A colleague once handed me an examination script, promising me that I would enjoy reading it. Patiently turning over the first page (always turn over the page) I reached Question 7:

What is 27 x 3? (show your working).

In the box provided, the young boy had supplied the solution: 81. He had diligently enclosed this answer in a thought-bubble emanating from a stick figure crouched over a desk, demonstrating that he was indeed working.

Without wishing to gloss over the power of apostrophes, it strikes me that he was illustrating a truth as well as an answer (he got the extra mark). School is not just about being able to deliver the appropriate response. How you got there matters more.

Teacher: From where did Abraham come?
Pupil: Err…
Teacher: Well done.


I once took a French scuba-diving assessment having memorised specific pages of the manual without knowing what they meant. I suppose the fact that I didn’t duly drown or suffer the bends spoils my point, but learning ideally should be synonymous with understanding. In a time of ‘fake news,’ it’s more important than ever to question answers. The philosopher Socrates was held to be the ‘wisest of men’ because he realised how little he knew. Plato’s Laches describes him exploring the concept of courage by continually exposing how rickety his friends’ definitions are. Much of the time, Socrates does this simply by saying: ‘But what do you mean by that?’ The next time one of your children invigorates a long car journey by replying ‘Why?’ to each and every of your explanations as to why the sky is blue or crocodiles don’t live in England, remember that they are fulfilling a noble philosophical tradition in the quest for truth.

Schools have to tread this line thoughtfully. Examination syllabuses and inspection criteria are fond of discrete, definitive data. I’m certain that not all learning lends itself fully to this approach. My own most memorable teachers treated assessment as a subordinate and casual infringement upon learning. The weaker ones acted like zoo vets, immobilising us with tranquilisers to extract diagnostic samples. At the risk of pulling a metaphorical muscle, the better were content to let us gallop, taking all the readings they needed simply from our droppings. Diet and exercise, after all, take care of most things.

Learning for its own sake is every bit as valid as for a more utilitarian purpose. And one man’s poetry is another man’s prose. My brother-in-law, who really is a rocket scientist, recently recited the title of his PHD for me. I recognised the conjunctions. The relevance of individual nuggets, though, can lie respectably dormant for long whiles. Ideally, it isn’t only in pub quizzes that gobbets of learning finally demonstrate their worth. Though I have yet to wield a protractor in adult life, I have tried to work out how much paint I need to recoat a bathroom. I can still remember the excitement of actually asking a Frenchman the way to the railway station (and, alas, probably so can he). More meaningfully, the paths particular teachers took me on into literature and poetry I still tread today.

Exams are not wholly bad, of course, and I can easily respect the gathering of facts as an incidental part of learning. In Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ a young monk is awestruck by the scale of a library. He imagines the books talking among themselves, pooling their contents into streams of discourse. It is dipping into this conversation that is the grail of study: the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Chasing that chalice are the attitudes and appetites exercised by the school’s environment. These are the legacies of education which transcend knowing the answer. The thirst for enlightenment is a virtue, its utility less so. The habit of questioning, discussing, doubting and defending is greater still. The answers themselves remain ingredients – nourishing, but not a dinner party.

How then should schools teach learning? That answer may lie in 1984, and The Karate Kid. Here Mr Miyagi teaches his student a martial art through a series of seemingly irrelevant exercises. Instead of smashing slabs with his bare fists, Daniel finds himself painting a fence interminably. Eventually Sensei Miyagi reveals that the motions of the drudging tasks have trained Daniel’s muscle memory to deliver lightning blocks and counter-punches: the rudiments of karate. Schools must make sure their students are not just taught how to paint fences, but to animate the components of their learning into awesome, baddie-crunching crane kicks.

Simon Head is the headmaster of Chafyn Grove.


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