Protocols for the education of young witches and wizards: Education in three children’s series of fantasy novels

This is the notes of a paper I gave at CRSF last year and Nine Worlds this year. The link below is the PowerPoint presentation.

Protocols for the education of young wizards and 1

This paper discusses approaches to pedagogy outlined in three series of books for children and young adults. By the end of the presentation, I hope to have outlined what the education systems in these novels says about the culture and society presented in these books. The books are: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series.


First, a brief summary of constructivist pedagogy. Piaget was the preeminent scholar of constructivism- children go through stages of learning and construct their meaning from interaction with the environment. Social constructivism- children learn best and construct meaning through interaction with the environment alongside a more experienced learner or teacher.

Social learning theory/ Social cognition theory

Humans are self-organising, self-regulating and self- reflecting, and learning should be social, modelled by an adult to develop these innate qualities.

The pedagogy of Hogwarts

Behaviourism (Skinner) is the basis of many rewards-based behaviour management systems. Whyte and Lauriston (1980) argued that students intrinsically motivated (i.e. good behaviour is its own reward) tend to be more academically successful- for example, Hermione; Lavender Brown in Divination; Neville Longbottom in Herbology.

Remus Lupin

Rebus asks questions. He wants to assess prior knowledge but also to allow student voice (Bruner). He encourages oral rehearsal before practice. He uses praise to engage and encourage. He models what he expects from the students (Bandura). Practical activity with real life application, supported by teacher (Vygotsky). Assessment at the end of the lesson and feedback. Unfortunately, despite Lupin’s success as a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, anti-werewolf feeling leads to him leaving Hogwarts.

Bartimaeus trilogy

Young magicians are chosen by more experienced magicians at a young age, and are supposed to be taught and inducted into the magician life. Magicians control society in this alternate version of our world; they are government, judicial system and policing. Nathanial has tutors, and has very little interaction with his master (Arthur Underwood), who is supposed to induct him into the wizard world.

Arthur has no idea about Nathanial’s abilities; he constantly underestimates him, provides no challenge and never assesses him. He makes little attempt to get to know Nathanial and doesn’t have a holistic attitude to teaching the whole child. As a result, Nathanial becomes bored and overreaches himself.


On the Discworld, wizards attend Unseen University where they squabble about arcane theory and academic preference, wear silly outfits and are involved with outmoded pageantry.

Witches, on the other hand, are fully involved with the community, although their status does set them apart a little. Witches are spotted by Miss Tick the Witch finder, who then arranges for the witch to become an apprentice to an older, more experienced witch. Tiffany adopts, then adapts, the practice of her mentors, eventually taking her own apprentice; Geoffrey. This education is fully grounded in a social constructivist model and has a sound moral basis- “witches speak for those who cannot speak for themselves”.

What does this tell us about the fictional worlds?

Hogwarts separates young Muggles (non wizards) from wizards, and then sorts them again into houses at the age of 11, labelling them as brave, hard working, intelligent or cunning. The “us versus them”, competitive atmosphere that this creates at Hogwarts from Harry’s first day at Hogwarts ultimately leads to the rise of the Death Eaters, the repressive Ministry of Magic under Rufus Scrimgeour and Dolores Umbridge.

In the Bartimaeus trilogy, the early separation of magicians and commoners, as well as a very jingoistic education system (seen in the second in the trilogy, The Golem’s Eye) creates resentment and ultimately revolution in the commoners and fear and suspicion in the magicians.

Pratchett tells us that “witches do the work that is in front of them”. Their education is community based, practical and ethically based. Tiffany is educated morally, spiritually and practically; by the final book she recognises the changes in Discworld with the coming of the railways.


Despite both Hermione and Tiffany’s enjoyment of reading and love of learning being shown as positives that save them in dangerous situations, all the series view education as an economic function, training young wizards and witches to fulfil their working roles in society. Through this, Rowling, Stroud and Pratchett comment on, critique and satirise contemporary society.


My stepson’s Doctor Who story.

I just found this story in the notes on my phone. I wrote it down as he told it, playing with my action figures. He’s autistic and awesome, and loves Doctor Who. 

