Inspire Noah Webster 1828 Dictionary

This week while perusing dictionaries I made a discovery that explains much of school to me.

It’s the word examination.  Examinations universally cause dread.  Yet, they’re the motivation for most study.  If students never had to study for the exam, would they ever study?  Even when getting A’s, I hated exams, I never met anyone who likes them.

If you think back, how did you feel about them?

Well, I found the problem.  It has to do with the derivation of the word.

The word examination came from the old Latin word exigere which meant to force out.  It became the Old French word examiner in medieval times where it meant to torture.  The idea it conveyed was to force out the truth by torture.  Clearly the word was born when they were holding people prisoner and torturing them to find out the “truth”.

The problem is, school still operates with this definition.

In school it’s easy to feel like a prisoner, feel like you’re being tortured, and you’re too confused to know the truth.  The similarities between then and now are appalling.

I deliver a program called Learning How to Learn to adults, even senior execs, that’s very respectful and kind.  We give humane examinations called checkouts, but we give them very gently, we give them very frequently and students have a chance to study the material again and take the checkout as many times as they need so they all graduate with 100%.  After they get the hang of it, our clients approach these checkouts eagerly, with smiles and a great sense of pride when they pass with 100%.

However, I remember when I was delivering the program in Moscow, where they have an exceptionally harsh educational system. There were a number of students that, when I approached them for checkouts, trembled violently in fear.  Their eyes filled with tears when they didn’t pass a checkout, even though it was no big deal because they could just find what they didn’t understand and learn it on the spot.  The way we do checkouts is all very cheerful.  Not to them. They had been whipped so thoroughly and so long, there was no joy in learning, no joy in demonstrating what they had learned.  It took them days of working with me and my team to learn how to relax and enjoy a really good examination, one that genuinely wanted to help them achieve 100%.

In my travels I discovered that India may be even worse.  April and May begin what is known as the “suicide season” for students. After doing poorly on excruciatingly difficult exams, many of them commit suicide by hanging themselves from ceiling fans.  It’s actually lead to the manufacturing industry of anti-suicide ceiling fans.  I remember when I was in India the extreme anxiety of my students and how they studied unnecessarily late into the night trying to memorize everything, even with my gentle encouragement that all they needed was good understanding (and a good night’s sleep), not memorization.

As painful as it is to see an almost universal reaction to being examined, it was gratifying to teach Learning How to Learn and to bring back the joy of learning, to see students develop a completely relaxed attitude about examinations and to witness their tremendous pride on mastery.

What was started as an “examination” thousands of years ago with prisoners on the rack being physically tortured, continues emotionally into today.  The look on a child’s face when he or she says, “I need to study for an exam” still bears the marks of a prisoner being led to the torture chamber.

I believe it’s vital for students to demonstrate they’ve fully learned and can apply what they’re learning.  It’s essential for them and it’s indispensable for our culture.

But it’s time we did it without torture.

May all your examinations be kind, gentle, pleasant and gratifying demonstrations of your competence.




2 thoughts on “Torture

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