"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

23 January 2018


The danger of tests and league tables and so on is that they demand clear, unequivocal, one-dimensional results. In order to give the sort of result that can be tabulated and measured, they force every kind of response to a piece of writing through a sort of coarse-grained mesh so that it comes out black or white, on or off, yes or no, this or that. In a multiple-choice test there’s no provision to say both, or all of them sometimes but mostly this, or this today but that yesterday and who knows what tomorrow, and not at all something else quite different from any of these, and certainly not ever I love this. It made my heart turn over, I was so happy when I read it.

Here’s the truth about how children respond to literature. It comes from a book by a great teacher and storyteller called Marie L. Shedlock. She said this:
My experience, in the first place, has taught me that a child very seldom gives out any account of a deep impression made upon him: it is too sacred and personal. But he very soon learns to know what is expected of him, and he keeps a set of stock sentences which he has found out are acceptable to the teacher. How can we possibly gauge the deep effects of a story this way? Then again, why are we in such a hurry to find out what effects have been produced by our stories? Does it matter whether we know today or tomorrow how much a child has understood? For my part, so sure do I feel of the effect that I am willing to wait indefinitely.
Incidentally, that doesn’t come from the 1960s; it was from a book called The Art of the Storyteller, published in 1915.

There is no human purpose in this incessant, frenzied testing at all. The children who are supposed to be at the heart of the educational process are turned into little twitching cells of response, like the nerve in the leg of Galvani’s famous frog. That’s all they have to do: to twitch or kick appropriately. Nothing else matters. The depth of their lives, the richness and complexity of their emotions, the trouble and difficulty, the love and the hope and the fear and the exhilaration and the joy of being alive and conscious, all that is irrelevant. It’s cut off and thrown away. All we want is the little kicking twitching frog’s leg. If enough of them kick this box, then the school will go up in the league tables, to universal applause – what a good school! What dedicated teachers! What a wise and far-seeing education system we have! If too many little twitching frogs’ legs kick that box, then the school will go down, to universal condemnation: useless teachers; feeble leadership; name them and shame them.

Testing and league tables are a coarse way of dealing with learning, but they’re not only coarse; they’re a stupid way of assessing human achievement, but they’re not only stupid; they’re a cruel way of dealing with children, but they’re not only cruel. You can be coarse and stupid and cruel carelessly, ignorantly, without realising what you’re doing, and when it’s pointed out you can see your mistake, and do things in a better way. But there’s a willed quality to this. Plenty of clever and well-qualified people have sat down and worked this out deliberately. Plenty of commentators in the press have jeered at those who criticise it. Plenty of ignorant politicians have hitched their opportunistic wagons to tests and SATs and league tables, aware of nothing but the way things were going, and eager to be going in the same direction, leading from behind as usual. All of those people wanted things to be like this.

And meanwhile, they miss what is going on when a child writes a story.

Philip Pullman


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