Friday, 6 February 2009

Natural Born Quizzers

Top of the Form
Nature v. Nurture

I'll start by coming clean. Originally I was only going to look at the idea that quizzers can be divided up into 'born quizzers' and 'manufactured quizzers'. However when I chose the above title there was something in the back of my mind that rang a bell. So I googled it, and came up with the fact that this was also the title of episode 5 of Steve Coogan's 1995 TV comedy series "Coogan's Run".

You might not remember Coogan's Run, but it was a series of 6 half hour shows with the talented Mr. Coogan showcasing a different comedy character each week. Probably the best remembered is "Get Calf" where he reprised the dual role of twins Paul and Pauline Calf.

"Natural Born Quizzers" if I remember correctly told the story of two men who had been turned into psychopathic killers through a losing appearence on a TV quiz show for schoolkids - a thinly disguised version of "TV Top of the Form" I think. A brief examination of IMD and some fan sites reveals that it was probably the least popular episode of the whole series. Still, for our purposes thats neither here nor there really. What I find interesting, if not puzzling, is that despite the long run that "Top of The Form " had on TV, and the much longer run that it had on the radio, I can't name hardly a single person who appeared as a contestant on the show who ever became famous in later life.

Compare this to , say, "University Challenge". If you're reading this blog out of choice rather than by accident, then its a good safe bet that you could instantly name Stephen Fry, Miriam Margolyes, Clive James, Malcolm Rifkind and Sebastian Faulks all as former contestants. Granted , you'd expect a large group of student contestants, many from Oxbridge, to contain at least a few who would make their mark somehow, especially in the media. But surely one or two former Top of the Formers must have made it somehow. For heavens' sake, even "Blockbusters" could boast Stephen Merchant ( ahh, "The Office" - ahh, "Extras" ) as a former contestant.

You might recall me mentioning Marcus Berkmann's "Brain Men" a while ago. In the book Marcus Berkmann reckons that an appearence on "Top of the Form" was something that you'd want to keep quiet about, and maybe he's right, although I can't really see why. Personally I'd have loved to see my school take part in anything televised. Throughout my childhood years, I can't recall seeing a school in the London Borough of Ealing take part in any TV shows like "We Are the Champions" etc. - although I'm willing to concede that one of them might have made some kind of appearence when I wasn't actually looking. I do recall that there was a one off series of a show called "Hobby Horse", where a team from Ealing won the final. My friend Alfie appeared in an episode of "I, Claudius" playing the son of Sejanus. Sejanus, you recall, was played by Patrick Stewart in his pre-Picard days. My mum banned me from watching it when it was first on because it had some "naughty bits" . Another friend of mine auditioned to be part of the "Why Don't You" gang, but got turned down, probably when he told them that his hobbies and interests consisted of watching the telly and very little else.

Then there was another comprehensive school in the Borough which featured in a Panorama documentary. I'm not going to mention the name of the school because they were treated very unfairly in it. The headteacher was daft enough to allow the cameras in, and the producers did a real hatchet job on it. There was something of a mini national scandal about it at the time, and its notoriety lasted for quite a few years. I kid you not. Several years later when I moved to South Wales in 1986, and I was studying for my Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Swansea University, in one of the tutorials the tutor actually played us the video of this show as an example of how not to teach ! However I digress, and back to "Top of the Form".

If you're reading this, and you actually appeared on "Top of the Form" ( TV or Radio versions ) , you do have my respect, and so I'm going to ask you for a favour. Help me pay the show its belated dues.You don't have to be famous and/or successful either ( although I'm sure that you're the latter ). Just drop me a line to my email address

and tell me what you can about it, and then I will personally include you upon a role of honour for people who appeared on the show.
For younger readers, I'll do the same for "Blockbusters" if you do the same and drop me a line.

So then, nature versus nurture. School has been quite disrupted this week with the closure on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the small numbers of children attending for the rest of the week. So much so that we've had to mix and match a bit with classes, and leave some normal lessons to one side for the time being. This resulted me giving a lesson on memory techniques to several groups of children.

Don't worry, I am getting towards the point. One of the kids expressed a widely held view, saying something along the lines of
" Well, its just a matter of luck, isn't it ? You've either got a good memory, or an OK one, or a bad one. " Of course, I argued against it, and said that I think that potentially everyone has got a good memory, but some of us need to learn techniques to help us use our memories more effectively - God, I do sound like a teacher, don't I ? -

But it did set me to thinking. I don't agree that being a good quizzer is only about having a god memory, but I do think that memory is very important. I personally think about memory as being split into two different functions, retention and recall. Retention means the function of actually keeping facts,or if you like, its all about what you actually hold in your memory. Recall means the the function of bringing your handy fact to the forefront of your conscious mind. One without the other isn't any good. You may have fantastic recall, but if the answer you're looking for isn't held in your memory, either because you never knew it in the first place, or its gone from your memory, then you're not going to come up with the answer. Likewise, you may have the most fantastically well stocked store of knowledge, but if you can only dredge up a relevant fact after you've been given half an hour's prior warning, then that's no good either.

