Exams, and the stupid arbitrariness of it all

Yesterday I was having a conversation on Facebook about education, which is a subject I can get quite worked up about. I was also talking to a friend about meeting the Queen, and between these two things it reminded me of a short piece I wrote some years ago for my occasional column in the Guardian. This piece didn’t get published in the end but I did a search and found I still had it. It’s of no significance but I thought I’d post it here, now that we live in a world where we all run our own newspapers. It also covers up for the fact that I don’t have much to blog about at the moment, since I have my head down coding a simulation of an array of magnetic compasses  (don’t even ask!)

A few months ago I was invited to Buckingham Palace, to a reception for British pioneers. Clearly my invitation was the result of a major clerical cock-up, since all my fellow guests were pop legends, heroic explorers or Nobel laureates. But I went along anyway, feeling pretty awkward and out of place in my best Debenhams suit. It was quite an evening.

Thirty minutes after it finished I was back in my comfort zone: sitting next to a homeless guy on Paddington station, munching a burger. As the ketchup dribbled down my tie I suddenly found myself feeling rather serene, as if a great weight had lifted off my shoulders. The moment passed, yet for a brief instant I actually felt rather chuffed with myself. It’s true that I don’t have a proper job and I’ve spent most of my life teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, but heck: I’d just been to Buckingham Palace for the second time in three years. I guessed I must be doing alright at long last.

The other day I was asked to address a conference of head teachers on the subject of provision for gifted and talented children. I don’t know why, since I’m not an expert on education. I wondered if perhaps I’d been invited because I was once a gifted child myself, so I dug out some of my old school reports to see what sort of a prodigal genius I’d been. ‘Incurably lazy’, seemed to be the general opinion. ‘Indecipherably scruffy’ was the verdict on my great works of scientific literature. ‘Could do better’, they said.

In my day we had a two-tier exam system. Those who were smart enough to tie their own shoelaces took GCEs, while the cannon fodder took CSEs. My school put me in for CSEs, and only allowed me to take GCEs as well when my parents agreed to pay the costs. I have never been so insulted in all my life as the day that I sat down to take my Physics CSE and discovered I was expected to label the parts of a light bulb. I ask you! ‘Filament.’ ‘Brass bit.’ ‘Glass bit.’ Surely they were just winding me up? Not long before, I’d invented and prototyped a new kind of fuel cell in my lunch breaks, but were the examiners interested? Did they want to hear about my ideas for what would one day become known as complexity theory? No, they wanted to make certain I was fit to change a bloody light bulb.

In the event I got straight grade ones in CSE and did passably well at GCE, given that I’d been taught the wrong syllabus. But it takes a seriously long time to get over such a blow to one’s self-confidence. Thirty years, in fact.

Partly as a result of this I now find myself in an odd but interesting borderland. On the one hand I’m lucky enough to know some incredibly gifted and talented people who are rich, successful and famous. At the same time I’m privileged to know a good number of equally gifted minds who, by their own admission, are not. I won’t name names, but there is a whole host of people who write to me regularly and engage in passionate and highly sophisticated conversation on some aspect of complexity theory, artificial intelligence or moral philosophy, who I know for sure work in relatively menial jobs and hardly ever get invited to sip whisky with the royal family. What’s the difference between these two groups of people? Nothing that I can see. Luck, perhaps.

Exams are supposed to be there to assess intellectual potential, and perhaps they serve the purpose for those well-balanced, middling-to-bright children who often erroneously get labelled as talented. But when it comes to detecting the oddballs with minds radical enough to make a real difference to human progress, exams seem to fare no better than US airport security, shortly after 9/11. At the very moment that I was being subjected to endless body searches and tests of my political appropriateness in Chicago Midway, a guy at Chicago O’Hare was casually stepping onto a plane armed with three large steak knives and a stun gun. So much for screening.

So what do we do about it? Well let me tell you: I haven’t a clue. Drop the whole stupid exam thing altogether and stop wasting children’s time? Start testing pupils in order to find out if they’re ready to learn something, rather than waiting until afterwards to see if we’ve failed them? Don’t ask me, I’m uneducated, but somebody needs to do something.

As I sat on the bench at Paddington station I couldn’t stop myself letting out a small ironic chuckle at the arbitrariness of it all. Two seconds later, the homeless guy sitting next to me did exactly the same thing.



