“Top Ten Tuesday” is a feature started by “The Broke and the Bookish“, in which people list their top ten books that match some given criterion. It changes every week, and happens on a Tuesday. Lots (a frankly ridiculous number) of bloggers take part.
This week the theme is “back to school”, which is not normally something I enjoy thinking about. In the spirit of that theme, I’ve decided to list fictional educational establishments which – in one way or another – would be preferable to real-world schools. Importantly, this list is about schools it would be preferable to teach in, not to learn in – most fictional schools would give you a terrible education.
1. Hogwarts, from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books
I’m not amazingly interested in the magic here. While I’d take Harry Potter magic if nothing else was on offer, I can think of a dozen fantasy books with magic I’m more interested in. No, what I like about Hogwarts is the creative approach to behaviour management.
Students who are late for the start of term get beaten up by a tree. Bullying is occasionally sanctioned through transfiguration into vermin. Detention involves hunting undead wizards in a forest filled with man-eating spiders. Punishment at Hogwarts is varied, inventive, and extremely hard to shrug off.
Most schools in the UK use some form of merit/demerit system, coupled with detentions that involve nothing more perilous than boredom. More trendy schools may practise restorative justice, dealing with anti-social behaviour through conversation and support. Both of these approaches are fine – sometimes they even work – but I can’t help feeling that Hogwarts has them beat. At Hogwarts, behaviour sanctions are immediate, clear, and highly visible. Insolence is punishable by being mauled by a horse/bird hybrid; that’s real innovation.
2. Malory Towers from Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers books
The students at Malory Towers are delightful. No one swears or screams at staff. At worst, they might say “crumbs” when they’ve lost a ribbon or something. They work hard, and do well. They hold their teachers in high regard, seeing them as role models to be emulated.
That’s not to say that there are no occasions when students demonstrate poor behaviour or negative attitudes – students at Malory Towers do break the rules. But they do so in healthy, socially-constructive ways that deepen friendships and allow them to grow as people. The only people with genuine behaviour problems always discover the error of their ways near the end of the book, and then become examples to us all.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if all real children were like that?
3. The Collegium from Mercedes Lackey’s Collegium series
Children are the worst. They’re like tiny people with no empathy or ability to delay gratification. Trying to stop thirty of them from doing something stupid is a herculean task. You’ll get twenty-nine of them sitting and reading quietly, while one tries to push a pencil in one ear and out the other. By the time you’ve taken it off him, another five have begun building towers out of crisps.
If only there was some way to give them adult consciences – some way to switch on the little voice in the back of their heads which could say “don’t drink air freshener” or “compasses aren’t for stabbing”. Adults have that voice; children grow into it. Centuries of real-world education have failed to find a short-cut for this process.
The Collegium has got this sorted. Students have a Companion – a magic talking horse – who supports them throughout their training and beyond. In addition to being magic and talking, the Companions are smart, and moral, and able to tell their children when they are doing something bizarre or unreasonable. It’s an enviable teacher-student ratio, and would undoubtedly mean that risk assessments were less of a priority.
4. St. Champions, from Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster
Peace and quiet. Perfect politeness. Students who always know the right answer. It would be bliss.
Sure, there are downsides. It would probably be extremely tedious, creative writing or high-level analysis would be impossible to teach, and it would make you complicit in slavery, but it would be nice. Maybe just for a little while. We could always unhypnotise them later.
5. Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters, from Marvel’s X-Men
Workload is always one of the top responses when teachers are asked about the things that cause them stress. Planning, marking, more marking, data, more marking. It’s both endless and exhausting.
The teacher’s at Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters probably don’t have that onerous a workload. Even if they do, it’s clear that no one is checking up on it. Teachers are constantly being summoned away – often by SLT – to deal with extra-curricular emergencies. Under those circumstances, no one could realistically demand that paperwork was completed, and you’d have a really solid defence if anyone tried. It’s hard to come up with an excuse for not having done reports that’s better than “because I had to cut a robot in half with my metal bones then save all the students and also the world.”
