The Minister for Exams

Sometimes other people say it for you, and here are two examples.  The first was published in 1996 .  It pretty much nails what is wrong with the way we assess students.

The Minister for Exams

When I was a child I sat an exam.

The test was so simple

There was no way I could fail.


Q1.  Describe the taste of the moon.


It tastes like creation, I wrote,

It has the flavour of starlight.


Q2.  What colour is Love?


Love is the colour of the water a man lost in the desert finds, I wrote.


Q3.  Why do snowflakes melt?


I wrote, they melt because they fall onto the warm tongue of God.


There were other questions.

They were as simple.

I described the grief of Adam when he was expelled from Eden.

I wrote down the exact weight of an elephant’s dream.

Yet today, many years later,

for my living I sweep the streets

or clean out the toilets of the fat hotels.

Why?  Because constantly I failed my exams.

Why?  Well, let me set a test.


Q1.  How large is a child’s imagination?


Q2.  How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams.

Brian Patten

(from ‘Armada’, 1996)

The second, on the same theme, comes from a recent speech by Matt Damon:

“I had incredible teachers. And as I look at my life today, the things I value most about myself — my imagination, my love of acting, my passion for writing, my love of learning, my curiosity — all of these things came from how I was parent…ed and taught. And none of these qualities that I’ve just mentioned — none of these qualities that I prize so deeply, that have brought me so much joy, that have brought me so much professional success — none of these qualities that make me who I am … can be tested. I said before that I had incredible teachers. And that’s true. But it’s more than that. My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep — this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers. Now don’t get me wrong. I did have a brush with standardized tests at one point. I remember because my mom went to the principal’s office and said, ‘My kid ain’t taking that. It’s stupid, it won’t tell you anything and it’ll just make him nervous.’ That was in the ’70s when you could talk like that. I shudder to think that these tests are being used today to control where funding goes. I don’t know where I would be today if my teachers’ job security was based on how I performed on some standardized test. If their very survival as teachers was not based on whether I actually fell in love with the process of learning but rather if I could fill in the right bubble on a test. If they had to spend most of their time desperately drilling us and less time encouraging creativity and original ideas; less time knowing who we were, seeing our strengths and helping us realize our talents. I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if that was the type of education I had. I sure as hell wouldn’t be here. I do know that. This has been a horrible decade for teachers. I can’t imagine how demoralized you must feel. But I came here today to deliver an important message to you: As I get older, I appreciate more and more the teachers that I had growing up. And I’m not alone. There are millions of people just like me. So the next time you’re feeling down, or exhausted, or unappreciated, or at the end of your rope; the next time you turn on the TV and see yourself called “overpaid;” the next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything. … Please know that there are millions of us behind you. You have an army of regular people standing right behind you, and our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you and we will always have your back.”

Matt Damon, Save Our Schools March 7/30/2011
A video of the full speech can be viewed here:

Earning our applause

I have probably spent more than two thousand hours in school auditoriums watching and listening to student performers.  They have spanned the full spectrum of talent, and if I were to judge solely on the quality of performance some would have prompted me to leap to my feet in ecstatic applause, a few would have caused me to doze off, and a very few would have made me cringe in my seat.   Regardless of talent, however, what all of the performers shared in common was the courage and determination necessary to meet the challenge of going on stage and exposing their skills to the scrutiny of an audience.  Few things are as terrifying, especially to a young person, and so every performance, without a single exception, has given me pleasure and provoked my admiration.

These feelings were rekindled this week at the Powell River Festival of the Performing Arts.  This is a community rather than a school event, but students nevertheless constitute the great majority of the participants.  The Gala at the end was a showcase of exceptional talent and as entertaining an evening as I have enjoyed anywhere, but just as impressive were the massed ranks of students of all ages who sang, danced, and recited, individually or in groups, throughout the week.  This brought home once again the vital role the performing arts play in education.

Very few of the performers will ever make a living from their art, and so educational reductionists might say that such activities are an unproductive use of school resources.  However, memorisation, self-awareness, poise, confidence, commitment, persistence and a willingness to take risks were all evident in abundance alongside the talent, and without those learned qualities the talent might never have made it on to stage.  These are also the skills that will enable these students to aspire to, and achieve, ambitious goals in any sphere of life.  Perhaps even more importantly, life should be about far more than economic productivity;  it should be about humour, anger, joy and despair, and it is through arts education that students learn to explore, understand, communicate and evoke these emotions.

I congratulate all of those in Powell River who have given their students such an arts-rich environment in which to grow and learn.  While on the topic, let me send a shout-out to my ex-colleagues in Zurich who have been investing unquantifiable time, energy and skill in guiding the school production of ‘The Sound of Music’ which shows later this week.  Whenever a young person is able to stand on stage and hear the applause, anywhere in the world, it is thanks to a teacher who deserves our congratulations and support.