The Imitation Game

Recently I’ve been given to much pause of thought about learning and education, not the least following watching the movie “The imitation game” about Alan Turing’s code breaking during WW2 on the plane, followed by three days of intensive attending of presentations at 21CLHK.   It’s taken a while to try and crystallise my thoughts, and they’re probably still not as coherent as they should be, but these are my main takeaways.

While Turing is attempting to build a machine that will, in the long term, take over the work of cracking this (and other) codes, everyone around him is desperately engaged in a race against the clock. And at midnight each day the clock is reset, all work they did that day is useless and they start again from nothing the next day.  While I know that education is not exactly like that, I sometimes feel that a school year is like that Bletchley park day with a teacher racing against the daily clock, against the time-tabled period which they’re allotted to do one thing or another and then the bell goes or the summer holiday starts and we’re back at square one, but the child is handed over to the next person.  I’ve said before this is fine for the “middle”. It’s the children at the extremes where this handing over is most acutely observed, either in a positive or negative sense as they lurch through the process of learning and hopefully becoming educated beings.

Far worse is not only is Turing not supported, but the mediocre middle are out to destroy not only his machine, but him as well.

Ironically it is always easier, and more appreciated,  to work extremely hard at a huge volume of output,  than to openly take a step back and reconsider the foundation upon which practices and assumptions lie.

I’ve often decried the lack of longitudinal research in education. Our current high schoolers, what do they “look” like now (from a literacy standpoint which is my optical focus) and what did they look like when they were in G4 (my area of concern for my BWB club). And my G4’s where did they come from? How soon did their literacy attempts start to diverge from the middle? How about the ELL students? We know that the process of learning a language to CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) level is a 5-7 year process. So when they exit an ELL programme after 2-3 years we haven’t even scratched the surface.

I attended quite a few sessions / presentations at 21CLHK that were symptomatic and typical of this “information” age. A deluge of ideas and devices and applications, delivered at a rate exceeding the absorption of most of the (highly intelligent) brains present.  I fear we employ the same methodology with our students. I know that I do. I get 40 minutes a week with my G5&6s and 20 minutes a week with the rest. Lessons and wisdom (in as much as I can claim to have any) needs to be imparted within a fraction of that to allow time for browsing of books. Teach the teacher they admonish. The teacher who has no time, as they race through a curriculum, that while enquiry based, demands 6 inquiries in 8 months. And where none of the units in G1 look at cars and planes or dinosaurs or dogs and cats or insects or space or the other obsessions a 6 year old has.


I can read stories. Stories that I hope will cut through the clutter and touch their hearts. And I can but try to shove the right books in the right hands before the next group of wonderful eager expectant hugging children walk in. I sometimes say to my more illustrious and famous ex-MBA friends that I’m paid in hugs rather than dollars, and its true. I can try to show, not tell, them that mistakes aren’t important, it’s what you do with them that matters.

And then the Social-emotional (SE) dimension. Back to Turing. By the movie depiction he was socially inept, cared more for his work and ideas and machine than for the people around him. The movie at least gave a nice nod to the ideas of development of relationships and collaboration and the notion that a good team needs more than just raw intelligence. I do badger on a bit on SE Learning and the need for books and picture books to aid discussions and self-exploration / understanding.  I am confronted daily with students who struggle in this area, many of whom don’t have the “brilliant mind” that people like Turing had to perhaps compensate. The children who return a book and say – “it was an important book, because you know I’m also being bullied” and I look at them and I can see why their cohort would target them and how hard it is to protect them and turn the tide of otherwise nice kids performing macro and micro aggressions on children who are just slightly off kilter enough to merit the worst kind of attention.

And then you see an article like this one, announcing an OECD Pisa-like test for Social-Emotional skills. Please take the time to read and absorb the article and its implications. There is part of me that says perhaps the children who so desperately need interventions will get them. There is another (larger) part of me that knows that we do all sorts of other math and literacy testing that doesn’t lead to additional help so how on earth would we find the people, the expertise, the money, the time to devote to this area? And once it’s tested, and the tests are far reaching – even into the untouchable of untouchables in education – student’s homes, what will happen to the results? I’ve seen students desperately in need of having reading disability testing where parents have refused as they’re terrified of the stigma of a label even as innocuous as dyslexia as the child goes through school.

So I wonder, what can and should our responses be? Can we, should we, slow things down? Try to look at school as the whole process and learning as life-long – as we so often purport to do or hear the meaninglessly bandied phrase “life long learning” when all we actually do in schools is cut short every attempt a child makes at extending learning?

Chris Crutcher (author of Whale talk amongst other books) posted this on his Facebook in December (it takes a while to find amongst all his US-politics angst, so I will repost it here). I’ll leave you to think about it.

Almost everyone I know who dismisses the teaching profession wouldn’t last a day with this cool little dude (age 6!) – in a classroom where a whole bunch of kids see the world 180 degrees from him – before making him think he’s awful. This is the gamut range in EVERY classroom, k-16 and beyond. His teachers KNOW there isn’t an easy answer, but they come back and come back and come back, looking for what works; in an American educational environment crafted largely by non educators who would rather score high on mind-numbing tests of memory, than celebrate – and PAY for – creativity and expression and wildly different learning styles.

SO…this is for anyone who ever tells you teachers take that job so they can have three months off, or that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and for anyone who needs a great example of why it isn’t:



N. School is hard.


N. I want them to leave me alone.


N. Grown ups. They want me to do work, but I am too tired. Then they keep bothering me with words. I just want to stay one hour cause school bothers me. I hate school.


N. Boring. It’s so boring. I don’t want to go to school.


N. I want to stay home and have fun. I can teach myself. I like to use my brain and think and learn without being in a big building. They don’t help us learn, they just suspend us. I already know what they say. I’m just bored. Games help me learn. Building things help me learn. I study things and learn and not in a big building. Computers help me learn. They tell me stuff I don’t know. They don’t let me learn there at school. I have to sit there and listen. I want to learn non-fiction because I’m a scientist. They are wasting my time.


I could be learning. I want non-fiction so I can study. They read fiction stories but I like non-fiction books and computers. They’re making me dumb cause they don’t tell me non-fiction. They want me to be normal, but I want to be a robot maker. They try to make me normal but I don’t want to.

? Normal?

N. Sit there and listen which I don’t want to. That is so dumb. I want to do stuff so I can learn.

? If you were the teacher?

N. I would have kids do cool stuff like learn how to build cool bridges. I never got to go to the computer lab. They make me do dumb papers but I want to use the computer, cause computers know cool stuff. I want to learn everything, but school is holding me back.


It takes me away from studying and learning. (Chris Crutcher, Facebook, 11 December 2017)


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