Mud Turtles and Multiple Intelligences – More Thoughts on Examinations

We’ve already tweeted a link to this Guardian magazine piece by Lucy Mangan, but for those who missed it here’s a brief overview, plus a few of our own thoughts on ‘credentialism’:

Sitting exams is a game, and the game is rigged

I was good at exams, and so I bloody well should have been. The system was set up for people like me – thorough, plodding, uncreative, capable of taking in great mounds of received wisdom and regurgitating them, undigested, unquestioned, unprocessed in three-hour bursts of neat handwriting.

That tells you something about me, but also something about the system. Namely, that it’s . . . well, I was going to say broken but, of course, that’s not true at all. It works very, very well, to reward a very, very particular kind of temperament and abilities that have come to be synonymous with what we generally mean by the word “intelligent”.

So not broken, then. But not fit for purpose, either, if what we want from an education system is something that instils a love of learning and grants access to the joy that brings, or that brings out the best in each child and finds a meaningful berth for each one at the end of it.

Thank you, Lucy: this is not dull, plodding or uncreative. This extract, and this column in its entirety, is a superb, precise and heartfelt summary of things that we and many others have been saying about education, about children, about learning and high stakes exams for . . .  a very long time.

lucy mangan

It continues with some thoughts on the drive by politicians to get as many young people into universities as possible –

“All can go!” becomes “All should go!” becomes “All must go – because otherwise employers will want to know what’s wrong with you!” And now, of course, you have to pay nearly £30,000 for the privilege, too. That’s the price of cheap credentialism.

And in conclusion –

All I can say is that I know now – now, now that I’ve had the 20-plus years of life experience to show me the things that my stunted imagination and lack of any spark of true intelligence could not supply at the time – that it is a game and that the game is rigged.

This year, more people than ever are choosing to get jobs on apprentice-like schemes offered by an increasing number of employers who are beginning to realise that, too. Like all games, it ends eventually. Play it as best you can while you have to, but try not to believe that it defines you. Life’s the thing.

The fact is  – credentialism doesn’t even define how knowledgeable we are, let alone define us  as unique individuals, since exams only tell us across a narrow range of subject matter how well we can deal with time-limited tests at a particular moment in our lives.

Credentialism certainly doesn’t define how intellectually capable we are, how good we are at real-world problem solving, how creatively we are able to think, how effectively we are able to communicate with others, how resourceful and resilient we are, how well we are able to work in a group or a team, how emotionally literate we are, etc: all of those other key intelligences, skills and capabilities that schools (and parents) can do so much to enhance and develop, yet so often don’t.

A final thought from Lucy Mangan:

I came across this line in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days just after I finished my A-levels: “I silently earned a small reputation as a [child] of superior intellect, a little scholar . . . while in fact I was smug and lethargic and dull as a mud turtle.” That’s me, I thought, and hoped it would be enough to get me into university. And it was.

Thank you, Lucy. A mud turtle no more, if indeed you ever were one.

mud turtle

See also:

Lucy Mangan: Goodbye to the golden age of childhood

3D Eye: A Levels, Attainment and Several Key Intelligences

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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