About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

27 Responses to Exams, and the stupid arbitrariness of it all

  1. James Brooks says:

    Love the story. I have a couple of points. One, there is a very interesting article on the problems of a meritocracy (i.e. a society where the best people get the most) in that luck has such a major factor. Yet if you expect your society to be meritocratic then you will become very frustrated if you are trying and arn’t doing well. I guess my point is that even if you were to give people great education and a chance and hope to be rich and famous if they worked then you will end up with more entropreneurs and more depressed people.

    The other point is a relativly recent change in the primary school education system in the UK. I believe the plan (called ‘pupil orientated’) is to have a set of goals to achieve. The child has open study time where they can choose what to do, student led projects and normal teaching time. The goals include things like ‘holding and using a pencil/paintbrush/pen/etc’ They is no grade for this task, its just something all pupils should be able to do. Hopefully it will allow teachers to really encourage people to pursue their own things in an educational and interesting way.

    Oh and a little admission of my own education. I have been in a ‘special’ (slow) class for English at the same time as doing very well at essays in the top set Biology class. And I have been in a ‘gifted’ class for Maths while unable to do any calcluations in my head or know my times tables.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi James,

      Interesting comments – thank you.

      Well there you are – you’re a nice example of my point. You’re exactly the kind of oddball that makes the world go round. As I’m sure are most people who read and contribute to this blog regularly. But the world doesn’t cater for people like this – like us. You get labeled by the exam system, which judges people on how many ‘A’-levels they have, or what their total score is. But if you look at the people who change the world they’re almost invariably misfits. Someone with a 100 in math and a 0 in English has a “qualification” of 50. So does someone who got 50 in each subject. But who’s more likely to develop a unified field theory?

      Your point about meritocracy is interesting and resonates with something I woke up thinking about – the behaviour of physical media with unstable equilibria. That’s a long story that may end up in my book. But being an intellectual in an autocracy is at least as frustrating – look at all those Soviet dissidents. And democracies don’t do well because of the “draw of the middle”. It’s a convoluted subject and there isn’t space to talk about the funding system, etc. but I agree that there are no easy answers.

      It’s worth noting, though, that the rich and famous intellectuals I know set out to be intellectuals, not rich. Luck has a big influence on whether people gain wealth from their efforts, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between those who set out to get rich and those who set out with an intellectual goal and as a consequence get rich. I’d guess that most of the famous people I’m talking about would far rather lose their money than their capacity to contribute to philosophy. The problem (especially in America) is that money is used much like exams, as a way to judge merit. But both are BAD indicators and really don’t correlate well.

      I’m very glad to hear that child-centred learning is making a comeback. I’ll believe it when I see it, though, because there’s a massive inertia caused by the exam system. In child-centred learning it’s VITAL that testing is used to determine when a child is READY to learn something, not to find out if they failed to learn it. But this isn’t what employers and governments want.

      In my article I said I wasn’t an education expert, and I’m not, but I did train as a primary school teacher and have had some connection with educational psychology for years, and it was actually one of my teaching practice experiences that came into the Facebook conversation. I was saying that I once spent a little time in an open-plan primary school, where the children were individually responsible for their curriculum – no classes, no instruction. They moved from place to place and worked with teachers when appropriate or alone or in groups. It was highly flexible and each child worked at her own pace, in her own way, and helped to teach her peers and juniors. It was an enormous undertaking for the staff, to prepare all this and manage it without excessive intervention but it seemed to work beautifully and be producing highly self-motivated, independent and responsible children. This was in 1977. And although open-plan schools were rare and didn’t take off, they were just an extreme example of a kind of fluid, child-centred, idiosyncratic, adaptive education that DID exist, before the National Curriculum and government intervention in testing destroyed it all. We had it (sometimes) and then we gave it all away. You will have gone through school after it was lost. I’m very glad to hear it’s starting to come back!

  2. Andrew Lovelock says:

    Nice conversation!

    On the arbitrariness of exams: A particular result tells you nothing of the process taken to achieve that result. For example, two people may have the same score but the effort taken to achieve it may be different by orders of magnitude. Also the life path that leads each person to an exam is unique and may create a large divergence of results that has little to do with any innate talent. Luck can be a great factor, the night before a maths exam I just happened to read the proof of a particular theorem that came up and effortlessly netted me a third of the marks for that paper. Results may be affected by bad hair or the time of the month, the capacities and capabilities of people vary through time and mood. Likewise, the adrenalin and the stress of the exam may affect each of us differently. Perception of the questions may vary, in my English ‘O’ Level, following a short story about some people sailing, there were the instructions: Imagine you are John and rewrite the story in 200 words. I took that as two independent instructions.

