Thursday, November 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Assessment Test

A school in England has raised its assessment scores from the bottom 25% to the top by adopting a Harry Potter-based curriculum. Kids don't do subtraction, they "cast subtraction spells." Not chemistry experiments, but "color-changing spells." Here's a list from the article:

Example lessons from the "Harry Potter curriculum"

•Maths: subtraction is seen as a "spell" which has been created by Harry Potter. Children have to say the magic words "numerus subtracticus" when they give an answer eg "58 minus 14 - numerus subtracticus - equals 44".

•English: to learn about dramatisation, pupils create their own scripts for plays based on the text from chapter two of J K Rowling's debut novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

•Art: imagine what Harry Potter would do if he painted a version of Vincent Van Gogh's 1889 masterpiece The Starry Night. The Potter-inspired versions featured witches, dragons and other beasties.

•History: the history of flight, starting with a discussion of Harry Potter's broomstick, then discussing if that is real and tracing the real development of aviation, including the Wright brothers.

•Geography: comparing the children's home town of Arnold, Nottinghamshire, with Goathland, North Yorkshire, where the scenes of Hogsmead Station were shot for the Potter films.

•Computers: take a virtual tour of Harry's fictional school Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the internet, then create a map of Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School using similar information.

•Science: put a stick of celery in a beaker of blue dye and see how it takes in the fluid, turning the celery from green to blue. Discuss whether Harry Potter could use this to turn one of his foes a different colour.

•Music: learn how to create a mood by performing a piece of music relating to the theme "Hogwarts at night". Using percussion instruments, the children made appropriately spooky sounds.

•PE: balance and co-ordination is taught by getting the pupils to pretend they are Harry Potter and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger getting on and off their broomsticks (pupils used imaginary broomsticks).

As a curriculum, I'd say this is a decidedly mixed bag, but you know, there are some good ideas there. You shouldn't need to invoke broomsticks to teach balance, but for something like math or science, I think this is exploiting a real connection that's always been there. Scientists incant in Latin, after all (or the closest English equivalent to Latin!). Snape's class was obviously a chemistry class, with cauldrons substituted for crucibles.

Some of the magical "rules" in J.K.Rowling's books are pretty arbitrary and inconsistent (I mean, can anyone actually imagine Quidditch being a real game?), but the main point is learning something complicated in order to accomplish a goal. In the case of these second graders, the goal is something like balancing your checkbook. Whether they think of it as a spell or as a calculation, the important thing is that they think of it at all. Something about the brain may in fact be wired so that it is more easily understood as a "spell" than as an abstract mashing together of various symbolic numbers.

On the one hand, this is obviously a fad, and it shouldn't be the basis for an entire curriculum. I have to imagine it will get old for the kids after a year or two. On the other, at its best, it's built on the truth that all language is a spell. The "good-spell" is the "Gospel," good news about events that happened in the real world, a story to repeat and cast again and again. J.K. Rowling doesn't cast spells with wands but with words. And by using words to talk about things like money and celery changing color, we are indeed casting spells. Why not talk about it that way, if it works with the way the brain is wired?

Actually, education at a place like SPU is also ideally a place where every action should be connected to an overarching story, this one the story of Israel and Jesus. The Harry Potter is actually a pale imitation of this that won't last long, but there's something to the narrative understanding of life that I think is very true and will indeed last.

I actually will talk about this more when I get to Day 6 of the 8 Days series, but for now, suffice it to say that just getting children to learn their maths is indeed a miracle and magic rolled into one.


Patrick said...

I can imagine quidditch being a real game. Apparently so can JK Rowling. And probably millions of kids all over the world. Am I answering a rhetorical question?

Ben McFarland said...

I think my problem is that that darn Snitch is worth too much. It doesn't really matter what else happens, just that Harry finds the Snitch. And also, that's the least observable part of the game, so how is an audience in an arena supposed to observe and appreciate what is the most crucial part of the game, points-wise?

Not to mention, what is the strategy? It seems to mostly involve not hitting the ground ...