In our latest episode of #AskWhy, we explore the enlightening conversation between Mary Curnock Cook, former CEO of UCAS, and Joshua Wohle, Mindstone's Co-Founder and CEO. Through their discussion, we gain insights into Mary's rich experience in education and the value she places on both formal education and workplace learning. Below is a snapshot of the conversation ranging from: the significance of assessments, the balance between skill acquisition and relevance, and the power of personal growth through professional challenges.

The Importance of Credentials and Formal Assessments

Mary highlights the significance of credentials and formal assessments in validating achievements and providing individuals with a currency to progress further in education and employment. While there is ongoing discussion about alternative assessment methods, Mary emphasises the need for formal qualifications that hold value in the current system. She recognizes that credentials play a vital role in establishing a foundation of knowledge and skills, providing individuals with a sense of achievement and confidence.

The Role of Formative Assessment

In considering the dynamics of assessment, Mary acknowledges the value of formative assessment in tracking progress and checking understanding. She believes that formative assessment should be a regular part of the learning process, enabling individuals to gauge their own growth. However, she also highlights the importance of synoptic assessments that allow individuals to draw upon multiple areas of learning and demonstrate their ability to synthesise knowledge. This broader perspective is particularly relevant in fields where comprehensive understanding is necessary, such as journalism or medicine.

The Balance between Large-Scope and Step-by-Step Assessments

When discussing the scope of assessments, Mary suggests that a combination of both large-scope and step-by-step assessments is necessary. While smaller assessments can evaluate specific skills or knowledge, larger assessments provide individuals with opportunities to synthesise learning and apply it in complex contexts. Mary draws a parallel with the driving test, which offers a foundational assessment for driving but leaves room for individuals to become experienced and adapt their skills over time.

Learning in the Workplace

Mary's personal experiences resonate with Joshua's own journey in the workplace. They both recognize the immense value of hands-on learning and the transformation that occurs when individuals are thrust into challenging situations. Mary describes her role as CEO of UCAS, where she had to navigate the complexities of transforming the organisation's technology infrastructure amidst significant changes in higher education. The real-life challenges she faced not only accelerated her learning but also emphasised the importance of practical experience in developing crucial skills.

Formal Education versus Workplace Learning

Reflecting on her educational journey, Mary shares that her most significant learning experiences occurred in the workplace rather than in formal education. She believes that formal education provides a foundation for learning, but the majority of growth and skill acquisition happens through practical experiences and continuous learning on the job. Mary and Joshua explore the idea that the workplace is an ever-changing environment, and skills become relevant and outdated at an accelerating pace. They discuss the delicate balance between investing time in demonstrating skills and ensuring that those skills remain relevant in a rapidly evolving world.


Mary Curnock Cook's wealth of experience in education and her insightful conversation with Joshua Wohle shed light on the transformative nature of learning. The discussion highlights the importance of credentials, the value of both formative and synoptic assessments, and the significant learning opportunities that arise in the workplace. As we navigate the evolving landscape of education, it is essential to recognize the interplay between formal education and practical experience, leveraging both to foster personal and professional growth. At, we invite you to embrace a holistic approach to learning, combining formal education with practical experiences, and continuously expanding your knowledge and skills.