Again––except for the fine power of resistance possessed by the human mind, which secures that most persons who go through examination grind come out as they went in, absolutely unbiased towards any intellectual pursuits whatever––except for this, the tendency of the grind is to imperil that individuality which is the one incomparably precious birthright of each of us. (Parents and Children, p. 216)
An Examination-ridden Empire––Probably the world has never seen a finer body of educationalists than those who at the present moment man our schools, both Boys’ and Girls’. But the originality, the fine initiative, of these most able men and women is practically lost. The schools are examination-ridden, and the heads can strike out no important new lines. Let us begin our efforts by believing in one another, parents in teachers and teachers in parents. Both parents and teachers have the one desire, the advance of the child along the lines of character. Both groan equally under the limitations of the present system. Let us have courage, and united and concerted action will overthrow this Juggernaut that we have made. (Parents and Children, p. 224)
Examinations seem the epitome of everything Mason thought wrong with the school system of her day: students motivated by marks and rewards, bogged down by the grind, reduced to their quantitative score in math and Latin (this was no humanist scheme!), forced into a year’s cram that injured soul and body for the sake of praise and social advancement. It is no wonder she was critical.
And yet she still assigned term exams in her schools, and the exams carried great weight for the PNEU, its students, and Mason herself. Consider these fond reminiscences of Mason’s personal enthusiasm for the process:
Perhaps the work for a fortnight or more would be the children’s written examination papers, each of which she would consider before she signed the report, sometimes modifying or adding to the report herself. How she loved the papers! ‘I am always happy when I am reading these,’ she would say, ‘Just see how these children take pleasure in their work!’ (In Memoriam, p. 68)
The little note in her own handwriting on every examination mark sheet was an eagerly looked-for joy even to those of us who had never been privileged to see or know her more intimately. (In Memoriam, p. 49)
There are many more comments in the same vein, enough to show that Mason considered examinations not merely a necessary evil, or even a matter of course, but a joy.
How can we explain this dichotomy? In this process-focused, Spirit-led philosophy of education, concerned more with the development of character than information learned or skills gained, what role can examinations have to play? And how can they bring joy to our homes and classrooms?
The answer lies in the kind of exams her schools employed. Besides being vastly different from the common exams of her time (and ours), they provide a beautiful vision of what assessment looks like in a model that genuinely values students and respects their mind-work.
These are exams that cover all areas of the curriculum, from history to drawing, from mathematics to sewing, because all branches of knowledge are valuable. These are exams in which each answer will look slightly different from every other because personality has a chance to shine through, from the little sketches that might accompany a Form I student’s dictated narration to a précis (short essay) on a topic of personal interest from a Form V student. They ask not for students to parrot back the opinions of their schoolmaster or even of the “minds” they have met in their schoolbooks, but for original thought. They look “not for repetition or feats of memory but for evidence of interest, experience, involvement in the subject, not as an academic exercise but as an eager sharing of a universal human inheritance” (Stephens, p. 3). They do not aim to ferret out what a student has not learned, but to provide him the space to demonstrate what he has: “Its purpose for the pupil is to give him an opportunity to show what he has learnt and what progress has been made” (“The PNEU Schoolteacher’s Handbook,” p. 25). These are exams where all the students in a classroom can potentially get full marks—and that would be a sign of a successful exam, not one that needed to be made more difficult to allow for curves and rankings. These are exams in which the atmosphere is as important as the questions asked or answers given: “there is a warm feeling in the class—the eagerness that belongs in a well-told story, or to the mastery of some point of syntax or of science” (Chief Examiner, p. 9). They benefit from the sense of delighted accomplishment, shared enthusiasm, and calm interest that they create. They acknowledge the whole student, who knows his work will be judged not just on “right or wrong,” but from a holistic perspective that considers all progress made that term, in and out of the classroom.
The exams she insisted upon were an extension of her philosophy. They highlighted respect for children as persons, camaraderie among peers, sympathy between teacher and student, the generous feast, an atmosphere conducive to learning.