Of course, I do agree that there's more to winning quizzes than recalling facts that you have committed to memory. An essential skill is being able to use what you do know to help you figure out what you don't know. For example, you don't know which flower has the scientific name Helianthus. However you do remember that Helios was a greek God of the Sun. So its an educated guess to say that Helianthus might be a sunflower. However I don't think its unreasonable to say that most successful quizzers have an unusually large store of facts committed to their memories, which they can recall quickly when needed for an answer to a question.

OK - so far so good. How, though, do you reach this enhanced state of being ? Are some people just born with the ability to absorb, retain, and recall knowledge through a form of osmosis ? Can anyone make themselves into a great quizzer through hard work, and the acquisition of some effective memory techniques ? I can't help saying that I think the answer to both questions is probably in the affirmative.

If I'm honest, I admit that I myself am probably a lot closer to the osmosis end of the scale than I am to the hard work end of it. In fact, leaving aside Mastermind, I can only really remember 2 occasions in the 21 years of my quizzing career that I have been moved to sit down and formally learn a body of knowledge solely for use in quizzes. The first time was either in 1989 or 1990. The team from the Railway Club in Port Talbot, of whom I was a proud member, had won the local league and cup double for two years running. We were playing in an open quiz, and some of the team couldn't make it. There was a round on American state capital cities, unusual ones, and we blew the whole quiz on that one round, because our Geography expert wasn't there. I was so angry about the whole experience that I spent the best part of an evening committing all 50 of them to memory. Which I have to say that I have never regretted, since they have been a secure source of quiz points ever since.

On the other occasion, playing for Neath Workingmen's Club in the Neath Quiz League, we were taken to the wire by half a dozen questions on the scientific names of british birds. So, in case the team setting the questions tried this again, I learned about 60. I can't say that this has been anything like as fruitful a time investment as the state capitals, but they come in handy at odd times, and in odd places.

That's it really. Having said that you do pick up a hell of a lot from setting your own quizzes. By and large, as a natural born quizzer you often find answers coming to you from absolutely nowhere - and these are answer type three and type four in the Clark taxonomy of questions, which you may recall is as follows : -

Type 1 - The questions you know that you know
Type 2 - The questions you know that you don't know
Type 3 - The questions you don't know that you know
Type 4 - The questions you don't know that you don't know

it requires a lot of experience of yourself to be able to tell the difference.

Compare this with John. If you're new to the blog, John is my best quizzing mate, and in many ways my quiz mentor. John is very much a self made quizzer of the old school. Mnemonics ? You betcha. Lists ? All present and correct. John's success rate with questions that he answers is amazing. He nearly always knows when he knows something, and he almost always knows when he doesn't know something. However, its where he doesn't know something that the difference between us becomes more obvious. John rarely has a flash of intuition or inspiration which helps him pluck an answer out of the ether. This is one of the reasons why, as a team, we complement each other, and I have to say that we are more than the sum of our parts.

Could you, I wonder, take an ordinary member of the public with an ordinary amount of general knowledge, and in the space of a few weeks, work intensively to turn them into a self made quizzer, of a good enough standard to be competitive on, for the sake of argument, Mastermind ? I can't help thinking that this would be a highly interesting experiment, and would make a good "Faking It " style show.

Coming back to the Nature v. Nurture discussion, last night's quiz in the Aberavon Rugby Club was not an occasion where intuition was likely to prevail. Brian produced a good , old fashioned quiz, of the type he used to produce every time he made a quiz some ten years ago. I would say that there were 8 or 9 questions in each round of 10 that a good quizzer should have been confident of answering correctly. That's a hell of a lot of bread and butter. Somehow I can't help thinking that the 1 or 2 toughies in each round didn't really make that much difference to the final result. Last night was a night when certainty was needed, and any second guessing of ourselves could have led to disaster. All square going into the last round, there were 6 answers out of 10 we were certain of, and another 2 we thought were right, but at this late stage we weren't absolutely 100% certain. It required a cool head to lave the answers we first thought of, a decision which thankfully paid off as we scored 9 out of 10 to our rivals' 6. Out of interest, this was my first quiz since last Sunday. I think I'm suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Roll on Monday.

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