Very like a whale…


‘So what would that look like?’

You’re sitting in your principal’s or co-ordinator’s office describing a new idea you’ve had, a plan, a project you want to undertake. You want to try something new, something that rises to the challenge of new thinking in education. 

Or maybe you’re in an interview with a prospective employer, and describing your educational philosophy. 

 “So what would that look like? [in practice/in the classroom/ etc]”.

It sounds like a very practical and quite reasonable question. It sounds like – “OK, I understand what you’re saying in theory. Now, how would you put it into practice? How would it work?”

And that may be what the questioner means by the question. But it isn’t the question. The question is, what would it look like.

This buzz-phrase is a reveal. Like an unconscious mannerism or facial expression made by a poker-player when he bluffs, it’s a tell. It gives away true values. As a teacher, you’re interested in how it works and how it feels. As an administrator, he’s interested in how it looks.

If I’m asked that question, I always want to say something like, “Well, I don’t know, it would probably look a bit like a whale. Or maybe a camel. But probably more like a whale.”

That’s because I’m a smart-ass old-school English teacher who can quote Hamlet till the chickens come home and the entire Royal family wipes itself out in a blaze of mutual assassination (Legal note: this is not a reference to the Thai Royal Family).

The answer to the question ‘How would it look?’, of course, depends greatly on context. But say you’ve designed some new curriculum for a particular year-course you have responsibility for within your department, and you’re trying to sell it to your departmental co-ordinator and the program co-ordinator. You’re trying to respond to the challenge of new educational thinking by coming up with something that is meaningfully ‘concept-driven’ and meaningfully ‘inquiry-based’. You’re not rebranding – you’re rethinking. You’re talking about the principles you think should be underpin good curriculum design, and how the course differs in terms of its scope, its structure, its internationalism, its historical approach.

Your bosses will nod and frown thoughtfully, and then ask  – ‘So what would it look like in the classroom? Say I was walking by your room and you’re doing all this with your Year Tens. What would I see that was different?’

You should have anticipated the question, but you haven’t. You really haven’t been thinking about how things look, but how they feel. You’ve been thinking of the taste of ideas, the smell of a four-color graphic novel, the cool, surprising textures of a course that forces Shakespeare and James Cameron to have a drink together and pits Riddley Scott against the Beowulf poet in a cage-fight. 

To the extent that your visual sense has been engaged at all, it has been involved in unconsciously-generated nyktomorphs of the architecture of the course. It has been conjuring up the images of forests, mothers and monsters you want to fill your students’ minds with. The last thing you’ve been thinking about is how the activity generated by the course will appear to someone walking past the room. 

Taken aback, you’re not even sure if it’s a bad question or a really good one. Either one could account for your hesitation.

So decide. If you think it’s a good question, you should give an honest answer.

Hmm. I guess it would look like… (shrug)… you know, people… in a room… together.”

Your co-ordinators will repeat with a slight air of bemusement and falling intonation:

“People in a room?”

You nod. “Together,” you say. “People in a room together.”

If on the other hand you think it’s a bad question, you should give the other answer, and say decisively, as if you have already thought about it:

‘A whale. It would look very like a whale.’


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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