But even with this vision for the examination process before us, sometimes it is hard to see their value for us as Mason educators. In so many ways, we are long-game teachers. We trust in short, consistent calls to attention over long stretches of time; we sow seeds for fruit that will be borne perhaps years from now; we wait on our students to make the connections and stand aside while they do the mind-work. Teaching is a delicate art in the Mason model, and we are constantly assessing. We quietly consider our students as they narrate, keep, comment, question. We watch and listen. Is attention waning? Are narrations showing engagement with the text? How can we better scaffold? Where do our students need our support and where do they need to move toward independence? How can we better model the learning process? Is it time to step in, or ought we to be masterly inactive at a given moment?
When we are at our best as educators, we’re assessing in small ways daily, even hourly. This two-fold requirement of patience in seeing results and mindful engagement with our students seems to leave very little need for term-end reviews. Perhaps this is why exams are not more often practiced by Mason families. But the truth is that Mason saw them both as “best practice” (the most effective way to make sure the student, the teacher, the programme, and the schools were all on the right track) and as a delightful routine worth a precious week of classroom time.
So how does this kind of assessment benefit teacher and taught?
In the case of the student, exams don’t just measure engagement with the topic studied; they actually require the student to engage in a new way. If, as E.K. Manders says, “we narrate and then we know,” then perhaps we might also say “we take an exam and then we know more, better, differently.” At the same time, the process fine-tunes the habit of attention. If the responsibility to narrate after the reading makes the brain attend more carefully, the responsibility to recall at the end of the term also calls the brain to heightened attention. The student realizes that these are ideas the teacher will expect her student to ponder for weeks and years to come. So the exam is in itself an act of learning, and a particularly valuable one at that. Students learn more about the material by forging new connections and re-visualizing what they have studied. They learn to be more attentive and give their studies due value. And more than that: they also learn more about themselves. Exams are, at their heart, a moral action. As Elsie Kitching reminds us, “the examination must offer moral training to the pupils, and should be conducted with absolute probity.” (p. 26) Because in the end, “Every real examination is a test not of memory but of ourselves, of our whole response to a problem” (G.H.A.S., p. 10). The exam is educative in the fullest sense of the word.
As for the parent-teacher, the benefits are myriad. When we carefully consider our students’ responses, we are able to assess “the degree of success achieved to date in teaching, any set-backs or inadequacies, where methods have succeeded or failed, whether teacher-pupil relationships in the schoolroom are satisfactory, comments on classroom organisation, whether lesson preparation is adequate” and more (“The PNEU School Teacher’s Handbook,” p. 27). If we truly sit down and mine the exam results for feedback, we find they elucidate both the trouble spots and the real strengths of our teaching in ways a daily assessment can not. Perhaps we were not scaffolding a book well enough for it to “stick”; the student was relying on his strong memory for daily narrations but when exam time comes, we find he remembers little. Perhaps we accepted vague answers during the term as a sign of understanding, but exams lay bare that only tenuous connections have been made. Perhaps there were a series of “lucky guesses” during a week’s lesson and we mistakenly moved on; exams show those areas of weakness when we circle back around. They show which lessons we have not been consistent with and where we can improve. They also show where we have been successful in modeling good habits of learning, where we have chosen worthy books that our students have genuinely engaged with, and where our students really shine and might be ready for more independence. This advantage is partly thanks to the unique qualities of the exam experience, which provides us different kinds of feedback than our regular classroom experience. And it is partly thanks to the time we take to sit down and focus when we commit to an Exam Week, time we may not take often enough. If we are intentional about it, then it can be “a unique opportunity to sit back and think about how the term has gone. The mere fact of writing down the comments about teaching will in itself be beneficial” (“The PNEU School Teacher’s Handbook,” p. 26).
