It was my birthday recently, and one of my friends gave me an old copy of The Chalet School. It’s one of the best presents I’ve ever been given. I’ve been hunting for the Chalet School books for years, but they’re very difficult to find and seem to be out of print at the moment.
For the uninitiated, the Chalet School series was written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer in the 1920s. It is probably a trope codifier for the ‘boarding school’ genre in English fiction. There are 58 books in the series and I reckon in my childhood I read a good 50 of them. The books serve as morality tales, preaching obedience and diligence to the girls, while recognising that the most fun girls still have character flaws. Jo, one of the great heroes, frequently is described as dishevelled and romantically dreaming of Napoleon’s conquests.
When I was little, I could devour two or three of these books in a week, so I imagine there was a period of about a year when I was obsessed with them. I remember constructing elaborate fantasies in my head about being sent to the Chalet School where I could somehow become Jo, and my two younger sisters would also be sent to the Chalet School and they would cause trouble and I would have to rescue them, while nearby a handsome Doctor would be waiting for me to turn of legal marriageable age. I also remember going through a period of putting brushes in peoples’ beds and being deeply disappointed by my mum’s utter lack of reaction (an excellent example of negative punishment).
I was aware that the Chalet School existed in another time. After all, it takes ten books to get to the second world war which lasts another five books in itself. But reading the book as an adult, there were a few things that jumped out to me. Firstly, I vividly remembered the odd feeling I had when Simone and Jo interacted and I recognise now that I identified their relationship as romantic long before I identified myself as bi. Secondly, the quality of the German in the book is appalling. Thirdly, the imperialistic tone of the book is really quite troubling at times even if you do try to remind yourself it was written in 1925, the same time as The Great Gatsby and Mein Kampf.
But the fourth thing . . . I think we could learn a little about curriculum design from the Chalet School. Re-reading the book, not just as an adult, but as an educator, was fascinating. I was never one to play ‘teacher’ as a kid (my fantasies were more about letting both my little sisters nearly drown in the ice-covered lakes of the Tyrol before deigning to rescue them in the nick of time so I could be lauded by a much older Doctor), so it’s interesting now to note how often the Chalet’s School’s curriculum is referenced. The girls are very much trained to be good wives, with needlework and mending forming a decent chunk of the timetable. They also must be fluent in three languages and possess good numeracy skills (which many of the heroes struggle with).
I’m not advocating a return to home-making skills in our higher curriculum, but in both the #UoELTConf18 and VetEd18 we had discussions about how much higher education should encourage community spirit and social responsibility. There was considerable debate in fact about to what extent it’s the responsibility of universities to do this. Many of my friends and family work in all stages of teaching and I happen to know that (in Scotland at least) there is a focus on community in early years education, so I’m not trying to pass this responsibility on.
In some ways, I wonder if we come at this from the wrong perspective. Perhaps what we’re really asking for is authentic assessment. In my elaborate self-insert fantasies where a handsome doctor was waiting in the wings for me to turn 18, I was being assessed on how good I’d be as a wife. That assessment is unique to each individual pairing, and has unique criteria. I really like Guliker’s et al (2004) framework for thinking about authentic assessment. They suggest that authenticity comes from:
- i.e. a problem which will occur in practice
- Physical context
- i.e. in a space that will be equivalent to the space that you’ll be in in practice
- Social context
- i.e. reflecting the social structure you will be in in practice
- Assessment form
- i.e. the output of the assessment has a relevance or parallel in the real world
- Assessment criteria
- i.e. the things you mark are relevant to how that task will be assessed in the real world.
If we stay with the Chalet School a little longer, the tall Doctor waiting in the wings will presumably want me to remain calm under pressure around patients (i.e. rescue my drowning hypothermic sisters), in an unsupervised environment (The Austrian mountains), while not pointing out any of my working class roots (jolly good), and provide continued life for my sisters while keeping up appearances the whole time.
I think that when we wring our hands over whether our students demonstrate social responsibility and community spirit, we’re actually bemoaning how our programme design and assessment don’t translate to what the real world values. Unlike the Chalet School, we don’t want to produce good spouses in higher education, but we do want to produce good citizens. And therefore we need to make space in our curriculum and our assessments to reflect that importance.
And if anyone spots any other Chalet School books int he charity shops . . . . do let me know.