The TARDIS crashed down on a strange planet. Martha said: “Is everyone alright?”
Madame Vastra said: “I’ve only got a little bit of blood on my bum.” Everyone went out of the TARDIS. Some baddie robots came and the Doctor and Martha had to fight them. A baddie robot fell down. A little robot said “You killed my father! You’re going down, cowboy!” They ran to the TARDIS. The Doctor said “Oh there you are! I miss you so much.”

Deepening critical reading with undergraduate students

At the UK Literacy Association international conference in Glasgow at the beginning of the month, I attended a presentation by Dr Naomi Boakye of the University of Pretoria, where she described her approach to developing academic literacy with English as a second language learners in the sociology department, which I fully intend to develop. She uses an approach that I recognise from my primary teaching days: Literature Circles roles.

I have been thinking about a piece of feedback received from my mid-module evaluations: “Alison talks too much”, which, while my initial response was “I’m a lecturer! It’s my job to talk!” made me consider to what extent I am really meeting my students’ needs. By presenting them with information in lectures and then just expecting them to discuss it, am I disempowering my students, particularly those who need longer to digest information? In addition, my frustration at those who don’t do the reading may not be helping them. Perhaps I need to make it clear to them why I have selected the weekly reading, how to read it critically and what I mean by discussing it.

So, I have adapted literature circle cards. I am going to put my students in randomly assigned groups of 5 for seminars (I have 40 students on my module next academic year) and each group will be given the role cards. They will be assigned a role for the following week’s discussion, and the roles will circulate each week. I am hoping that the need for the role cards will lessen as reading critically becomes internalised. I am seeking ethical approval for a small piece of qualitative research with my students to find out their experience of critical reading and whether or not this approach has helped them, and I will report back.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Literature circle role cards

Othering in C S Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy

Warning: spoilers for a 53 year old children’s book. Deal with it!

I encountered Judith Tarr’s A Wind in Cairo via her column for Tor on  C. S. Lewis’  The Horse and his Boy. 

horse and his boy 001 (4)

Tashbaan, Calormen’s capital city

The Horse and his Boy was published in 1954, and was set during the Narnian reign of the Pevensie children. Set in Calormen, the orientalist country to the south of Narnia, it is the story of Shasta, a poor boy who lives with a Calormene fisherman that he learns is not his father. Shasta is not happy where he lives, so when a Calormene nobleman comes to Shasta and Arsheesh’s house for shelter in a storm and offers to buy Shasta, he is initially quite excited by the prospect of advancement and adventure. However, he discovers that the nobleman’s horse has been kidnapped as a foal from Narnia, where animals can talk, and taken to Calormen. Bree, the horse, warns Shasta that the life of a slave in the nobleman’s palace will be terrible. So within the first few pages we know that Calormen is a cruel, class-ridden country where kidnapping, slavery (and possibly sexual abuse of blonde children) is normal. Later, when Shasta teams up with Aravis, the daughter of a Calormene nobleman and her talking mare, Hwin, we also discover that forced marriage of daughters to older men in exchange for the advancement of the family is common practice.

As Katherine Langrish  has pointed out, Lewis could have chosen to include fantastical elements from Arabic folklore, but there are no djinn, or magic flying carpets, or the Old Man of the Sea. Calormen is in fact portrayed as anti-magic, but superstitious: they believe the tombs outside Tashbaan are haunted by ghouls, and that Aslan is a demon. So why did I love this book so much as a child? Well, two things: Bree, the talking stallion, and Aravis, the aristocratic Calormene girl. She is proud, bossy and initially unquestioning about her privilege in society. But, she is also willing to learn from experience and admit when she’s wrong. She is brave, resourceful and a great horsewoman.

Al-Azhar park mediaeval cairo

Mediaeval Cairo from Al-Azhar park

In the Tor column linked above, Judith Tarr states that she was inspired to write A Wind In Cairo by the The Horse and his Boy, to portray the human-horse relationship more realistically. As well as having degrees in English and Classics and PhD in Mediaeval Studies, Tarr breeds Lipizzan horses (dancing horses) on her ranch in ArizonA. Now, I don’t know much about horses or Mediaeval Egyptian history, so I am willing to believe in Tarr’s portrayal of both. Hasan, the ne’er-do-well son of a Cairo nobleman, is beaten after a night drinking with his friends before being sent to the Bedouin to mend his ways. He is taken in by a Hajji, a wise man, who heals him. Hasan, however, rapes the wise man’s daughter, and to punish him the Hajji turns him into a stallion, and he is told that once he learns to submit to a woman willingly, he can become human again. Eventually Hasan is taken to the house of Hasan’s father’s greatest enemy, and is trained and ridden by Zamaniyah, his daughter, who has been brought up as a boy. This is an echo of the fate of Rabasash the Tisroc’s son in The Horse and his Boy.