But perhaps the greatest value for the teacher is in the way exams expose our students to us. Alongside the exam responses, PNEU parents or teachers submitted a short vignette of each student to examiners, describing his interests and activities, mitigating factors for that term, and so on. The goal was for the examiner to arrive at a picture of the child “in the round,” because, as Stephens puts it, “it is in the child as a person that we are interested” (p.3). For fair assessment, rather than simply stark (and false) objectivity, the examiners were aiming at an understanding of the child as a whole: “This is the close watch over each child individually and his or her development from term to term in mind and body–and one might well add in spirit, for parents and teachers are expected to report on such matters as responsibility, help in the home, and leadership in the school” (The Parents’ Union School, p. 5). If we do the same, if we sit down, make thoughtful notes on our children, and carefully consider their exam responses, I think we could get at the heart of what the teachers and parents of the PNEU found in exams: encouragement. As the Chief Examiner puts it, “It can be very rewarding to the parent/teacher to have to pause and look at all sides of the child—at interests and responsibilities that compensate perhaps for poor bookwork; and to be glad after all that he is not the exasperating failure he sometimes seems to be” (The Parents’ Union School, p. 6). Once again, Examiner Stephens sums it up well: “From the beginning examinations have been an important part of our work, not with the intention of criticizing or grading, but as a means of encouraging and helping both teacher and taught” (p. 1).
The truth is that unless we are perfect educators (and I think that we “humble plants” all acknowledge there are places we can grow as teachers!), there is room for assessment of ourselves: our practices, our philosophy, how well we are living out the day to day. And unless we are perfect parents (and I doubt any of us would claim that either!), there is room for us to know our children better. I have never ended an Exam Week in my home without seeing areas in which my methods could be better implemented, my curriculum choices might be tweaked for relationship, or our atmosphere could be more conducive to learning. I also have never ended an Exam Week without a clearer view of my children, a more thorough understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and a clue to how I might better meet their needs.
It is in this combined benefit–the self-assessment of the educator and the educative qualities of the process for the student—that exams have their power and value.
I want to share one last quote from Mason herself, in which she laments that in the grind-school of her day, the student learns only what prepares him for his impending public examinations:
Again, the routine of school-work becomes, at the same time, so mechanical and so incessant, there is so much hurry to get over the ground, so little leisure, so little opportunity for the master to bring himself en rapport with his pupil, to feel, as it were, the moulding of the boy’s character under his fingers, that there is no space for the more delicate moral training, the refining touch, which a man of superior parts should bestow upon his pupil. The work, the routine itself, affords bracing moral training. Diligence, exactness, persistence, steady concentrated effort, are not to be despised; but something more is wanted, not easy to define, to be got only in sympathetic intercourse with our betters, morally and mentally, and this something is being pushed out in the press of work. (Formation of Character, p. 184)
In the Mason paradigm, exams give us exactly that which she struggles to name: that delicate moral training, that refining touch, that sympathetic intercourse that affects the moral and the mental, and the “more” that results. Exams have the power to mould character, to create rapport between master and pupil. And this happens through diligent, exact, persistent, concentrated work, which does not “press” but rather dignifies the student as he brings his will and mind to bear on the task at hand. May we all find that “something more” through our Exam Weeks ahead!
References for Articles and Pamphlets
G.H.A. Stephens, “Examinations in the PNEU School and Schools Affiliated” – http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/2nd-CM-Briefcase/Box17/cmc115/i1p1-i3p19cmc115.pdf
“The PNEU School Teacher’s Handbook” – http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/2nd-CM-Briefcase/Box16/cmc110/i2p01-p30cmc110I.pdf
The Chief Examiner, “The Parents’ Union School” – http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/Box48/cmc363A/p01-p18cmc363A.pdf
E.K. Manders, “We Narrate and Then We Know” – https://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PRx02p170WeNarrateKnow.shtml
E. Kitching, “Children Up to School Age and Beyond” – http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/Box48/cmc370/i2cmc370-p28cmc370.pdf
G.H.A.S., “Confidences of an Examiner” – http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/Box48/cmc363A/p01-p18cmc363A.pdf
Parents’ Union School, “Rules and Examination Regulations” – http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/Box48/cmc367/i01p1-i07cmc367.pdf
© 2017 by Celeste Cruz