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The Value of Learning

Learning is more than passing exams

by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider that learning is much more than preparing for exams.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need the following quotation by Jacob Chanowski displayed during the assembly.

    ‘It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not to worship what is known, but to question it.’

    It is available at:


  1. This is a quotation from Jacob Chanowski: ‘It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not to worship what is known, but to question it.’

    Now this quotation is not suggesting that you go into your first lesson, take off your tie, untuck your shirt, kick off your shoes, put your feet up on the desk and just relax. Sorry! It means that you should be looking at what you are being taught and thinking carefully about it, not simply accepting it as absolute truth. (Although, of course, there are certain empirical truths that will always be true whatever happens, such as 2 × 2 = 4 and so on.)

  2. However, to worship means that you have a faith that something is always right and correct. It almost means that you are blind to its faults. This quotation is asking you to to question things, including your studies. By questioning, you are seeking clarification, and by receiving clarification, you are understanding. I wonder if you have ever said, ‘I know it, but I don’t understand it.’ That probably means that you don’t really know the thing, because to really know something is also to understand it and to truly learn something new.

  3. During your studies, and throughout your life, you need to be questioning and challenging answers in a bid to find out more about the world we live in and what goes on around us. Your education is about your schooling and, yes, it is a legal requirement for you to receive education because there are some things that you need to know. For example, the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. Those who are educated at home should reach the same standards as those in school, and should also achieve GCSEs and A Levels.

    Unfortunately, there are still people in this country and throughout the world who cannot read, even though they are much older than the people in this assembly. Can you imagine how much of the world is cut off to them? How much they cannot learn?

    Even in the imaginary wizarding world of Harry Potter, the students who attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are examined on their abilities. They take OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) after five years (like GCSEs) and NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) after seven years (like A Levels).

  4. Our education and learning is not just about doing well in our examinations – although everyone should be aiming for their five A* to C grades in their GCSEs if they can. It is also about the fact that education gives you choices. Think of the children in less developed nations, who cannot rise out of poverty because they are not educated even to a rudimentary level. In this country, if you have GCSEs, you can go on to do A Levels or vocational courses and apprenticeships. If you have A Levels, the doors of higher education and university are open to you. Statistics tell us that students who have a degree-level qualification are, in their working lifetime, likely to earn over £160,000 more than those who leave school with only GCSEs or A Levels. That said, of course, there are exceptions: Lord Alan Sugar, the late Dame Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) and Sir Richard Branson did not go to university and achieved fantastic success without it.

  5. Education and learning cannot be measured by exams alone. Although some SATS have been phased out, some of you have been taking exams since Key Stage 2. This might mean that you are brilliant at learning for exams, and know how to answer questions, but it does not necessarily mean that you are truly learning the material. Universities are aware that students are primarily taught how to do well in exams and sometimes find it hard to think outside the box, or work independently seeking answers to questions that they themselves have thought of. This is where your learning and education could become more than just repeating facts; you could learn to apply a theory or an idea to something.

    Learning has been defined as the act or process of gaining knowledge or skill. It isn’t just about listening and taking in, or learning by rote (repeating something over and over again – think of your times tables). Research tells us that we retain more of what we are learning if we ‘do’ something. Your day at school should not just be about receiving information; it is as much about acquiring new skills. Skills equip us to do so much more after we have learned them. How would you swim if you hadn’t been taught to do so? How would you drive a car, bake a cake or use a washing machine?

  6. The Greek philosopher Plato said that learning was about recalling what we had forgotten. Going back to the swimming, did you know that babies instinctively hold their breath if they are put under water? But they very soon forget that instinct and we have to relearn the skill. If you see your learning as building on what you already know and maybe have forgotten, learning might not seem so hard.

  7. Learning also continues long after you have left school. It is something that is lifelong – we will all learn something new today, every single one of us. How will you use what you learn? Think of those who have been given the name ‘silver surfers’: older people who are learning new technological skills such as using computers, the Internet, email, webcams and even Facebook.

  8. So learning and education are essential for us as human beings and they continue throughout our lives. We all do it. See education as questioning and being a bit of a ragamuffin at times. So today, question, learn and understand and see how you can make your mind grow.

Time for reflection

Dear God,
Let us see that our learning and education are things that we can always add to, that can expand our minds and enhance our lives.
Help us to realize that each day brings new opportunities to learn.
Help us to take each opportunity and use it to grow.


‘Now thank we all our God’ (Come and Praise, 38)

Publication date: September 2016   (Vol.18 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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