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Talk-ED: Examinations and the Rugby World Cup Final

Stuart Middleton
25 October 2011


Just seconds after the referee blew full time in the final of the Rugby World Cup, television showed a brief glimpse of the engraver setting to work on putting the name of the winning team on the William Webb Ellis Trophy – “2011 New Zealand”.

He didn’t engrave “New Zealand (just)” or “New Zealand (by the skin of their teeth)”.  Winning or losing this game of Rugby was a binary matter. Regardless of the winning margin, the team on top was the winner.

There is a long tradition of this binary distinction in education as most awards were either “passed” or “failed”. The size of the winning margin seemed less important than simply passing. Those of us who squeaked through School Certificate back in the pass/fail days were happy with the arrangement. Unknown to us there were of course plenty of people to whom the size of the margin mattered but those were the ones for whom winning in terms of pass/fail was less important than beating others.

Of course there was a downside to this binary business and many a young student had the course of their careers and possibly even lives changed by the odd mark or two assigned by an anonymous examiner. That changed in the mid-1970s when students were given the right to request that they get their marked examination scripts back. This made explicit the odd mistake in marking and, more importantly, brought out into the open the whole business of scaling of results according to a “hierarchy of means” based on a hierarchy of subjects.

This is also reflected in the Rugby World Cup where some teams have to play every 4 or so days while others have longer breaks. It is of course simply a hierarchy of countries based on the seeding process. But unlike other sports that apply a seeding, to base more favourable conditions on those in the top group is a tough ask. In tennis all the seeds play with about the same frequency. Sport is after all meant to be a level playing field as they say.

A less satisfactory sequel coming from the pass/fail mentality of previous examination systems has been the carrying into new ways of working, those old attitudes. New Zealand has in its NCEA school leaving examinations a credit based system in which students accumulate credits at three different levels and with three kinds of award (credit, merit and excellence – the old hierarchical habits linger on).

It is less than helpful to have young people believing that they have “passed” Level 1 or Level 2 when in fact what they have done is to break  through the minimum total of credits required to be awarded recognition at that level. The best students should simply power on to higher and better things.

Worse is the habit of credit harvesting that sees students fixated on the minimum total and without pattern or purpose gathering credits from wherever they can. This leads to sets of “achievement” that lack coherence and integrity and which forms a shaky basis on which to plan for further study. But never mind, they passed!

Of course it takes a long time for myths to be replaced. The old pass/fail system suggested that there were standards, golden standards set for all time. There never was. There was simply a set of mathematical sleight-of-hand procedures that established how many passed.

To think again about the “fails”. I wonder if a trophy like that of the Rugby World Cup should also record the runners-up and the score which might have appeal to some educators who are sometimes shy of a harsh truth. Or perhaps to take a lesson from education where a group of invigilators could meet at the end of the final and announce which was the better team – there’s a novel idea!

Let’s stick with the pass/fail, forget the margins, forget the quality of the play. We scored one more point and we are World Champions.

And just like my School Certificate from 50 years ago, who is going to care about the score!



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A public spectacle

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.33, 28 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

There used to be a joke that went like this – “I went to watch a fight but unfortunately a game of rugby broke out!”

I don’t wish to add to the load of comment on that shoddy incident in a certain schoolboy rugby match on a recent Saturday. It was one of many shoddy incidents in sport and that includes school sport. Schools would have been best to sort this one out as indeed happens many times each rugby season in many schools.

“Boy, you can’t do that – I care about winning but I care more about how you win. I don’t like to lose but I care about how you lose.” This would be the line adopted by sensible Everyman-Principals,

But this captured the imagination of the public with a ferocity that was spectacular.

I believe that this was because the nation was thirsting for drama and guidance at a time when the national psyche was being both tested and confused by the smacking referendum. The moral certainty that it was wrong to hit children was being turned around when despite the scriptures those of the religious right would claim to understand and to love. People who would ordinarily be sensible would adopt the position of stating the “I wouldn’t hit a child bit I defend your right to do so to the death” (usually of the child.

In days of old, thinking folk would drift toward the village square to see a band of players present a morality play on the back of a wagon. A morality play was in medieval times called an interlude and what better description is there of going along to sport?

Typically these plays had a moral theme and they were an allegory which illustrated some aspect of life and its tribulations. The protagonist would be a good person who was facing the challenge of life’s confusions. The characters would include those who represented and personified various moral attributes. They would try to persuade him to follow a godly life rather than choose the path of evil.

So on a Saturday afternoon a Protagonist-Crowd assembled to join the the players, to set about their allegorical spectacle.  The two Personification-Teams paraded the temptations of reputation and riches up against the realities of struggle. The crowd troubled by deep questions about violence towards children saw the forces of privilege and power prevail but then the truth of life was still to be graphically played out.

When rules are no longer strong enough, when the gods are the side of the powerful the only recourse is violence. Spirit and values give way to force, order and respect are to be fought over, brutally and braggedly. In life as in sport,  the reality and truth of the scoreboard is not to be denied and as the last final blow of the Grim Referee approaches, desperation set in.

What followed this worrying first part of the play was an even more worrying commentary delivered ex cathedra by the priests of the Church of Sport. Feigned disgust by Sports Talkback Hosts cunningly masked the message of the scriptures that had taught for so long. Win at all cost – if only those namby pamby school teachers had not instilled the will to play fair and to play hard, New Zealand would still be a force in world rugby. Worse, the ultimate sin was to indulge in sport for pleasure!

The tales of St Loe, St Shelford, St Mead and a plethora of lesser saints were the parables of the Coaches had held the community together and belief in our might was unchallengeable.

As the play continued, in rode the Discipline Demons on the white horses of the powerful to pass down the law. Two people fight – the vanquished must be punished for they have no battles left to fight – the victors must be allowed to fight in other and not-far-away battles.

Protagonist-Crowd was perplexed. While there once seemed better ways of resolving tensions and even sensible ways of punishing those who had strayed, the world now seemed to be dispossessed of logic.  These young warriors needed guidance and the loving hand of guidance. The Protagonist-Crowd faced other issues and they were confused.

Sitting in their thousands of huts, huddled in front of fires they grappled with the issues of violence, of power, of the need to bring young people on rather than slap them down – to extend the hand of a loving deity when most they were troubled.

Was the spectacle of the fight at the end of the game an illustration of this love? Did the kindness of good rugby playing require this show of force? Should such loving behavior between the members of the fraternity of the young illustrate the extent to which Protagonist-Crowd was being asked to consider the use of violence against children.

Wait, they thought, we are told that it isn’t violence when it is part of good parenting even thought the law forbids it. But at what point does “loving” cease to be loving and “smack” starts to be “hit”? Probably at about the same point at which “playing to win with glory” becomes “playing to win at all costs”.

Does good rugby playing require an element of violence? Some who phone sports talk-back lament the loss of “mongrel”. Well mongrel is simply confused breeding and that gets s back to the heart of the issue.

Protagonist-Crowd having witnessed the Morality Play decided in its wisdom that the road to godliness was not cleanliness but good dirty stuff. In both the rugby game and the referendum the issue was never the young ones, it was always the grown-ups.

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