Godfrey Thomson

Godfrey Thompson took on the dual post of Director of Studies at Moray House and Professor of Education at Edinburgh University, the Bell Chair, in 1925.

Early life and education

Godfrey Hilton Thomson was born in Carlisle in 1881.

His mother soon returned to her native Tyneside and to the village of Felling on the south bank of the Tyne a few miles downstream from Newcastle. He was brought up by his mother and her sisters. Financial circumstances meant he had to attend the local free infants Board School in Low Felling. He then spent the next six years at the High Felling Board School. His headmaster, John Logan, encouraged him to compete for a scholarship to a co-educational secondary school in Newcastle, Rutherford College, which he won. Here he studied mainly science: chemistry, heat, light and sound, electricity and magnetism, mathematics and Euclid.

At the age of sixteen, and having passed the London Matriculation examinations, he returned to High Felling Board School as a Pupil Teacher, indentured for three years. The school had four to six pupil teachers who taught portions of the classes of up to seventy boys, for most of the day under the supervision of a certificated teacher. In addition there were weekly ‘criticism lessons’ in the presence of the headmaster and the other pupil teachers. There was little time for private study, although the headmaster taught him for some 40 minutes a day. However, at the end of the second year he travelled to London to take the London Intermediate BSc examinations. At the age of nineteen he gained distinction, and third place, in the competitive all England Queen’s Scholarship Examination. This enabled him to become a full time student at the Armstrong College, Newcastle, a constituent college of Durham University.

As a teacher to be, a ‘normal student’, he studied for his BSc degree alongside courses in Education and in English. In his finals he gained a distinction in both Mathematics and Physics. After three years he obtained a Research Fellowship and was able to research physics at Strasburg University, obtaining his PhD there.

Academic life and educational research

He returned to Armstrong College as Assistant Lecturer in Education. Here he contributed to the training of elementary teachers through lectures in geography, mathematics, some psychology, classes in blackboard drawing, and visiting students in schools for their ‘criticism lessons’. He was promoted to Master of Method and decided to take a university Diploma in Education. He undertook his practical lessons at Haberdashers’ Askes School in London. Following the retirement of Professor Wright in 1920 Godfrey Thomson applied and was appointed to the post of Professor of Education.

In 1921, following an exhaustive study of the literature, he devised the first Northumberland Mental Test. This was given to eleven year old children who were candidates for free places in secondary schools. In 1922 a revised test was given to the whole eleven year old age group in the county. This was not only for the purposes of selection but also to support educational research. He wrote:

“ My interest in large scale intelligence surveys arose from a desire to give an equal educational chance to children from different classes in society and in different districts.”

Godfrey Thomson

He was invited to spend a year as Visiting Professor at Columbia University, New York City. His lectures provided the basis for his book: 'Instinct, Intelligence and Character', published in 1924.

A year later he was appointed to the dual posts of Professor of Education at Edinburgh University, the Bell Chair, and Director of Studies at Moray House, then part of the Edinburgh Provincial Teacher Training Centre. From the start he said that he would see his university and college duties merged into one another without ‘an over-nice discrimination between the two halves.’ From his many responsibilities he identified two as his own priorities: the excellence of his teaching and the development of Edinburgh as a leading centre for educational research. His second book was published in 1929: 'A Modern Philosophy of Education'.

His, and his team’s work, on mental testing was in increasing demand both in Great Britain and internationally. From 1925 he used the title Moray House Tests for all the testing materials he and his colleagues devised. Room 70 in the then Main Building, now Paterson’s Land, became famous as the research and development centre for the tests. At the time of his retirement in excess of one and half million were being sold annually. No one benefited personally from the royalties generated: these were used to equip the research room at Moray House, pay for the salaries of professional and administrative staff and to create a research lectureship. Later funds were allocated to the Godfrey Thomson Research Fund.

Sir Godfrey chose to specialise in the field of psychometrics for both research and teaching. His many articles and books reflect this choice. His foremost claim for psychology was that " it has especially improved education making the actual individual and not an average or a typical individual the object of the teacher’s…care." Education " must look at ends and purposes, not merely at methods and means."

However, his scientific approaches did not always find favour with the educational establishment of the time. His legacy was probably greatest in the influence he had on his generation of students who went on to make their mark and influence education across the world.

He himself would not infer or draw conclusions not warranted by the findings. For example, in the debate about the proportion of intelligence that could be attributed to heredity or to the environment he commented: " All I can venture as a scientist to say is that both are certainly concerned, but in what proportion I do not know."

Honours

“ In a sense I think the whole of my work has been an attempt to bring mathematical exactitude into psychological experiment and theorising.”

Godfrey Thomson

There is also a selection of the tests he devised, including copies of the 1922 Northumberland Intelligence.

He died on February 9th 1955. The Association for the College’s Hostels wrote of him:

“ …it will not be the psychologist of international repute nor the enthusiastic and stimulating teacher they [the past students] will first remember, but the man they sat near to at a dinner or met at coffee, whose kindly simplicity and eager responsiveness quickly struck sparks from them which they had not known to possess and kindled with them a warmth of mutual interest.”

Extracts taken from: Sir James J Robertson, 1964, ‘Godfrey Thomson’, Godfrey Thomson Lecture, published by Moray House. Sir Godfrey Thomson, ‘The Education of an Englishman: an Autobiography’, published in 1968 by Moray House. James Duff: an obituary of Sir Godfrey Thomson.


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