    Exams are needed by determinist employers for the commoditisation of workers, to specify the parts for their business machines. Diversity is of course perversity.

    On proper primary education: The only school that I went to and quite liked, as opposed to keenly hated, was the primary school in the village of Bowerchalke back in the late 50’s. There were about 30 of us, ages 5 to 11, all in one class. The span of ages created a developmental diversity that made teaching the class as a whole for the most part impossible. There was a simple structure, we kind of knew to be reasonably studious and well mannered and we had books on the usual subjects. Mrs Adams facilitated it all marvellously, it was adaptive, there was always encouragement and individual attention and to my particular joy the freedom to learn at an independent rate. It was the only school I attended that was not an “Institution”. The Salisbury grammar school that followed in the early 60’s however, managed to be an effectively rigid and spirit crushing experience despite the lack of a National Curriculum. When I started there I loved every subject, by the time I left I only liked Pure Maths.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Andrew! Yes, I completely agree. And even if you try to solve that problem by just doing more and more tests – SATs and the like – there’s still a real danger that the assumptions underlying the tests disadvantage people because they just happen to think in an unusual way, which is something we ought to prize, not punish.

      Love the story of John – why shouldn’t your answer have been right? Serves them right for being ambiguous. My Dad tells a story about the Air Force, where he was a radio instructor. One exam asked a question along the lines of “Suppose you measured the voltage drop across the superhet oscillator triode as only 50V. What would you do?”, or something like that. Anyone who really understood electronics would have answered “there’s probably a dry joint near rectifier X, so I’d retouch those joints.” But that was the “wrong” answer. The “right” answer was “I’d throw away the oscillator board and replace it”. From the perspective of the Air Force, that was the right answer, because the cost was unimportant and the risk of introducing new faults didn’t justify repair. But of course it counted against anyone who had gone to the trouble to actually understand the subject instead of learning the rules parrot fashion. I’ve found that a lot of education is like that. Employers are making a big mistake if they prize rote learning over understanding (with a few exceptions, like the emergency services).

  3. Pius Agius says:

    Hello Steve

    I find an education system that does not test a person’s understanding along they way as lacking. We have the technology but I believe a lot of educational systems world wide lack the will. When I was going to university , a few decades ago, my final grade was based on a final exam worth forty percent of the years work. Talk about being unfair. I have had some exceptional teachers who actually got to know their students, me included and I still remember them with fondness. It’s funny all the important stuff we basically teach ourselves with a little help from an archaic school system.

    Learning should be centered on the student not big government or big business. This topic has sure struck a nerve with a lot of people.

    Enjoy greatly the comments and observations of others with respect to this subject. It seems we all survived our schools with brains intact.

    Take care,


  4. Sue says:

    Apart from the fact that this whole discussion should probably be on Wave now I can see why you get techey at the thought of programming tests. I just found a really picky group of people: the Prometheus Society who reckon they are the top brains with minds over 160 IQ ie only 1 in 30,000 people are good enough for them. Sadly they appear to be so anal that they are obsessed with metrics rather than doing something with all those brains. And lots of people must feel the same cos there are only 100 of them – a considerable deficiency if you do the math and realise there should be 10,000 suitable brains just in the US. There get in quick clause requires very high SAT scores (from the old days when they meant something) of 1560 out of 1600 max. Bruce said he just squeaked under the limit so will not be joining without doing the tests. I only have Brit A-levels so cannot calibrate my brain. They ought to setup a scale one can drop one’s qualifications into and have them converted to SATs or whatever standard. I guess I’ll stick with admiring McArthur Fellows and being in the Long Now.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hah! I can’t moan at enough people on Wave, so I’ll keep this old-fashioned blog soapbox going for now.

