A chance remark today led me to remember what might well be the best school lesson I ever had. Certainly, I can’t think of something that not only taught me a particular point both effectively and efficiently, but was also wonderfully fun into the bargain.
The teacher in question was Mister Ready (pronounced “Reedy”), who taught my class for two consecutive years through what we then called third and fourth year juniors (in modern money that would be… counts fingers… year five and year six, I think). So we would have been somewhere aged between nine and eleven.
The lesson was simple, with one objective: to teach us the meaning of the phrase “Chinese Whispers”. I can’t remember why we did this; whether it was part of some wider topic or simply something that he came up with on the spur of the moment are details now lost as surely as Roy Batty’s tears in the rain.
He sat us down in a horseshoe arrangement on the big reading mat in the corner of the classroom, and explained that he was going to whisper something into the ear of the boy nearest to him. I can’t remember who the boy was, but I seem to recall that it wasn’t necessarily someone who had the most tools in his toolbox, if you know what I mean. He then explained that this boy would then repeat to the person who sat the other side of him what he’d just been told, again as a whisper into the ear, and so on, and so on, until the message had travelled all around the horseshoe.
So Mister Ready whispered for what seemed like quite a time into the first boy’s ear, and then the message started working its way around the horseshoe. I was sat towards the horseshoe’s end, with perhaps seventeen or eighteen people before me, and five or six after. The message seemed to travel very slowly, and I recall being just a bit nervous with anticipation as it approached. I was scared that I might screw something up, and forget a bit, or have to ask for it to be repeated. Something which might make me look foolish. Of course, the further the message travelled with no hesitations, no hiccups, no repeats – the more nervous I got.
Then it was my turn.
The girl sitting to my left whispered in my ear.
“There was a great big man.”
I very carefully turned to my right, and repeated what I’d just heard to the boy who sat there. Word for word, exactly. Within thirty seconds or so, the message had reached the final person in the chain. Mister Ready asked that person to repeat out loud what he’d been told. The boy said:
“There was a big fat man.”
I remember being quite strongly surprised that the message had managed to change so in just a handful of words. After all, the whole point was to listen to exactly what was said and then repeat exactly what was said. Not passing on something that had the same meaning, a similar gist, but that had the same words. This was the sole task we’d been tasked to perform, there were only six words, and someone amongst the five or six people to my left had still managed to screw it up.
But the lesson wasn’t yet over. Because Mister Ready hadn’t yet revealed what it was that he’d originally whispered in the first boy’s ear. When he did I went from being quite strongly surprised to being totally stunned. I obviously can’t remember what is was, given that it’s now thirty something years later (frankly, I think I’m doing quite well to remember the line I passed on and the line that popped out of the chain’s end!) but it was something like:
There was a great big man.
And he was riding along the street on a bicycle.
Then xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx.
And xxx xxx xxxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx.
Basically, it was a little mini story of something that had happened, a good four lines long. And what got out the other end? Merely a mutated version of the short introductory line. That lesson was a revelation. I cannot overstress just how effectively it bought home to me the degree to which communications can be garbled and meanings lost.
Well that, and the fact that some of my classmates weren’t very bright.