March 16, 2012

Education and the Examination Swindle


It has been far too long since I have written a post here! I apologise for that from the bottom of my heart. For all of those looking for an explanation, I shall give you one. Recently, two of my friends and I entered a competition, for which one had to prototype and build an “autonomous vehicle able to navigate a course without external help or influence”. I had always thought that doing these types of things for children at our age was near to impossible; however, I am fortunate enough to go to a school that has the facilities available to make this a reality for me. Although the actual start date for the competition was in September, my technology teacher only told us at the start of January, which left us 6 weeks to complete the project!

Anyway, I’ll come back to that later, but for now, let me diverge into a slightly tangential topic of education. While it may be a tangent, however, it is becoming increasingly more involved with the new opportunities that have evolved through technology and the web. This tangent into education, I have decided to start off with a short story that got me thinking about the issues I will discuss here.

Once upon a time, I was sitting in the dark, gloomy examination hall with an English language paper staring up at me from the table. Within sat essay and poetry questions, of which we had to answer one of each. The essay was done swiftly and without problems, but than the poetry came up. I, with great difficulty, completed this question as well.

Them came result time! I was given a sheet in my English lesson with the marks for the language and literature papers. All was in order, with decent marks across the board, all except for, you guessed it, the poetry! 50% on that one. Great. I asked my English teacher what I had done wrong. It subsequently turned out that I had interpreted the poem incorrectly and drew the incorrect conclusions, apparently from an ‘environmentalist’ stance, and it was only for the correctly identified features that I got that 50%.

Now, may I ask you, what is poetry? Poetry is a type of art, is it not? And what does one do with art, apart from paying ridiculously huge sums of money for them? One interprets them, but each and every person’s interpretation will differ in some way. My friends at TheAftermatter could probably statistically show this as well!

I got marked down for expressing my own interpretation of something that is meant to be a piece of art! How can one have the wrong interpretation? The English teachers out there will probably argue that I did not support my points properly. I actually went through the script, comparing it to my other ‘A’ grade essays, and there was virtually no difference in the way I supported the points on the exam script, so that argument can be ruled out.

So the remaining problem is that the exam sucked! Others who got A+ on the paper and got the ‘correct’ interpretation will disagree, but because my interpretation did not fall into place with the criteria, I got bumped down.

This, in my opinion, exposes a gaping hole in the current exam system, and I really do mean gaping, on top of the already pre-existing problems! We are currently, even at my school, being taught for the exam. We have a two-year course in which we learn everything we need to for the exam and then move on to the next exam course, where the same cycle happens all over again.

Now, I ask you, what is the purpose of education? Is it to teach facts to regurgitate in exams? Is it to learn how to answer exam-style (God, how much I hate that phrase) questions? Or maybe, just maybe, the institution of education exists to make us well-rounded people with an ability to think independently. People who will be the driving force behind the economic recovery; bringing forth the next technological and cultural innovations and reimagining the system as a whole. Doesn’t one think that we deserve to be educated for the sake of being educated and not just have the ‘proper’ way to answer these questions and exam technique, exam technique, exam technique drilled into our heads?

At least, I think so.

As we have seen time and time again, authorities are always too slow to react to the fast paced problems. Recently, Ofqual, the exam watchdog, announced an investigation into the current exam system. You know, the one where different exam boards with non-standardized questioning bands are competing for the business o schools, thereby driving the quality of the exam lower and lower? Yeah, that one. I doubt the investigation report will be coming out this year, by which stage the situation would probably have worsened.

There is, however, hope. I know it sounds clich├ęd, but hear me out.

Technology is empowering people to do so much more with so few resources; entire governments and oppressive regimes have been forced out due to the general population staging uproar against them. This same power could easily be used for educational purposes, and I am not just talking about getting kids back into programing. I am talking about the collective knowledge of the entire human species accessible for a monthly fee of about £10. That’s £120 per year with access to a global communications infrastructure and a knowledge tank. People are going online and learning about new things, picking up new skills, or maybe even brushing up on that math they said they would never use, for next to nothing!

Technology is what allowed me and my team to build the competition buggy. It was not on any syllabus or specification sheet, we just thought it would be a fun thing to do. Technology can allow for many, many more things to be designed and conceptualized; things that would not have been possible only a few short years ago.

Our concept of education needs to be massively revised. We are instilling a notion that thinking outside the box is bad, through these exams that were initially used to check up on our progress. Now they are being used as goals or achievements to attain, and it is precisely this that will kill innovation for good.