      Yes, I’d barely make it on the IQ front, but I’d hate to be a member, frankly, and I agree with your assessment. Same with MENSA (although you don’t have to be very smart for them). They’re entirely missing the point. Having a high IQ is like owning a fast jet – it’s only any use if you actually know how to fly it. And if you have somewhere interesting you want to go. Personally I distinguish sharply between bright people and intelligent people. I’ve known a lot of highly intelligent people who are as dull as dishwater, and many bright people who aren’t especially intelligent. Give me the bright ones any day. It’s all about a quick wit, sparking eyes, radical outlook, lateral thinking. If you have all that then high intelligence helps you to make good use of it, but intelligence alone means nothing. It doesn’t make you creative, inventive, passionate, interesting, witty… It just means you’ve got a fast processor chip. And from what I’ve seen, anyone who struts about self-consciously parading their IQ is likely to be running MS-DOS programs on theirs.

  5. stevegrand says:

    From my Dad, who was a head teacher:

    A thing that worries me about education is that the powers that be seem to want to make education uniform. Obviously there is a need for a syllabus when exams are necessary. Assuming they are in the present form. But I wonder if in the future we have other calamities, such as financial recessions, because everyone is following the same thinking that they have all been taught. And this turns out to be wrong.

    If Junior schools, at least, can follow their own path there is some hope that some original-thinking children can later see some alternatives to and query the set curriculum. Now we are told that 5yr-olds should have career advice. What would have happened to your peers that may have been advised to be steam locomotive drivers? Where would all the computer experts have been found when they were unexpectedly needed but that career didn’t exist when they were young? Perhaps we would now have steam-powered computers.

    When I was at college I was impressed with the primary schools that I visited in Oxfordshire that offered most of the children’s education through craft work. This sort of activity fosterd individual and original thinking which, particularly in science, is essential.

    • stevegrand says:

      I agree. We’ll never find things if we all look in the same place. Sometimes it’s better to spread out and cover more ground. We need to prize independence of spirit, not suppress it.

  6. Pius Agius says:

    Hello Steve,

    This education subject is something I find is very close to all of us because after our parents our teachers and schools become the next big thing to those small children all those years ago.

    I found that our school systems up here in Canada has gone through much change and the small child is now the focus. My first grade daughter has to know a lot more than I did when I went. I drill her the math and her teacher says thats ok up to a point, but they are attempting to teach them how to think. That is encouraging for now at least.

    I remember I read the autobiography of Malcolm X. Some one asked him what his college was because people were impressed how intelligent he was and the great way he expressed himself. I still recall his answer , it was one word, ” books “.

    I remember the publisher of the everyman books. I have a great many of those books in my library. I believe this is the point of school. I mean they taught us to read and we read the books they wanted but after school I read pretty well what I was interested in and I went off to many , many subjects.

    Ever since I got into this robot thing I have never stopped learning and it seems I will be doing that for a while yet. I remember our biggest fear was having our brains reprogrammed by the school system and we would all think the same way. It never happened because we learned enough not to allow it.

    I find now that with the availibilty of all this high technology it will be easier to avoid that trap and the learning can expand out to seek the world. However I still think that having a large personal library of old fashioned books also helps us avoid the same thinking mentality. It truly wonderous that I can read the original works of Rene Descarte in his own words.

    Take care,


    • stevegrand says:

      It’s true, but I worry that you and James and Andrew and Sue and my Dad and I were the lucky ones who (just barely) got away with it. That’s why we’re here on this blog discussing it. I feel sorry for those who didn’t suit school and never managed to recover. I was saying to Sue elsewhere that in my experience, most genuinely gifted children are to be found in remedial classes, often labeled as failures. The ones who are actually put forward as gifted and given the greatest help are just reasonably bright, not gifted at all. That was certainly my experience in the two residential courses for “gifted” children that I’ve helped to run.

      But you’re right that things are changing. At least outside of school. It’s amazing how much information we can lay our hands on these days. What a transformation the Web has made for autodidacts like ourselves!

  7. Andrew Lovelock says:

    About education being uniform: Even if it is, it will never produce a predictable outcome or uniform people because of the degree of genetic diversity of the students. Even with identical twins, studies have shown different health outcomes as they diverge epigenetically through time.

    About training for career paths: Does education in a field actually provide it with a better workforce? It depends on the type and quality of the education. It also depends on the students. To what extent too are some students being educated into work that they don’t have any aptitude for? I think it is related to the problem of being meritocratic with too narrow a definition of merit. It certainly should not be solely intellectual. There is great social merit in such things as compassion, honesty and cheerfulness…
    Oops! and getting to work on time….

