It seems whenever I venture back into the world of academia I am reminded of this story that I read when I was a kid. (Amazing that I even remember it!) Now maybe it is just me, but I find that the questions teachers set just aren’t very clear.

The story is from the Enid Blyton classic, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and the children have unwittingly end up in Dame Slap’s School:

“The more the children looked at the three questions on the board, the more they felt certain they could never answer them. Moon-Face turned to Connie, ‘Quick! Tell us the right answers. You said you were good at lessons.’

Connie read the first question. ‘Three blackbirds sat on a cherry tree. They ate one hundred and twenty-three of the cherries. How many were left?’

‘Well, how can we say, unless we know how many there were in the beginning?’ asked Connie, out loud. ‘What a silly question!’

Jo read the next one out loud. ‘If there are a hundred pages in a book, how many books would there be on the shelf?’

‘The questions are just nonsense,’ said Moon-Face gloomily.

‘They were before, when we were here,’ said Jo.

The third question was very short. Jo read it out. ‘Why is a blackboard?’

‘Why is a blackboard!’ repeated Silky. ‘There is no sense in that question either.’

‘Well – the questions are nonsense, so we’ll put down answers that are nonsense,’ said Jo.

So they put down ‘none’ about how many cherries were left on the tree. Then they read the book-question again. And again they put down ‘none’.

‘We are not told that the shelf was a book shelf,’ said Jo. ‘It might be a shelf for ornaments, or a bathroom shelf for glasses and tooth-brushes and things. There wouldn’t be any books there.’

The third question was a puzzler. ‘Why is a blackboard?’

Jo ran out of his place and rubbed out the two last words. He wrote them again – and then the question read ‘Why is a board black?’

‘We can easily answer that,’ said Jo, with a grin. ‘Why is a board black? So that we can write on it with white chalk!’

So, when Dame Slap came back, the only people who had answered all the questions were Jo, Silky, Moon-Face and Connie! Dame Slap beamed at them.

‘Dear me, I have some clever children at last! she said. ‘You have written answers to all the questions.’

‘Then they are right?’ asked Silky, in wonder.

‘I don’t know,’ said Dame Slap. ‘But that doesn’t matter. It’s the answers I want. I don’t care what’s in them, so long as you have written answers. I don’t know the answers myself, so it’s no good my reading them.'”

Blyton, E. (1997) The Folk of the Faraway Tree. London: Mammoth, p. 95-97