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Monday, August 24, 2009

Little Black School Book - In the Weekend Australian

How to tell teachers what they like to hear

OPINION: Christopher Pearson
August 22, 2009
Article from: The Australian

IN 2008 Mark Lopez appalled Australia's teachers unions and endeared himself to a great many students with volume one of The Little Black Schoolbook.

It's a guide on how to write essays guaranteed to appeal to politically correct teachers, with helpful hints on how to ingratiate yourself with them.

Connor Court Publishing has just produced volume two, which concentrates on how to excel in secondary and tertiary exams, a bargain at $29.95.

While Lopez thinks some degree of merit is essential for success in exams, he stresses that students don't always succeed by merit alone. "Sometimes merit can even compromise high grades, due to the impact of an examiner's bias, or when a clever student has exceeded the knowledge of his teacher who is too ignorant, incompetent or narrow-minded to recognise and reward this degree of accomplishment." It follows that: "The key to positive assessment in assignments and exams is to determine what your educators think they want (officially), as well as what they need (psychologically) and then appear to provide the former while actually providing both, with covert emphasis on the latter."

He also urges pessimism over the professionalism of most examiners, except in maths and science subjects. "If you are pursuing high grades it is more advantageous to assume that you will not be assessed fairly or rationally and take the appropriate precautions. The trick is to assume the worst and do what is necessary to succeed with the worst examiners. Consequently, your work will be able to succeed with any examiner rather than be precariously dependent on competent treatment for a just reward."

It's also helpful to remember that most examiners aren't interested in signs of original thought and grade exam papers on Pavlovian auto-pilot. "If you want to improve your chances of receiving the highest grades, stick to producing material that closest resembles what your examiners are behaviourally conditioned to rewarding and avoid what they are behaviourally conditioned to penalising. Remember, any creativity and originality that deviates from the familiar stereotype entails risk."

Lopez is particularly persuasive when analysing the exploitable vanities of teachers and the fantasies they entertain about themselves as frustrated writers, artists or politicians. "The notion of the fantasy self helps explain why a text like Frank McCourt's bestselling autobiography Angela's Ashes, which is an entertaining book of modest literary or historical value, could be hurriedly added to the set texts for study in many year 12 classrooms so soon after its publication. It is a collection of sometimes amusing anecdotes that tell the story of one man's triumph over adversity as he rose from extreme poverty in Ireland to 'make it' by becoming, of all things, a high school English teacher in the United States."

He's right in explaining how a second-rate book suddenly got on to the syllabus and there are other lessons to be learned.

The book "is extremely validating for teachers, telling them they are OK and that their life is on track, but there is an even more enticing dimension to the McCourt legend. After a long career, McCourt then wrote Angela's Ashes, thereby proving that during those long years of teaching he did have a bestselling book in him after all. He made the fantasy a reality. While tutoring students, I noticed how the teachers who taught this text tended to idolise McCourt or, more precisely, they idolised what McCourt represented, and in doing so they revealed much about themselves." At Lopez's urging, one of the pupils he was coaching went to hear McCourt speak while he was on a world tour promoting the sequel.

"When my student let his teacher know of his plans, she was delighted, although she expressed her regret that she too would like to attend but had other commitments. At McCourt's lecture, my student made copious notes, and then he typed them up and presented them to his teacher as a gift. She was overjoyed. She hung on every word as my student recounted to her how the evening went. My student received an A-plus for his essay, although I suspect that this grade had already been decided by the teacher before my student put pen to paper."

He urges his readers to make a study of their teachers' vanities and pieties, with a view to pandering to them systematically. "If you share your teacher's beliefs, it is in your interests to let your teacher know." If not, "it is reassuring to know that the easiest people to deceive are those who want to be deceived, or, more precisely, there are those who so desperately want to believe something positive and efficacious about themselves that they welcome a false reinforcement of this belief more readily than the truth. Let them think what it pleases them to think, and reap the rewards."

No wonder that volume one had the teachers unions up in arms. His contempt for them knows no bounds. "Especially with the more politically minded of teachers, a few choice words expressing political solidarity (such as the environmentalist slogan, 'Think global, act local') will go a long way in your favour by suggesting that you are like-minded and on side, giving your teacher the heart-warming and fulfilling impression that they have indeed made a difference. These fantasy selves are precious to individuals. If challenged they can be ferociously protected, but when humoured this is usually enthusiastically appreciated."

Lopez says that teachers can be divided into the chattering classes and the whispering classes, the latter being closet conservatives. "Students can benefit from this ideological divide. If you suspect that your educator is a member of the whispering classes, they may be even more appreciative of students who show an ideological affinity with them than the politically correct educators can be."

There is a timeless, Machiavellian quality to much of this bleak little book's advice. On the strictly limited advantage of being in the right, it notes: "When dealing with those in authority over you, like a teacher, if you win an argument it usually only makes the situation worse because the teacher is at liberty to later uncompromisingly reassert their authority or take their revenge at the first opportunity when they assess your work. Consequently, you need to apologise even if the teacher was in the wrong. This is not a capitulation. It is a strategy. In fact, this strategy works better if you are apologising and the teacher knows deep down that he was at fault."

Older readers with the benefit of a first-class education may find it difficult to credit that most teachers are as unprofessional and politicised as Lopez paints them. However, having tutored several honorary nieces and nephews through school and university, I don't think he's unduly cynical. One of my protegees in her third year as an undergraduate recently confessed that she goes out of her way to cite references to "mankind" just so she can insert (sic) and affirm her feminist credentials. In Australian history essays, she always alludes to white settlement with inverted commas and never reverts to AD in citing dates when her markers expect the PC term Current Era. Another asked for help checking the punctuation of an honours thesis that won him a university medal, but insisted on a dozen deliberate howlers with apostrophes so as not to risk intimidating his markers with too perfect a text. Alas, I humoured him.

Let me end by quoting two sage pieces of advice on the handling of educators' egos. Lopez thinks that from a psychological point of view, "teachers must be able to assume ownership of your success". Again, as many manipulative people discover the hard way, "if it is clever to be able to outsmart someone, it can be even cleverer to resist the temptation to let them know that you have outsmarted them."