Education is arbitrary: what we learn is arbitrary; how we learn is arbitrary; whether we learn is arbitrary. This was something I suspected as a student and have had fully confirmed for me while on the other side of the chalk board.

To put forward a very obvious example, there’s the seating plan. Quite naturally, I start the lesson at the front of the room[1] and I like to wend my way around during the hour, checking the students are learning correctly and check out who has the coolest clear file. Of course, this means the students nearer the front are more likely to get my help because I’ll encounter them first.

Students at the back also get their worksheets last and are always called to collect the sheets and hand them in, meaning they have to stop writing first and thus, if the activity has a time-limit, they get less of a chance to finish the sheet. I attempted to counteract this slightly by handing out sheets face down and only telling people to start when everyone’s got a sheet but this doesn’t really help– they just turn it over and start anyway. I could try handing out the files to students individually myself instead of passing them back along the lines, but my arms are short and I’m not good at holding lots of paper simultaneously. Sheet-valanches tend to happen. And then I’m in deep sheet. (Sorry.)

And, of course, students at the front get the best stickers. They get Snoopy and Pikachu and Elsa and the multi-coloured four leaf clover; the kids at the back have to make do with Woodstock[2], Rattata, Hans and that horrid pure blue clover[3]. They have it rough man. I’m surprised they even bother to show up.

The most unkindest cut of all however must be the homework. I’m tasked with going around the class and checking who’s done their homework and who hasn’t, but of course I have to start somewhere. The cannier students at the opposite end of the class get precious extra minutes to jot down those final few answers or just put a random mark next to a multiple choice question. I know this is happening, but there’s nothing I can do unless I actually see them writing. It’s like we’re playing Granny’s Footsteps– I can only impede that which I actually see moving.

I don’t really know what I can do to correct even these rather overt arbitrarities (there are a million more subtle ones to be found in the classroom). I could move counter-intuitively, make a bee-line for the back of the classroom without checking anyone’s work and then start my rounds but then I waste time when I could be helping and as a result fewer people receive the benefit of my wisdom. Is that a good pay off?

I’m almost tempted to suggest instituting a Mad Hatter Policy where after every grammar point the students switch places but Depp’s tainted anything to do with Wonderland. And I’ve never found a top hat which fits my enormous head. Other solutions which I consider during my downtime is to clone myself, learn to teleport, use ravens to scry on the students when I’m not looking or ask the teacher to check half the class’ homework. But then I think I’m just being ridiculous.

This article doesn’t have a conclusion– how can it? These are problems without answers; education is a game of solitaire– it’s better than nothing but not by much, no one really gets the rules or enjoys it and you inevitably have to cheat to make progress– everyone knows this. Everyone’s known it for centuries and I don’t magically have the solution to a human-history-spanning problem. You’re asking far too much of me: I’m just a classroom assistant. One with a large head, stubby arms and who can only attack the people stupid enough to move in front of him…come to think of it, I’m kind of like a T-Rex.

Rory Kelly

[1] I say “quite naturally,” but actually I guess one of the advantages of having an assistant is that they could feasibly start at a different position; I would try this except I think it would make it look to the students like the teacher and I had had a fight and weren’t talking at the moment.

[2] *Shudder*

[3] *Shudder shudder*