If it’s possible to game the system, it suggests the system isn’t fit for purpose

I was speaking with a former University Lecturer in AI not long ago about the reality of intelligence in general. Who, exactly, is intelligent? What are the hallmarks of intelligence? He recounted to me stories of people who had come from top schools and universities, with great exam results, who were frequently flummoxed by an interview question they used to hand out. The question had an answer that they almost certainly would not know, but for which they should have the requisite skills and knowledge to work out. Many of those from the best schools with top grades, who were totally polished in the interview up to this point, struggled for the answers whist a number of those from less prestigious backgrounds, who were considerably less polished in the interview, often managed to figure out the answer required.

My friend and I have revisited that same discussion a few times. Both of us recall our own time at university for a similar reason. We both cottoned onto the fact, in our respective subjects, that there was a way to do it that would lead to good results even if you didn’t really have a great grasp of what you were doing. One of the best essay marks I ever got in my undergraduate degree was in a module that, truth be told, I had the worst handle on as a subject. But it didn’t matter that I didn’t fully understand the subject because I knew how to do the essays. I learnt very quickly that nobody really cares what I think about the topic at hand. They don’t even really care about my argument. What they reward is evidence that you have read the books by way of a long bibliography, copious footnotes and a style of writing that appears (whether or not it is true in reality) that you have understood the arguments of different perspectives and can cogently quote those who make them in such as way as it appears you have understood what they’re saying. That is, fundamentally, how to do well in an essay.

I say, with no great pride, that there came a point where I didn’t go to a great deal of lectures because they were not specifically helpful in getting those grades. In fact, I managed to get through a 3-year history and politics degree – one in which you are given substantial reading hours – without reading a single book cover to cover. I did read stuff – certainly enough to get the requisite quotes to make it appear as though I fully understood the arguments, and I suppose one might argue there is a level of intelligence required in parsing the information and determining what exactly to include or not – but it doesn’t say a great deal about my alma mater that I could come out of it about 3 or 4 marks shy of a first class degree under those circumstances. I applied this same skill to my paper-only Theology MA with even better results, coming out of that with distinction (apparently).

The point is, I learnt how to work the system (sort of). I didn’t cheat. All the work was my own. What reading took place was done by me and the arguments written up in the essays and exams were all by my hand. But to get through the whole thing without reading a full book, doesn’t seem entirely within the spirit of what was intended. Let’s not pretend that isn’t what a lot of students are doing too – some doing it more successfully than others – but there it is. Maybe my courses were designed to bring these particular skills to the fore, I don’t know. My friend said he had a similar experience in his Computer Science degree. It’s not necessarily that he understood all the stuff better than anybody else, he just figured out the technique that allowed him to do the subject well. As a result he had something of a take-off in trajectory representing the point at which he figured out the game. Which, again, represents a form of intelligence, but it does really only reward one or two very specific forms of intelligence: the ability to write essays and pass exams.

I have spoken in past about the fact that in much of our theological education, we have essentially imported our model of learning from secular university humanities departments. In respect to linking ourselves to secular universities for the purpose of accreditation, I noted here:

[It] wedded Evangelical colleges to an academic mode of learning that emulated secular institutions designed specifically for those with an eye on the academy… many theological colleges assert that they are about the business of training pastors and yet continue to subscribe to the mode of teaching offered by those who have no interest in training for vocational roles.

In the name of rigour, we have tied ourselves to academic teaching methods and assessment that are not fit for vocational roles. The irony is that in chasing the academic accreditation we neither train pastors for pastoral ministry nor do we gain the academic kudos we seek. Few non-Evangelicals are especially impressed by those who have entered the academy through our Evangelical colleges whilst, at the same time, because we have sought that academic rigour we train people in such a way that doesn’t wholly prepare them for the practical reality of pastoral ministry. We then wonder why many of the pastors we send out prefer to have their head in books than be among the people they are meant to serve. That is precisely what we are teaching them to do.

But, of course, things are worse than all that. If we have come from an arts and humanities background (like I did), wedding ourselves to this mode of learning means that those of us who were able to use the system to our advantage the first time (and, I suspect, there are quite a lot of us in reality) will be able to do exactly the same thing in the pursuit of higher grades in our theological colleges. Whilst that may look wonderful on our published stats of pastors who got first class honours on our BTh and passes with distinction on our MTh, it doesn’t do a great deal for the churches to whom we then send those same people out. We might have helped them parse information and present it nicely in papers that (appear to) weigh arguments and gain good grades, but we won’t have done much to help the day to day nuts and bolts of life in vocational ministry.

Unless our goal is to create pastors who are able to produce credible essays – however they ultimately manage to do that – I am not sure this is the system we need for training people for the work of ministry. If the system can be gamed, then it is not fit for purpose. It is painfully clear that a degree from a Russell Group university is not necessarily an inherent sign of intelligence or greater understanding. At least, if it is, it is a sign of one very particular form of intelligence at the expense of other, quite important, forms of intelligence. It is even, potentially, merely a measure of who has figured out how to work the system best. The question for us is whether we think that singular form of intelligence is all that is really required of our pastors? I’m not sure it is even the primary thing we should look for in a pastor.

In my view, we need a total rethink of our theological education. We need to look at the outcomes we are trying to effect, work out how best to assess those outcomes and then figure out how best to teach to achieve those outcomes. Frankly, if we do that and still come up with the answer that it is importing the approach of humanities from secular universities, writing essays and passing exams, might I gently suggest that it is not only the students who are gaming the system.