    • stevegrand says:

      But there’s a difference between a system that encourages diversity and one that punishes it. Sure, people tend towards individuality, but a) they’re not going to reach their potential if the system tries to constrain them (I had this issue as a left-hander in a school where the assumption was that right-handedness was the ideal and I needed to be corrected), and b) forever bucking the trend is not good for one’s self-confidence. I didn’t fit the system and I feel like I’m still trying to climb out of the hole that left me in, at age 51.

      Here in the US I feel people are under a definite gravitational pull towards a stereotyped “ideal”. Rewards are given according to closeness to the ideal, rather than absolute merit. I think it’s a big reason why their education system is the way it is, too – there’s a stereotype classroom that everyone’s aiming towards; a certain way that teachers are supposed to behave, and pupils are supposed to react. Hollywood creates these ideals and then people try to conform to them.

  8. Andrew Lovelock says:

    You are right. Diversity should be definitely be encouraged. At least its value is becoming more and more recognized, so maybe the next generation will get lucky.

    My homogenizing grammar school was certainly a consistent confidence bashing experience. My headmaster told me he did not believe in being fair because life was not fair and he kept to his word. My friendly trendy art teacher gave me 0 out of 20 for a project that I was very pleased with and where we had a free choice of style and subject, on the grounds that it wasn’t realistic. That really got to me because I thought he was one of the good guys.

    Don’t all people consciously or unconsciously gravitate to many cultural stereotypes such as speech, behaviour and appearance (both through fashion and mate selection). It helps social cohesion and identity and can also be a reference for measuring diversity within. Perhaps the process is more noticeable too when you spend time in a different culture.

    A colour supplement long time back had photographs of four young couples from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Each boy and girl was very beautiful and clearly stereotypical of someone from their country. Each photograph was a composite of faces from many different people (very few of whom were particularly good looking) all of whose parents and grandparents were from that particular country.

  9. talkingtostones says:

    Being an independent thinker has usually brought with it difficulty in fitting into systems or into social structures. That makes rational sense; if you thought the same way as the others, so as to fit in, you wouldn’t be thinking independently. And most people are not very good at recognizing and valuing that which is different, particularly during school years.

    School systems are just that; systems. As a result, they do their best to follow standard practices and repeatable functions. The irony, of course, is that systems that allow for no change or flexibility, no acceptance of the odd function, stagnate and collapse in on themselves. There are some schools that use novel approaches to learning in an effort to recognize the learning styles and needs of individuals, including independent thinkers, but they tend to be few and far between, and in the U.S., at least, very expensive to attend.

    The public school system in the U.S., as it has been in my experiences with my son these past five years, does everything it can to stamp out independent thinking — in its students, its teachers, and in most cases, its administrators. I’ve tried several times to write about this here in a brief way, but it defies my abilities. Suffice to say, he entered kindergarten as a bright, highly-motivated learner, who loved to learn, loved to read, loved math and writing, and was interested in many subjects. He had a great imagination, was highly artistic and articulate, and was already an independent thinker. He left school in October when I removed him a month into 5th grade, frustrated, angry, hating school, refusing to write anything at all, stating that he hated reading and math as school subjects, and having learned how to lie and finesse the system in order to avoid having to do any schoolwork at all. The only reasons he had good grades, which he did, were his homework and his oral participation in class. His oral participation was so good because he learned constantly at home, by reading, through trips and experiences we had, and through long discussions with me on a wide variety of subjects — so he knew more (often than the teacher knew) on any subject than what was taught and he knew how to express himself on it.

    But the school process was trying to kill off his desire to learn and his ability to think for himself — his method of fighting that was to refuse to do the school work. Not a great choice in a system that values conformity to rules above all else, and one guaranteed to be full of strife in upcoming years, even if only partially so now.

    I am a single parent who works full-time at two jobs, so I couldn’t remove him from school to home school him at an earlier age, but now I could. There was a catalyst incident this year and I finally decided it was not worth it to keep him in school any longer. Even if I couldn’t figure out a way to actually home school him during the day, he was old enough to alone for a few hours and we were already doing a large amount of learning in our living style anyway. He’d still be better off than if he continued in school.

    People tell me he’s going to have to learn to adapt to such systems in order to function in the world, that it’s hurting his socialization, and that he’s going to fall behind, miss crucial school system requirements. But I went to schools in several parts of the world and I know that many of the things that occur in American schools as I’ve been observing them with my son are not necessary for future functioning. In fact, much of the ‘socialization’ will have to be unlearned to function as adults. And the requirements are not based on things that people need to know to go to college — I never had them and I went to college and graduate school, and did very well.