6. Crunchem Hall from Roald Dahl’s Matilda
Miss Trunchbull is my role model for most things, but especially teaching. She has high expectations of her students, a tough, no-nonsense approach to discipline, and strives not to pigeonhole students into traditional gender roles. She regularly communicates with parents in order to develop an understanding of the students in her care. She’s firm but fair, occasionally given to acts of extreme generosity.
Supportive management in a school is a wonderful thing. When teachers feel supported, they are able to focus on teaching. When school systems are clearly in place and management is active and visible around the school, behaviour management becomes implicit, and there’s more time to cover the material and ensure engaing lessons.
Miss Trunchbull is highly visible around school. Very few students are not keenly aware when she is nearby. She takes lessons, despite the many other calls on her time, which allows her to ensure that standards of teaching and education remain high. She’s also – and this is key – not shy about enforcing the rules. Miss Trunchbull knows that it is better to be consistent than to be friendly. She never lets non-standard uniform, for example, pass without comment. In fact, she takes swift action to ensure that students with unacceptable hairstyles are in no doubt of her expectations.
Crunchem Hall – no matter its other faults – definitely has a productive managerial culture.
7. The Dragon Initiation Program, from Cressida Cowell’s How to Train your Dragon
It’s often daunting to start teaching a new course or at a new school. There’s so much to learn – new material, new methods, new systems. It takes a lot of time to be fully prepared.
In comparison to this, the Dragon Initiation Program is incredibly easy to pick up. Be large and hairy, send unprepared children into a cave to pick up dangerous and often venomous reptiles. That’s it. You’re pretty much qualified. It may seem as though I am over-simplifying this, but it’s important to note that the course’s only textbook was not completed until the course had been running successfully for several generations.
8. Battle School, from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game
Teaching is quite tiring. The whole day, you’re on your feet. When you aren’t actually teaching, you’re either supervising – yelling at smokers to stop from halfway across a field – or you’re trying to rest but being interrupted by a student who desperately needs to show you their bag. There will never be anything interesting about the bag.
Battle School dispenses with all that. They use a lot of simulations and a lot of practical and remotely-supervised activities. Both of those tactics are useful in limiting staff contact time. More than that though, Battle School appears to have no expectation whatsoever that teachers actively monitor or intervene in student activities. Students can murder each other in bathrooms for all management cares.
It might be wrong to train children to be pitiless brainwashed soldiers in a needless war against an alien race that doesn’t even understand why it is fighting, but at least it would be relaxing.
9. Camp Half-Blood, from rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series
I have never taught a deity. Nor have I taught a half-deity. In fact, I doubt I have taught more than a few students who were even vaguely adjacent to godliness. I imagine though, that the closer a student is to divinity, the better – more moral, more capable – they probably are.
To attend Camp Half-Blood, you have to be at least half a god. And even though we’re dealing with the Greek gods – which means that “moral” is a stretch, unless you like your punishments ironic and your daughters abducted – that has to translate, somehow, into competence. Teaching the children of the gods, how could you fail to get decent exam results? I can’t, off-hand, remember any demigods who were generally a bit rubbish, but I can remember loads of them who did rather well for themselves.
10. The Unseen University, from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series
It’s clear throughout the Discworld books that the Unseen Academics do very little teaching. They have huge lunches, they go on adventures, and they often witness the fabric of reality tearing, but they don’t teach much. Students are vague annoyances that occasionally happen to occupy the same rooms as them.
This is an eminently rational approach. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then it logically follows that a lot of knowledge is several dangerous things, or perhaps one very big one. Students, therefore – who actively seek to be educated – are things that should be avoided at all costs. You might accidentally teach them something, and that would be awful. Portals to the dungeon dimensions would open, Time would lose his trousers, and so on.
Real-world schools have been lamentably slow to adopt this doctrine and forbid the teaching of anything. If students really want to know, they can find out on their own. That way, when you have to stop them, you don’t have to feel guilty at the same time.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that any one of these educational establishments is ideal. They all have significant, and frequently fatal, flaws. I do think, though, that each of the listed schools has something it can teach us about teaching.
The parent post on The Broke and the Bookish is here.