Red pill, blue pill

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

In the Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo the choice of a red pill or a blue pill. The blue pill allows Neo to return to  his fake reality (essentially the world we know). The red pill offers the chance to escape this virtual reality and live in the actual world; a grim reality where humans are kept as mere energy sources for a web of computer intelligence.

The metaphor of the red pill, or similar, is a recurring one in philosophy and literature; from Descartes’ allegory of the cave, to films such as Total Recall, not forgetting the red vial which Alice is offered as an escape from Wonderland (referenced by Morpheus above).

Aside – my favourite incarnation is in the superb Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy ‘dreams’ of an escape from the world in which she is chosen to sacrifice herself in her role of protector of humanity. In her dream world, her Father is still alive, vampires are a fictional creation and she lives the life of a normal teenage girl. For a while, we question which world is ‘real’ and which is the dream. Like Buffy, we would love to believe the world without evil is reality, but know that this world is just to good to be true.

All these mythologies share the idea that the true reality is likely to be the less digestible option. Ignorance is bliss, whilst reality is grim.

Why take the red pill?

However grim and difficult reality is, at least it is authentic.  To willingly deceive ourselves, or be manipulated by a deceitful other (like Descartes’ demon), is somehow to surrender our humanity.

Educational red pills

As school leaders we are faced with many red and blue pills. When given the choice, it is our duty to take the red pill, but this may not always be an easy choice.

One of these red pills, I believe, is the realisation that learning is invisible. This has been written about extensively, not least of all by David Didau (, despite convincing argument and evidence to support this claim, most senior leaders in schools refuse to swallow  this pill. Why?

This reality is disruptive

It is highly inconvenient to accept that learning is invisible.

  1. So many of the systems and processes we have created are predicated on a certainty that we can tell if students are learning; lesson observation, work sampling, performance management, performance related pay and data tracking, for example. Swallowing the red pill means we have to swallow our pride and start to redesign the systems we have come to rely on.
  2. Senior leaders know best. That’s why they are senior leaders isn’t it? Accepting that we probably can’t tell if learning is taking place is tantamount to the factory manager admitting that he can’t judge the quality of the firm’s product, or the football manager telling his players that he doesn’t know how well they played. The blue pill takes us to a world in which leaders lead with confidence, clarity and certainty. That’s a comfortable world for everyone, not just the leader.
  3. Complexity, uncertainty and messiness don’t sit well with a school accountability system which ranks, rates and  codifies success, or a politics of sound bite and simplification. League tables don’t show learning; they couldn’t be more abstracted from the internal processes of the human mind. Our task masters need to take the red pill too. The red pill world is not one without accountability. Politicians can still talk tough, ‘drive’ school improvement and be intolerant of poor standards. Indeed their efforts might actually lead to higher educational standards if we decouple ourselves from the Matrix.

In short, the red pill presents too many inconvenient truths. We cannot blame our school leaders for choosing the comfortable falsity of the blue pill world. Rather we should, like Neo, help them understand that there is merit in choosing harsh reality over comfortable illusion. The red pill leads to integrity and authenticity; an education worth working for.

I’m only just beginning to explore how deep this rabbit hole is. Take the red pill and join me.

3 thoughts on “Red pill, blue pill

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