    What’s sad is that the U.S. was founded by independent people — those seeking a place to do their independent version of religion; those who pushed west to explore; those who conceived of and developed a new way of government … and many more. It has been one of the strongest character traits running through all aspects of American culture. The U.S. has come up with many inventions and technological developments due to independent thinking. And yet, the U.S. compulsory school system that began as an ideal of providing a learning opportunity to everyone and has now morphed into a prison for the brain, is actively curtailing thinking. At a time, no less, when it is very clear that these children will need to be flexible, adaptive, imaginative, creative and, yes, independent, thinkers to function in the world that is now blazing ahead. It is changing so quickly and there is so much information coming at them that ‘solid’ skills like merely being able to read or write in a prescribed format or do basic math equations will in many ways be pointless, other than as a basic foundation. What they need to learn is how to think about these subjects, how to figure them out, apply them in different ways, make leaps from what they know to what could be, quickly assess new information and how it fits and expands upon other information, think critically, and other, similar skills. They very things the school system is killing off in children like my son.

    It is true — some students will go through it and survive intact. I did, although I didn’t have the U.S. model to deal with, which in my experience is much worse than what I had. But there are also other students who will be derailed or harmed by it, and that is an unnecessary and sad cost. I don’t know that taking my son out of school is the best choice or best in the long run, but I believe it would not have been good for him to remain there. I will certainly do my best to keep removing him from being a mistake.

    • stevegrand says:

      Hey Kimberly, nice to see you at “my place”!

      I couldn’t agree more, and as in other places you’ve dared to say far more than me (with good reason, by the looks of it). I’ve seen your photos of J and he looks like a really nice boy from his expressions and reactions. I warmed to him instantly. I feel very sorry for him if school has beaten him up that much. I know how it feels. So you HAVE taken him out? Good for you if you have, although that can’t be easy for you. From what little I know of you he couldn’t wish for a better teacher! I wish I’d done that with my son – I was at home for a lot of his schooldays, so we could have home schooled him, although in my case it might not have been good for him because I brought him up for his first few years while my wife went out to work and at the time I admit I wasn’t nearly as well suited to the role as I would be now. But Chris is another example of the things we’re talking about: at the age of 17 he was in a remedial class some of the time because he’s dyslexic; at the age of 24 he got his PhD. Despite school.

      That’s a good point about America being the land of individualism. I get the impression that part of the problem with the public school system is that school boards are very autonomous, powerful and provincial. Plus ANY kind of social service here is so often seen as “a charity to rescue the incompetent from themselves” and given no more priority than a workhouse in Victorian England. But other than that I can’t explain why the Land of the Free has such an antiquated and formal schooling system. Can you?

  10. talkingtostones says:

    Hi, Steve —

    I haven’t really thought about why the school system might be so locked in — yet. But I plan to, and I’ll let you know once I have some ideas. I do know that Abraham Lincoln attended less than seven patchy years of school in the early-mid 1800s and was largely a self-taught man, as was fairly common through at least as late as the end of the 1800s. Schooling was not compulsory then and was often hit-or-miss due to the vagaries of life, farming seasons, weather, etc. As late as the early 1900s, most people did not attend more than seven years, though there were differences in different parts of the country. Even becoming an attorney didn’t require specific schooling until after WWII; although it was available to earn an LLB (equivalent to what is now a JD), you could become an attorney by apprenticing, which is how most people did it (and which I believe, from having gone through law school, should still be the way — I had lively discussions about this with several law professors, in fact). So, the change in schooling requirements is actually more systemic than just in grade school. I suspect that the current situation originated in the aftermath of WWII, as did so many of the other governmental and societal institutions and practices we tend to think of as “always” having been there. J and I are actually researching the history of schooling in more detail as a school project — he was trying to write a story in which the kids overthrow the school leaders and run their own school (also including a lot of battles and such, as they work their way into pretty much everything at this age), and kept asking me more detailed questions on the history than I knew. Since I’m essentially taking on the school system and designing our own, it seemed a useful project for us both. I’ll keep you posted on any interesting tidbits I discover as well.

