A Fable for Our Times
Once upon a time, there was a land where the young people went to school to learn. They studied for many years and received an education. When they were eleven and twelve and thirteen and fourteen they thought only about their education and what it meant to learn important things. Each year was a new opportunity to learn more. At the end of their time in school, when they were fifteen and sixteen they were told how well they'd done as compared with others of the same age and judged on how much they had learned. Sometimes they did exams to find this out & sometimes they did other things, like choosing their best work for their teachers to mark. Sometimes they’d done so much extra work, that choosing just a few things for their teachers to judge was really, really hard. The children who had worked hard all through the years knew that their efforts would be repaid. Those young people worked for their exams at the end of their time in school but they also worked hard on other things that were never graded, things that it felt good to do for other reasons. Their education was a great big thing that encompassed lots and lots of things. They took it with them through life, like a huge suitcase filled with ideas and experiences. They could open up the suitcase and remember wonderful things they’d learned, enjoyable experiences and things that would change their lives. They could pull out from the suitcase useful material for their lives. Sometimes they pulled out bits of paper with grades on; sometimes they pulled out other things, like books they’d read or things a teacher had said to them, or habits they’d developed, or warm feelings about what they were capable of, or a belief in themselves.
Then one day, there was a pronouncement from on high from the Grand Court of Education. With a big fanfare, everyone was told that there wasn’t enough proper education and there needed to be more judgements made, not just of children and their learning but also of schools. And that judging needed to start very early on, and it needed to happen all the time, and it needed to be accurate, (though everyone knew that a lot of the time it wasn’t but didn’t like to say), and it needed to be collected and stored in great big files, in great big systems, with lots and lots of people dedicated to doing the collecting, storing, filing, analysing of it. And bit by bit, the teachers started to concentrate only on what was being judged and how it was being collected and stored and analysed, and the children started to think only about what they were being judged on and how that was being collected. And time was spent on the judging and collecting, the judging and collecting, the judging and collecting, so that there was very little time left for anything else. And the things going into the suitcase became smaller and smaller and the suitcases became lighter and lighter and they were filled with lots of bits of paper covered in grades. And soon the children stopped thinking that there was anything other than the bits of paper covered in grades that could go into their suitcases. They forgot that there were other things that might even go into that suitcase to be brought out at a later time.
One day there was a plague in the land. And the system for judging and collecting and analysing and producing the bits of paper covered in grades stopped working. And the children and their parents, and many other people in the land, who had forgotten what else could go into the suitcases, became very fearful. They wept and worried and thought that their education was over. The children said they had nothing more to work for. Why should they carry on learning anything when the exams had gone and the bits of paper with the grades would not be the same any more. And many around them were worried too. ‘Why will the children work any more?’ they said. ‘Without the exams, there’s no point.’
And a very old woman stepped up and told them a story. ‘Once upon a time, there was a land,’ she said, ‘where young people went to school and learned.’ And while she was talking, others joined in, remembering that time, when they were in school, and their suitcases were filled with wonderful things. And more and more joined in. And they turned to the children and told them all about their memories and their own suitcases. They opened them up and showed the children the wonderful things inside. And the children listened quietly and thoughtfully, and with eyes wide open and then one by one they tiptoed away. Some went to open books, some went to watch films, some read newspapers, some talked to their teachers, some started to write, some just thought. And a new day began.