Magazine excerpt: The Donald Taylor column

Down with exams! It’s time workplace L&D helped people to rediscover the joy of learning, says Donald Taylor.

It was a June day in 1986. A few puffy clouds interrupted an otherwise unbroken light blue sky. The sandstone buildings basked in the warmth of the sun and the vibrantly green grass seemed to shimmer in the glow of the afternoon. It was a quintessential English summer’s day and, having taken my final exam, I stood on the pavement and took a deep breath.

Looking back at the college that I had just left for the last time, I breathed out with a heavy sigh and said to nobody in particular: “Well, thank God that’s over.” The drudgery of a decade and a half of schooling was finally at an end.

I should, perhaps, be a fierce supporter of the value of exams. From the 11-plus, which took me to my grammar school, through the various tests which led me, finally, to Oxford University, have they not served me well? I’m not sure they have, and I am certain that exams have hurt more people than they have helped. 

Let us give people the mental tools to learn effectively – focusing on developing their meta-cognitive skills…

Exams have several corrosive effects, but the worst is to damn those who do not make the grade to a lifetime of self-doubt, summed up in a single phrase, usually delivered with a shrug of hopeless acceptance:

“I’m not academic.”

Today’s knowledge economy will only thrive if its driving force – adults in the workforce – learn continuously. And with skilled people now the key to business success, those individuals will need to keep learning just to stay economically active.

A system designed to tell all but a handful of children that they are “not academic” – that they are poor learners – does the exact opposite. And yet, in mentoring sessions, in private conversations, in snatched moments over drinks at conferences, it is this message, or a variation on it, that I repeatedly hear from countless friends and colleagues. And it sickens me.

Even for those who jump through the hoops, exams teach our children – just as they embark on the thrilling journey of adulthood – that learning is a discrete, contained activity that can end. The vast majority leave our education system saying, in one way or another, “Well, thank God that’s over.”

Nothing has changed since I uttered those words at the end of my university days. This June, I have watched my daughter use the same techniques to study for her GCSEs as I did for my O-levels, and which her brother used a few years ago. Among her classmates are those who will struggle in these exams, for whom this is confirmation of their lack of academic ability.

Those of us in workplace L&D cannot hope to change the education system, but we can refuse to adopt the same exam-focused model in our own work.

Instead, let us give people the mental tools to learn effectively – focusing on developing their meta-cognitive skills and giving the lie to that vile phrase, “I’m not academic.” 

Let us help people learn for a better purpose than exam-passing. And in doing so, we can restore some of the pride knocked out of them by a system focused on cramming content.

Learning should be a curiosity-driven adventure, not a chore, a slog through a system designed to produce a handful of elite winners. School exams have done enough damage. It’s time workplace L&D helped people to rediscover the joy of learning.


About the author

Donald H Taylor is a veteran of the learning, skills and human capital industries, with experience from design and delivery to chairman of the board. Visit his website

This is a piece from June’s edition of TJ magazine. For a free three month digital subscription trial of TJ magazine click here


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