    I’m glad to hear that Chris seems to have weathered his discouraging school experiences so well as to have a PhD by 24. You must be very proud of him for not succumbing, in addition to his obvious scholarly accomplishments. J might very well have managed to overcome the school situation he was in if I’d left him to it, but my read of the situation was that it was going to get much worse before it got better, as he was not falling into line at all with what the school demanded and was getting more and more entrenched in that stance. Hopefully, that will not turn out to be a mistake.

    I agree completely with your assessment of U.S. social services. It’s quite frustrating because, when a person actually needs help with something, they really are often the last people it’s advisable to turn to for that help — they’re often more likely to do harm to you than actually help. But that’s another soapbox & I haven’t the time at the moment to get on it (I’m sure I will at some point, though, so brace yourself).

    Thank you for the kind remarks — it’s always good to receive reassurance, when taking a step of this kind, that you’re not losing your mind and possibly ruining your child’s future.

  11. Andrew Lovelock says:

    I really wish you the best of luck with J. To home school or not can be a tough decision for a parent. I think that bringing up a healthy well rounded child will the great benefit.

    It is a common criticism of home schooling that a child misses out on socialization. I have met many home schooled kids and my impression has been that many of them tend to be more self-reliant and well balanced than most school kids. I have also heard, all through my life, mothers (including my own) saying that their child used to be so nice until they went to school. Perhaps we should ask “is school really a healthy environment for kids?” Humans have a very long developmental process where ‘naturally’ they would be apprentices to their parents from whom they would learn skills, ethics and styles of behaviour. It is not until puberty that they would really seek out their peers. Large institutionalised schools are very ‘unnatural’. Most of the social learning a child receives when it is in a group of hundreds of other children comes from those children. School children develop a body of knowledge and behaviour that persists through the years as a self-organised sub-culture, which can range from relatively benign to the kind they make movies about. Whatever it is though, it won’t be on the school prospectus.

    One difficulty in Home Ed can be natural laziness. If school does nothing else it can force you into a discipline of regularly achieving a certain quantity of something. It is easier for the kid to become much more laid back at home about work. Which forces the parent to be the ‘teacher’ and that can change the relationship. I think it is great that you are researching schooling together, because you can then both have an understanding of why you are doing it and what it means. Then you can discuss what you both are signing up for and what expectations you have of each other and do it with mutual respect.

    If you are concerned about J acquiring qualifications he might need. Are the exams public in the US, i.e. can anyone apply to take them? If they are, then you can always use past exam papers as a touchstone.

    I don’t know what the US school system is like now, but back in ’61 I went to school in a ‘good’ neighbourhood in Houston for a year, which was a very bizarre experience. They automatically put me 2 grades down because I was from the 3rd world, then very warily and grudgingly put me back up again. I still found the lessons very tedious and repetitive, but the staff all seemed very nice and caring. Then one day I curiously asked “because I am just an English visitor here am I supposed to pledge allegiance to your flag every morning?”. I was treated as if I was completely insane or possessed, how could any person, ever, not want to freely pledge allegiance to America, the greatest country on God’s earth. On that and other occasions I discovered that the system was very caring and they would care and care and care at you until you conformed. I also have a suspicion that most of the kids there did not have a clue what “pledge allegiance” meant, but had a very strong sense of how to be seen to be behaving.

    Perhaps there will always be a problem with a national school system. Apart from it being a very questionable idea that everyone, everywhere should learn exactly the same set of things. It is an almost impossible objective. Apart from the innate differences in individuals, the national one size fits all system also doesn’t cope with such larger scale heterogeneities as socio-economics, political biases, local culture and religion; or the way they change through time. In a city, create two identical schools a few blocks apart and their outcomes may be completely different. There are far too many rigid prescriptions, rules and regulations for existing schools to ever be effective as places for a healthy education.

    What can be done instead, how about ruthlessly simplifying the rules? The 2006 US Fire Chief of the year said “We had five words to run the organization: Prevent harm. Survive. Be nice”. http://firechief.com/management/firefighting_simply_best/ If you employ reasonable people and allow them to find the best way to proceed according to the simple rules then you are using their skills effectively. Perhaps if we had an education system built on the words like “Encourage learning, appreciate uniqueness, build confidence”, and let individual schools and teachers adapt and interpret them, then maybe it would produce some great results.

  12. spleeness says:

    Sometimes I think the more brilliant someone is, the harder it is to fit in. School seems very much geared toward the round pegs with no adaptation for the creative square ones. I like hearing dialogues from someone who’s been there because knowing about other people’s struggles before they’ve succeeded somehow makes them more accessible (and inspiring). So thanks for sharing this.

