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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Moral Tale

Two things matter here.  We have been having new carpet laid at home, and I used to be regarded as a heavyweight on educational measurement at a time when the Hierarchy needed educating (nothing has changed).  Anyhow, a colleague named Glen Coulton used to tell Snake Gully stories, and I elected, on occasion, to follow suit.

The relevance of the new carpets is that I had to clear a lot of stuff out of the way, and I have been assessing what to keep and what to throw. One of my finds was one of those Snake Gully stories. Called A Moral Tale, it was a hand-out that I sent around in the October 1979.

This story would never have seen the light of day once more if I had not been somewhat subversive — in the interests of education.I thought it should be brought back to life.  I had, I must confess, quite forgotten it.

Note that it is without a doubt scholarly: it has footnotes, though not the one that I placed in an official Departmental publication, stating that "A pedant is a footnote fetishist".

Anyhow, here it is:

* * * * * *

The staff of Snake Gully High School were disturbed. It was clear to them that the School Report form did not cover all that it should. So they stayed back after school and discussed the issue at length.

To cut an extremely long story somewhat shorter, their main conclusion was that brain and brawn did not always come together. Nor did the one rule out the other. So, since the school's motto was "Growth in Everything" (1), they decided to include a new section on the Report Form. For ease of communication, this was called "Bigness".

At this stage, several groups formed to press for different views on what constituted "bigness".

One group, combining the Science master, a Maths teacher, the History mistress and the French teacher, recalled that the metre was defined from a line from the North Pole to the equator through the Arc de Triomphe. Because of this (and not because their average height was in excess of 190 cm) they proposed that "Bigness“ be defined as:

Height in centimetres

A second group, including two Home Science teachers, a former hydrogeologist, a former "Mermaid" girl, and several teetotallers argued for the pedagogical centrality of water. A kilogram, they said, was the mass of a 10 cm cube of water. Thus, the first definition was subsumed (if not inundated) by their choice of mass as the prime criterion of "bigness". Water was as clean and pure as their motives in putting all of their considerable weight behind the definition of "bigness" as

Mass in kilograms

A third group, known to the rest of the school as "that load of old cobblers“ had a thing about feet. They pointed out that shoe size measurement had an air of Tradition: to an arbitrary length, add the number of barleycorns required to complete the length. (2)

At the mention of barleycorns, this group was joined by several dedicated drinkers, known (for reasons quite unfathomable) as the Last of the Bigfeet. Jointly they pressed their case for "Bigness" to be defined as

Shoe size

The Principal, a person of compromise, decided to use all three measures equally, adding them together. Being a former Maths teacher, he chose to standardise the scores, producing Z-scores.

"Justice", he said (deftly coining a cliché) "must not only be done, it must be seen to be done". (3)

And so it came to pass that the School Reports went forth, and the carbon copies descended unto the lowest drawer of the filing cabinet.

* * * * * *

Early in the following year, a new sports coordinator was appointed. He found a need to select boys' teams for basketball, tug-of-war, and barefoot water skiing.

As it happened it was still vacation time, and so he was unable to try the students out for these teams. Since the teams were to go on an inter-school visit at the very start of term, he had no choice but to use the only available resource : the index of "bigness" in the school records.

As a result, the school basketball team was made up of people who looked like the fellow on the left. The tug-of-war team all looked like the chap in the middle, and the barefoot water skiers all looked like the lad on the right.

 Moral: profile reports sometimes avoid losing valuable detail which is not indicated in a global index.

(1) Except on the signboard at the front of the school where a disgruntled art teacher had modified it "Growth on Everything".

(2) Lyle V. Jones, "The Nature of Measurement" in Robert L. Thorndike (Ed.) Educational Measurement, 2nd edition, Washington: American Council on Education, 1971, p. 339.

(3) As neither he nor his staff had heard of John Marshall, McCulloch or Maryland, this is a true statement.

I can't be sure, but I think Ian Munro did the drawings for me.

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