speaking of school, it’s quite possible that there is no field quite as vulnerable to the seductive power of glib fashion than education. Here’s a favourite example of mine. Consider the following statement:

It’s the job of a school to add value. There’s no point spending billions of dollars on education if that very process doesn’t add something valuable. Therefore, in order for us to know whether or not our education dollar is well spent, it’s critical that we can measure and report on the value we are adding. What’s more, knowing what the student can already do must be the starting point for any successful teaching programme, informing as it does what the next step should be.

Now, that appears deeply reasonable, doesn’t it? Almost to the point of being inarguable. Plenty of people at the Ministry of Education would say so, for it forms the basis of a significant push in our schools at the moment. Which is interesting, because the statement is almost certainly wrong. I should explain.

The first thing that must be noted, in the spirit of Heisenberg, is that measurement is never a neutral activity. The thing we measure is changed by the act of measuring it. Furthermore, measurement is an expensive activity, in terms of time and resources. A regime focussed on measuring will therefore do two things; it will divert resources away from other activities (say teaching) and it will change the way we think about the activities we teach and learn. The first is unambiguously negative, the second potentially so. Hence, we must conclude that a focus on identifying added value is a good idea if, and only if, the benefits exceed the costs. Yet, oddly, almost none of the enthusiasts for the concept see it in these terms.

So, let’s consider in more detail what some of the potential costs might be. Einstein (to continue the physics theme) once said: Not everything valuable is measurable, and not everything measurable is valuable. (Or was it the other way around?) So, if the cost of measurement is the first objection, then here is objection number two: A great deal of what is valuable in a school is intangible. Take for example the experience of heading out into the NZ bush to camp with a bunch of your peers. The most valuable takeaways from this experience will surely elude measurement (a moment of tranquility beneath the stars, a sense of belonging to a group, laughter around a campfire, the memory of which resonates through the years, and so it goes on). Now, imagine somebody tells you you must justify the camp in terms of value added. You can’t turn to the truly valuable aspects, as you know any attempt to measure them will be bogus, and so you may turn instead to something that could be measured, but is comparatively trivial: perhaps a temporary boost in fitness level, or an ability to correctly pitch a tent. The problem is immediately apparent. Justify the camp in these terms and two things happen. First, somebody will demand that more of the camp is therefore devoted to the intended outcome (let’s make the walk more grueling, let’s have tent inspections) and then, inevitably, someone will notice that the same outcomes can be more efficiently achieved in a less authentic environment. So we have tent pitching competitions on the school grounds followed by a brisk run around the block. And all of our lives are diminished.

Now for objection number three. In many cases, measurement inhibits learning. Two examples will make the case adequately. There is good evidence (a number of the studies in this area have used ethnic groups to make their point) that assessment increases performance inequities. In particular, the stress reaction in students who over time have become accustomed to failure inhibits performance. The more a struggling student expects the effort they are making to be assessed, the less effectively they engage with the task. The looming failure is enough to panic them into a non-receptive state. The second example comes from the area with which I am most familiar, that of creativity. I remember once being in a small group listening to the English Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, explaining why he was against grading papers in the elite creative writing paper he is responsible for. His argument will be familiar with anyone who has ever been involved in a creative endeavour. Motion suggested that as soon as you have grade levels, you have to have descriptors, and as soon as the student focuses on the descriptors (just what is the difference between a good and excellent piece of writing?) their approach becomes hopelessly mechanical, and the creative impulse withers. This is exactly my experience as a writer. The way to write is to find the story that needs to be told, and then, over time, to find the head space that allows you to discover the way to tell it. It’s a messy, frustrating and unreliable business. And nothing knocks you from your path more than the sense that there is some criteria to be met. Writing to please, according to some pre-conceived set of shoulds, is creatively disastrous. As any artist will tell you, the hardest piece of work to create is the one immediately following on from your greatest success. Expectations, be they imposed form within or without, are the enemy of creativity. So, careful attempts to identify value added will kill creativity and add to inequality. On to objection number four.

Implicit in the push for more careful assessment of educational achievement is the belief that learning occurs in stages, with each level of achievement being dependent on first mastering the previous step. At any point then, measurement allows us to identify the stage the student is is, and so provide them with the specific knowledge or guidance required to move on to the next stage. Now, this is undoubtedly true for a small subset of learning. Think of the very many foundation skills that must be mastered in mathematics before one can deal confidently with calculus – first one must have a sense of number, then of basic arithmetic, later of relations, and later still, algebraic expressions. We can properly identify an ever finer-grained sequence of skills which must be negotiated in an approximate order, and finding out where he gaps are can be crucial in remedying difficulties.

