Friday, December 04, 2009

Summerhill: Lessons and Exams-- 2

This is what Neill says about the exams:

All the same there is a lot of learning in Summerhill. Perhaps a group of our twelveyear-
olds could not compete-with a class of equal age in handwriting or spelling or fractions. But in an examination requiring originality, our lot would beat the others hollow.

We have no class examinations in the school, but sometimes I set an exam for fun. The following questions appeared in one such paper:

Where are the following:- Madrid, Thursday Island, yesterday, love, democracy, hate, my pocket-screw driver (alas, there was no helpful answer to that one).

Give meanings for the following:- 9 the number shows how many are expected of each)- Hand (3)…. Only two, got the third right – the standard of measure for a horse. Brass (4)…. Metal, cheek, top army officers, department of an orchestra. Translate Hamlets, To-be-or-not-to-be speech into Summerhillese.

These questions are obviously not intended to be serious, and the children enjoy them thoroughly. Newcomers, on the whole, do not rise to the answering standard of pupils who have become accustomed to the school. Not that they have less brainpower, but rather because they have become so accustomed to work in a serious groove that any light touch puzzles them.

This is the play side of our teaching. In all classes much work is done. If, for some reason a teacher cannot take his class on the appointed day, there is usually much disappointment for the pupils.

David, aged nine, had to be isolated for whooping cough. He cried bitterly. “I’ll miss Roger’s lesson in geography,” he protested. David had been in the school practically from birth, and he had definite and final ideas about the necessity of having his lessons given to him. David is now a lecturer in mathematics at London University.

A few years ago someone at a General School Meeting (at which all school rules are voted by the entire school, each pupil and each staff member having one vote) proposed that a certain culprit should be punished by being banished from lessons for a week. The other children protested on the ground that the punishment was too severe.

My staff and I have a hearty hatred of all examinations. To us the university exams are anathema. But we cannot refuse to teach children the required subjects. Obviously, as long as the exams are in existence, they are our masters. Hence, the Summerhill staff is always qualified to teach to the set standard.

Not that many children want to take these exams; only those going to the university do so. And such children do not seem to find it especially hard to tackle these exams. They generally begin to work for them seriously at the age of fourteen, and they do the work in about three years. Of course they don’t always pass at the first try. The more important fact is that they try again.

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