    My own experiences in school sometimes lacked but for me it was because I was distracted and had trouble paying attention. In some sense, I have to start over now as an adult and learn things I should have known when I was 12.

    • stevegrand says:

      Heh! Well you seem to be doing ok so far, Holly. Sometimes I think school is wasted on the young, anyway. When we learn new things later in life we can do so with much more depth and bring far more experience to it. Perhaps if we went back to sending children up chimneys we could reserve education for when people are ready to appreciate and enjoy it. I certainly felt like that with Shakespeare, for sure. What 12 year-old can possibly handle Shakespeare?

  13. When I was in high school I was failing because school was almost completely irrelevant to my life, I had taught myself to a level way above what they were expounding and since I was a nerd I was attacked daily. It was like being in a prison yard.

    Who would want that? In what situation would adults accept this situation for themselves? Would they go to work if someone jumped them every time they used the stairs?

    Eventually I snapped and started fighting back, but why should I have had to do that on a daily basis? Even today I’m disgusted with the teachers when I think about it. There were only a few good ones.

    Steve’s experience is very much my own (except the whole Buckingham palace part). I was building a subatomic particle generator in my basement while learning about prisms in physics class. (It worked, and was an electron beam impacting a tungsten target, with photographic paper “detectors” in a semicircle).

    I remember one moment very clearly from high school: a teacher gave me a low grade on a paper I had written at the last minute the night before because she didn’t think that I could possibly write that well and insisted that I has plagiarized it.

    I hope this doesn’t look like too much self-back-slapping. But as an adult I look back and see how driven I was to learn and do things, and how school actually impeded my learning process, trying to drag me back to the mean skill level.

    • stevegrand says:

      Nice tale! It’s so hard to tell how much the frustration from school actually encouraged us to push ourselves. Not much, I suspect – we’d have done better left alone. And the bullying thing I can completely empathize with. Between school and bullies my self-confidence was destroyed. But we nerds will have the last laugh when the revolution comes!

  14. “I have been in a ’special’ (slow) class for English at the same time as doing very well at essays in the top set Biology class. And I have been in a ‘gifted’ class for Maths while unable to do any calcluations in my head or know my times tables.”

    This also was precisely my experience. For both of us, the system wasn’t concerned about our actual skills in the least; the only way our skills could be measured was by a mediocre standard. I wish that I could have been analyzed in such a way that my deficits could have been addressed, rather than forcing me into a shape that I didn’t have.

  15. The revolution has already come, and we’ve won! “The nerds have won” was the title of a famous issue of Time magazine. I can’t find it on the net, but I remember it, or something similar to it.

    I had the satisfaction of seeing the captain of the football team from high school – a terrible bully – working as a janitor at the university I attended.

  16. talkingtostones says:

    Andrew —

    I really appreciate your thoughtful response. I haven’t the chance to respond more fully at the moment, but wanted to at least say thank you.

    My son isn’t, and I wasn’t, as brilliant as all of you — but even for a level of independent thinking and desire to learn such as ours, the school system has not been a good place. I’ve been trying to remember how I dealt with it, because I had the same learning-killing experiences and teachers, but my primary recollection in the short time I was in U.S. elementary school was of hiding away in a book. I had one with me at all times, and was in it whenever I wasn’t required to be looking at a teacher or doing work. As a result, I guess, the bullies couldn’t engage me and left me alone. High school was different, due to teachers who let me go off on my own or helped find me additional outlets — except the semester I spent in the U.S.

    Dan — how wonderful it is when justice works its way.

  17. I agree with your points on education – and that many things in life are unpredictable. However, I think the difference between “success” and “failure” that is often attributed to luck usually comes down to the ability to sense and take opportunities.

    Good opportunities come to those who are prepared and willing to move on them. You make your own luck in the way you approach these opportunities. As Wayne Gretzky said, “you miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

    For example, a bad grade might affect a job application, but not bothering to call about it means you definitely won’t get the job. In your case, if your parents hadn’t insisted you take the GCEs, things might have been very different today.

    As for getting people in to speak to children – that’s probably a requirement, too; you’re just someone handy to fill it. It was hit-and-miss at our school, but we had some good speakers. I like to think you’d have fallen on the “interesting” side. 🙂

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