Thursday, 15 July 2010

Testing Refresher from Sanderson of Oundle

Today I was "philosophising" with my 5 yr old daughter - wondering about why she thought the sun was so big if I could make a circle of it with my hand (she had a good answer) - and then we started discussing which of the moon and sun was bigger and reasons why one might "appear" bigger than the other. This generated a great number of questions and hypotheses.

This activity reminded me of "Sanderson of Oundle", I'd recently read an article and a booklet on the subject. Just the title sounds intriguing doesn't it?

F.W. Sanderson was headmaster of Oundle public school from 1892-1922 - and the story of his approach to teaching sounded both revolutionary and visionary and generated interest from pupils and parents alike.

After I read the article I searched and managed to track down a copy of a booklet that the school produced on the seventieth anniversary of Sanderson's death. It's only 24 pages but gives a great insight into a great enabler.
Sanderson said: 
"We shall see what changes should come over shcools. They must be built in a large and spacious manner, the classrooms being replaced by halls or galleries, in which the children can move in the midst of abundance, and do and make research: not confined to a classroom."
"The methods will change from learning in classrooms to researching in the galleries; from learning things of the past to searching into the future; competition giving place to co-operative work."

He had two main methods:

  • Let there be no work which is not in some sense creative.

To him, classrooms were just tool-sharpening rooms and the real work was done in the laboratories, library, museum, art room or power station. The creative work took part in research outside of the classroom.

  • Let all work be co-operative rather than competitive.

He held creative work (through research) to be higher than examined work and he believed the best way to achieve this was by co-operation. His opinion was that all had areas in which they can excel and it's for the teacher to help the pupil to find those areas - not to constrain them to a norm. BTW, he didn't believe in bad students - just students that the teacher hadn't found the right angle or area of interest yet.

Why the interest to me?
I've recently "regressed" into the scientific approach - or maybe I'm a born-again scientist (mathematician actually)? I'm on a little bit of an evidence-based refresher... So I found the work that he was doing (and the way he was doing it) to be so enlightening - and with a lot of common sense.

Just take his two main methods:

Creative work:
This is so true for me as a software tester - I don't do things just because they're there or that's the way it's always been done. I try to evaluate and understand what I'm doing, the selections I'm making, the assumptions that are there (both obvious and less obvious) to be able to give a full account of my actions. That gives me the piece of mind that I'm trying to do a good job.

Take an automated test case (or test suite) - I wouldn't run it without considering the reasons for running it, what information I'm getting out of it, what it's not telling me and even considering if this selection is still relevant. If I can cover those bases - and be able to discuss them with colleagues - then I'm making a creative input into the decision around that test.

Co-operative vs Competition:
Co-operation in project environments revolves very much around communication. That's not just writing a report on time or emailing someone to say that all plans have changed. It starts before that - framing the expectations around how the communication is going to work - a sort of trust and confidence-building exercise. If X knows I'll treat all information in a professional way and be a good ball-plank for him then I'm much more likely to know about any potential changes/problems sooner.

Research and being creative is very much key to most work connected with software development and testing - and co-operation is a natural part of this.

Competition in project environments can have several connotations. Most of the "competition" whether it be one-up-manship or the CYA syndrome is usually connected with non-cooperation. Non-cooperation in the sense of a non-functioning or not-open two-way dialogue does not help the project.

I loved reading about Sanderson of Oundle - I wish I'd gone to a school like that and with a teacher like that.

It was also a reminder for me about the importance and relevance of creativity and cooperation in my daily work. Without creativity there is no thinking (and vice-versa) and if I'm not being creative (or thinking) about my testing then I'm not doing good testing.

Discussing testing with my colleagues (cooperation) is a basic need for good testing.

Got any Oundle-like opinions?


  1. Really great post Simon. This is superbly relevant to me as I'm doing a hefty amount of research in to creativity, learning and environments.

    Gonna have to seek out this document myself now... :)


  2. I'm sure one thing Oundle would say is: treat people like they can be trusted.

    The worst work environments I've been in are ones where everyone is presumed guilty until proven innocent. In other words, you're subjected to random drug tests... Your internet usage is monitored (including key-word examinations of your email communications)... That sort of thing.

    Is there any chance that employees in that kind of environment are going to feel like their creative energy will get rewarded? Not in my experience, anyway.

  3. @Abe

    True: Trust and creativity go together. I don't think (believe) that companies don't intrisically trust their employees (in general) - but I can believe that the wrong people get to whisper in the wrong ears of companies now and then. Maybe short-sighted and a shame.


    True, I believe there's so many connections between creativity and the environment you work in - looking forward to reading your findings!