Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Death of The Pragmatist

My time at theological college served many good purposes. The arrival of my children tops that list, of course - but something unexpected happened, and something very welcome indeed. It seems to be the thing to do to mash theological students through a million personality models: Myers-Briggs, Honey & Mumford, Hayes & Finch (spot the impostor) as well as flick our giblets over white-boards with perty pictures like Johari Windows, Praxis Models and some bizarre outpourings from one of the seven-hundred gazillion leadership gurus that now creep across the earth.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised to note, I learned a little of who I am.

I am not one who benefits from sitting in lecture halls being talked at for an hour. I struggle with making sense of the world through books and handouts. I don't excel at examinations because my brain isn't wired that way and for most of my life until that point, I thought myself politely retarded or else a lazy slob who for some reason just didn't care enough to try harder. Other aspects of theological education fast became an issue in that way too as there are the poppets who can sit and listen to a diatribe on the European Reformation and then argue the toss over semantics. Me - I was lost within five minutes, often emerging from said lecture theatre down-hearted and feeling quite routinely stupid.

What I did learn, though, is that I am a confirmed pragmatist. I am an experiential learner who knows much about computers by smashing a few to pieces and re-assembling them. I learn by mutual exchange - so if I sit with you over a beer for a few hours and talk with you, I will learn the lesson you seek to teach me. I can ask my own questions, approach it in my own way, build mental-models to illustrate your hypothesis, get there in the end. If you knew me well enough, you would know that I have a neat analogy for just about anything - that is how I am wired. While it means I am average academically, it means that I am practical. It means that I see the world in a way that means I can tackle the unexpected in a calm and measured way. I never flap in emergencies, including the motorway pile-up I was one in the middle of. I got out of the car and started to work it out.

In 1987 or thereabouts, the then Tory Government invented a new method of examination - the GCSE. No longer was it a "sit and be excellent for three hours and your life will be sorted" type of qualification, but one that said you had permission to be who you were built to be, and if that meant you were a plodder, good with your hands but over days not minutes, that you stood a chance in life and in getting some half decent grades that assessed years not a small window in time like exams do. For example, I am quite neat with a pencil and used to love to draw. I'd draw good pictures over the course of a year, but under the rarefied confines of an examination would wholly lack the inspiration to draw at all, let alone well. Times that by all the subjects that I took and you see a healthy situation for those like me. The pictures drawn during the year meant something; they had value to the outcome for me. The degree I am currently completing is modelled in the same way.  I am required to submit portfolios not sit exams - which means that instead of sitting in a cold hall for three hours pretending to remember theories on preaching and hermeneutics, I can instead demonstrate an ability in that field by submitting sermons actually preached in front of real people who gave constructive feedback. Is a preacher one who is gifted at exams or one who can preach to people? You decide.

It has been announced recently, by another Tory politician, that the GCSEs are about to go the way of the Dodo. No more modular assessment, just exams. That would be me screwed then - and many like me. Under these new plans, I would not have achieved the grades that would have got me to A Levels that got me to Further Education that helped get me to this desk as a priest this day. Great for those whose gift is exams. Great for those who, therefore, can look at facts and arguments, soak them up, and regurgitate them on demand like so many photocopiers. Does the world need more photocopiers in soft flesh?

Fairly recently, I saw a video of Sir Ken Robinson (see below) who doubled the epiphany of my theological college discovery about my learning styles. I visit schools from time to time and worry - really deeply worry - that the system is breeding competent photocopiers, and not students who can be who they were built to be. Their vibrancy and life seems to be placed in the back seat while grades and results take the front. I leave you with Mr Robinson.


  1. Such good sense! I was good at exams, but know so many people who weren't and only shone when other methods of assessment were introduced. Abandoning GCSE model is a backward step, not justified educationally.

  2. Thank you for your honesty. I think that I am the same, in that I might not have academic talent and an inability to retain detailed information, I know that I can get the shape and feel of a topic or subject from a similar experience. Perhaps a combination of the things you, but also with revision and writing everything down.

    I sat the 11+ and failed. Went to a Secondary Modern and left at 16 with zilch. Joined the Army who trained me, part of that training was practical education to prepare me for becoming an NCO in my role this went hand in hand with technical training for the job and of course military training to be a soldier.

    This model continued through my career. We had to submit written work for the theory, but were also assessed on the practical by 'doing it'.

    Later, they introduced modular training (sadly after my time in training) testing at the end of each module with an overall assessment at the end of a course. This seems to me to be similar to GCSE's and no body is arguing that our Army is any less capable or professional than any other in the world.

    A combination of modular training, combined with ongoing assessment of progress at the end of each stage, with a final written and practical submission may be the way ahead for education. It works for the Army, I now am educated to Level 7 in Leadership and Management. This can perhaps be classed as Vocational training, but there was a substantial amount of academic study over the years, essay submission and marking, evidence of achievement was available, but wasn't asked for or about.

    Unfortunately the church assessed an possible inability to cope with academic learning at BAP, which was one, among the reasons for the Non Recommendation for training. All of this seems a bit strange as I would have been entering a modular, part-time programme.

    Does this mean that I am written off? No, my Vicar and many others have confidence that something else will come along, and we are working on that. How many young students who fail academically will be given that opportunity?

  3. I agree absolutely with every word of the wonderful Ken Robinson's thinking on this subject.
    Like you David, and also like UKViewer, I failed dismally in the eyes of the then education structure, and like you am seriously concerned about this retrograde step.
    It will simply perpetuate the myth that some, a small percentage of students are worth 'wasting' valuable resources on, while the remainder, who fail to reach the standard of the day, are simply not worth all the effort and expense.
    This is how the elitist society has survived for so long, and why "some are more equal than others".
    There is an immense treasure house of talent and ingenuity out there just waiting to be tapped.
    This time voices must be raised in protest, before the proposals become law.

  4. I agree with you that it is a retrograde step but in many ways and for many children the on-going assessment & portfolio is more of how well their parents can help them than them showing what they can do from what I have seen in recent years.

    Aris is not wired the exam way either, cannot listen for hours or even seconds it would seem. Maybe schools & colleges would benefit from having lessons to find out what kind of learner you are & structure classes accordingly. Maybe when this happens smart people will stop falling through the cracks. I pray that my young lady will have her light bulb moment soon.



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