I found Zamaniyah a wonderful character. The girl who becomes an honorary boy is of course a familiar trope in fantasy literature, and I have never read a book that questions it before. Zamaniyah belongs nowhere. She doesn’t fit in with the harem, so she has no female friends. At the same time, Cairo male society knows that she is not a man. So she is a lonely character, both privileged and marginalised. She makes friends with her father’s Frankish concubine, Wiborada, was also a female warrior, and the trope of the white woman and the Sheikh is also overturned in the book. Wiborada most definitely does not fall in love with Al-Zaman, and the innate nobility of the white, blonde haired characters is also overturned; when Wiborada deserts the Egyptian army to return to the Franks she is beaten and raped by the Frankish army, despite her claims for sanctuary and telling them who she is. Shasta, on the other hand, is immediately recognised as the Pauper twin, for a short time swaps places with the Prince twin, and of course turns out to be the son of the King of Archenland.

It was very interesting re-reading The Horse and His Boy, no longer my favourite Narnian novel. I now prefer Prince Caspian. But it did enrich my reading of A Wind in Cairo. For that, I’m grateful.

Recent reading: James Clammer and Louise O’ Neill

Recently I read two fantastic books that I can’t stop thinking about, for different reasons. You may like them too!

My PhD is in White working class children in children’s fantasy fiction. These days, with the increased marketisation of publishing for children, there are fewer and fewer fantasy books featuring white working class children. Realist/ mimetic fiction does feature working class children, but they are often struggling through problems, not having adventures. So when my husband told me that his university friend James Clammer  had written a novel for young people, I had to read it.

why i went back


Aidan is a postman’s son whose mother is an in-patient in a psychiatric ward. His dad has stopped going to work, and Aidan is struggling at school. When he wakes up one morning to see his bike being stolen, that he relies on to deliver the post that his dad isn’t dealing with, he chases after the thieves. What, and who, he finds in the abandoned factory changes everything.

It is a truism that in order to write a children’s fantasy or adventure story, the author has to get rid of the parents, and Clammer does this by creating a completely realistic scenario involving the mental health of Aidan’s parents. His taking responsibility for his father and his complete awareness of what could happen to him if his dad doesn’t get back to work is very believable. The fantasy elements intruding in Aidan’s world are both funny and touching.

Only Ever Yours

Image: The Guardian

I’ve been meaning to read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill for ages, but a couple of events pushed it up my TBR pile: the attacks on women’s reproductive rights in the US, the pro-choice campaign in Ireland and catching up with this archive programme from Radio 4. Like Why I Went Back, Only Ever Yours is written in the first person. It is the story of freda (all women characters’ names are written in lower case in the novel), an eve, a genetically modified girl, created to be either a companion (wife), concubine (sexual slave, without the agency of a prostitute) or a chastity (teacher and guardian to new eves).

Another truism: dystopias are always about the world they are written in. The Hunger Games was written while the US was at war and reality TV was a new medium in the days before Netflix. Only Ever Yours was written in a world of curated content, both self curated (Instagram selfies) and curated for the individual by corporations (Netflix, Amazon suggestions and social media timelines with promoted content), and the #weneeddiversebooks campaign. Diversity is dealt with brilliantly. As freda’s days at school are ended and her future will be decided by boys to whom she will be a concubine or companion, or, if entirely rejected by the boys, a chastity, she learns what her protected environment has stopped her from knowing. The ending of this book is stunning, and not at all what I was expecting from a young adult novel.

Please let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read them.

Eastercon 2017- come and say hi!

I’ll be on panels at Eastercon:

Please come and say hi if you’re there! I’ll be on registration on Friday, and otherwise chasing after a tiny Worst Witch, Iron Man or Ghostbuster. Or in the bar.