However, for a great deal of the learning we do, this is not the process. In these cases, knowing where the student is currently at adds surprisingly little to our ability to help them improve. A couple of examples will clarify. Occasionally, as part of a drama programme, I teach students to juggle. Now, juggling has a clear progession, from total confusion, through to making uncontrolled sense of the pattern, trough to sporadic success, then low level mastery, and eventually something like fluency. And yet, at every stage, the advice is the same. Practise some more. One of the clearest indicators of a person’s juggling prowess is their capacity to juggle five balls. Master that and you can properly call yourself a juggler. It’s very tricky. Here is what you need to know, in order to master this complex skill:
The five ball cascade uses exactly the same pattern as the three ball cascade, only the throws are higher, and need to land more consistently.
That’s it. It’s all the knowledge you need. And what advice can a tutor give you to help you achieve it?
Practise this every day. For most people, after some months of consistent practice, the brain will begin to see the pattern.
Again, that’s the extent of it. And a huge amount of what we learn and indeed need to learn, is of this nature. Our knowledge becomes embedded over thousands of hours of repetitive practice. Knowing where in the journey you are at, at any given time, is essentially inert information.

Teaching acting has a similar quality. The advice I am most likely to give an actor (beyond the foundational stuff about voice and audience awareness) is to try to inhabit the character. Find a way of stopping being you, and being then. Fully imagine your way into their world and situation. Understand why they do and say the things they do, and how that makes them feel. The task is essentially the same for a first time student as it is for a professional actor with decades of experience. One piece of advice, to be learned over a life time. Sometime the actor struggles to find a character, other times they get there quickly. Our job is to help them explore the role, and to provide the encouragement and criticism needed to motivate them in the search. Eventually, they become a little more proficient. Because it is not a case of moving sequentially through skills, where each level has a new instructional need, knowing where the student currently stands is again of no instructional use. This objection might be best summarised thus: knowing how much value you were adding (even if it were possible) would do nothing to help you add value.

In drama students, it is not so much that they move through a sequence of ability levels, as they are caught within one of a number of mutually exclusive orbits (like electron clusters, shall we say?) The workmanlike actor, over a lifetime, becomes slowly more proficient at being workmanlike, in the same way that the true talent slowly, over a lifetime, learns to more reliably let that talent shine. One doesn’t move from proficient to talented, nor could one even compare two actors caught in different orbits. They’re just completely different things. Occasionally, there is a quantum fluctuation, a random and inexplicable leap for one orbit to another, linked I suspect to moments of confidence or clarity, and when the leap is upwards it’s a fine thing to witness, but as for leading a student through the levels, the metaphor just doesn’t hold.

Objection number five. We can never be sure the progress we observe is value we ourselves have added. This is an interesting factor that is often overlooked in educational research. Put simply, an awful lot of learning happens despite us. Just because a student at the end of the year can do things they couldn’t do at the beginning, that’s no indicator that we helped them do it. A child at some stage learns to walk, despite us never teaching them (and anybody who noticed the change and concluded that they, the parent, had added value, would be a judged a moron). But so it is with the increasing intellectual and social sophistication that comes from undergoing brain development in adolescence. Now, these skills of social discernment and complex reasoning, although developing offstage, are key drivers in the capacity of students to reach new academic heights as they age. We see the results, but can not sensibly conclude we added value. Some studies of reading development note that in middle class homes, reading age increases over the holidays at much the same rate as it did in school time, whereas in socially stressed households, we often see students going backwards over the break (this is said to be one of the biggest drivers of educational inequality). So, what should we say of the school’s contribution to the reading development of the middle class child? How much is down to the teacher? How could we ever know? Why would we want to?

And finally, to round out the half dozen, my sixth objection is something of an echo of the second. For the whole value-added edifice pre-supposes that the purpose of education is to learn. In fact, that’s only one of the purposes. We do want the student to emerge from the machine more capable than when they went in. But, and how easy it is to forget this point, we also want the student to experience. School is not just a preparation for life, but it is also a significant part of the life itself, and so the goal of providing experiences that are of themselves worthy contributions to the totality of a life well lived, is every bit as important as the goal of teaching them something. And attempts to measure value-added tend to miss this entirely.

So, could it be that an idea that sounds very smart from the outside, (measuring student progress to inform teaching practice) is actually of practically no value (and significant cost) in most educational contexts? Could it be that as processes go, this one is expensive, promotes inequality, devalues what is most important, fails to recognise how most learning occurs, stifles creativity and yields end data that is largely meaningless? If that is true, then serious questions need to be asked about the competence of those setting educational policy, because they appear to believe the opposite is true. This is not just a New Zealand trend, so in this sense perhaps we should not judge our own officials too harshly. The international nature of this particular folly suggests that beneath the surface the forces in play are largely political.

Meantime, the highlight of my teaching year next year will be directing the full school musical. Students will come together to sing, to dance, to act and entertain. They will support each other, face down their fears, experience moments of pure magic and walk away with memories that will never leave them. Do pity the first fool to approach me and suggest I consider measuring the value I have added during that process.