The ten second challenge goes viral

Over two decades of teaching I have practised the ten second challenge which gives pupils who commit occasional minor misdemeanours (such as forgetting a book) the opportunity to talk their way out of a punishment.  Rather than copying out lines, or writing an essay on the inside of a ping pong ball, I have offered generations of children the opportunity to think on their feet, develop rhetorical skills, and convince me that leniency is the order of the day.

I don’t think my ten second rule is novel – many teachers operate something similar and it is hardly revolutionary to suggest that quick thinking and eloquent communication are important life skills to be fostered in the young.  I was thus rather surprised that a line in my last blog on multiple intelligences referring to the ten second challenge, was turned into a news article by the Daily Telegraph, discussed in The Times of India, featured on Radio 4 and transformed into a game on The Wright Stuff television show.  It must have been a very slow news day.

The interest in my ten second challenge is a good example of the dangers of indulging in social media – dangers I regularly highlight to student users of Facebook.  Post something on the internet and it is no longer yours.  Others can tweet or distort your ideas; reports are written on reports about your original thinking and in doing so messages can become confused.  Virtual Chinese whispers is a game that takes place at high speed and with scope for much distortion.

In reality my ten second challenge is very straightforward.  The typical student when questioned over a minor misdemeanour by his/her teacher will adopt one of four broad responses:

  1. Tight lipped silence
  2. Blame somebody else
  3. Confession and apology
  4. Sharp witted excuses

Teachers can work with these responses to improve students’ communication skills.  Students who remain mute must appreciate that silence can be incriminating, and a refusal to co-operate with an enquiry is likely to upset those investigating a misdemeanour.

Students who try and blame somebody else unfairly must learn that passing the buck to an innocent party turns a minor misdemeanour into a major one.    When you are in a hole stop digging….

Pupils choosing the apology option must learn how to apologise both in words and actions.  Apologies need to be clear, unqualified and sincere and should be followed up with offers of remedial action to make good the original error (…if only some high street customer service departments followed suit).   Students must learn that actions are just as important as words, and that grudging apologies reinforced by reluctant body language do not work.

‘Smart Alecs’ hoping to charm their way out of a minor misdemeanour with sharp witted excuses must learn the fine line between humour and insubordination, and recognise that such fine lines are relative varying from teacher to teacher.  ‘Smart Alecs’ may well choreograph facts to suit their story, but in doing so they must not tell untruths.  They need to have a sophisticated understanding of their target audience, to ensure wisecrack responses do not fall on stoney ground.  ‘Smart Alecs’ have to make lots of fine judgement calls in quick succession, and it is not a strategy for the faint hearted.

Schools are learning environments and the more learning that takes place the better.  The Elliott ten second challenge replaces sterile punishments for minor infringements with a communications challenge that children can learn from.  However, it is important that students recognise right from wrong and The Perse like any good school does not tolerate bad behaviour.

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