There has been so much change in British education in the past couple of decades that it is hard to keep track of what happened when – and more importantly, why. Innumerable decisions have been made, undoubtedly with the noble intention of improving the educational experience of our young people, but which were either ill-conceived to begin with, or which have had serious unintended consequences in the meantime.
An overheard conversation some days ago got me thinking about the amount of information that exam boards now provide to schools. The conversation went something like this:
“The exam board hasn’t made its requirements clear [in respect of para. x, subclause y of the specification]”.
“In which case, how are we to know what to teach to cover that question?”
“It’s not fair on children that exam boards aren’t clearer in what they want, as it means we can’t teach them what they need in order to score the marks.”
I’m not wishing to criticise the individuals having that conversation, for their response is entirely logical and consistent within the current climate; indeed, it is what the system seems to expect. It is also quite possibly what those individuals experienced in their own schooling, but that does not make it good education.
If I recall correctly, the requirement on exam boards to publish not only sylliabi but also marks schemes, specimen questions, detailed reports on each year’s cohort and grade thresholds stems from the point when they were removed from the tender care of the universities and told to become commercial organisations. It was argued that opacity was not fair on the ‘customers’ who did not know what they were getting for their effort/money, and in one sense it is hard to argue with the logic of this.
But the actual (if unintended) outcome has been that teachers have ever more closely targeted their teaching solely at the requirements of the exam specifications at the expense of a more general teaching of their subjects, as the aforementioned conversation would suggest. It has also removed from teachers the need to know their subjects well enough to make academic decisions for themselves – let alone the pedagogic freedom that such a position conferred. We have got to the point that if it isn’t on the exam specification, you don’t teach it, no matter how interesting or broadening it might be, or how much expertise you might have in it.
In the days prior to the availability of such information, one was subtly forced to teach more widely, simply because there was an element of the unknown in what might appear on an exam paper, or how. While exam strategy has always been a part of preparing pupils for external exams, the degree of certainty that is now possible means that a broad study of the subject has progressively been replaced by a process of targeted gaming of the specification, so as to secure almost guaranteed marks. This has been accompanied by an increasing willingness to challenge exam results, and while it is impossible to defend real errors in marking, one is left with the distinct impression that these challenges are often more about league table positions than anything else.
This is, of course, great news for schools whose status depends on delivering good results with great predictability, and it might appear good for pupils who are given relative certainty about know how to get the grades.
But there have been wider costs. Perhaps the least distinct, but most important, is that loss of breadth and freedom to explore the subject relatively free from exam-passing pressures. Exams are genuinely necessary and useful as a retrospective means of selectively assessing a student’s wider ability, but this is completely different from their present contingent use as the raison d’être of most teaching.
More subtly, it has encouraged exam-teaching to become a matter of regurgitation of pre-digested material, with a consequent reduction in the perceived need for candidates to think for themselves, or to apply their knowledge in perhaps more unexpected ways. This is a high level skill in itself, and in my opinion what should be expected in order to obtain the highest grade. The effect of this has gone far beyond the exam hall, as pupils now widely seem to expect certainty and instant accessibility as a matter of course, with a consequent reduction in a willingness to do the thinking for themselves. On-a-plate exams have led to the expectation of on-a-plate knowledge; this is another expression of learned helplessness.
It also sends the message that knowledge and thought themselves are a matter of certainty, whereas most thinking people would, I believe, accept that a key feature of a thoughtful mind is its acceptance of uncertainty. We need to be acclimatising children to this fact if we want them to become deep and effective thinkers.
The conspirator in me also worries that there is a corporate back-story here, in that we actually don’t any longer want people questioning the status quo too much, but merely doing obediently precisely what is expected of them, the knowability of the outcome more important than its inherent value. This is not my understanding of the purpose or process of true education.
From the teacher’s perspective, transparency could be argued to have played a part in ratcheting-up the accountability culture – after all, when you have all-but been told the answers, there really is no excuse for not delivering top grades except incompetence…
The best way to encourage broad thinking is to prevent the opposite from happening – and this means reducing the transparency of the exam system, such that there remains a degree of uncertainty for teachers and pupils alike. Only in this way will genuinely wide and deep thinking become necessary, since it would be less possible to question-spot.
I realise this probably sounds rather idealistic, and I do know that school-level education also needs to be about the command of the rather more rudimentary basics – but the current situation actually prevents thinking from ever going beyond that even where it would be desirable, in the way the overheard conversation demonstrated.
No doubt ‘transparency’ was introduced with the very best of intentions – but while it may suit the techo-managerial establishment to have such mechanised systems and accountability, it has arguably come at the cost of an exam system that is about testing how young people have been pre-programmed into compliance rather than what they know or can do – which is not at all the same thing. And then the same establishment complains that young people lack deep thinking abilities…
Because of the desire for certainty over real, uncertain thought, exam transparency has become just another brick in the wall of the deeply flawed educational edifice that has been built in this country. It could be argued that the old system was more subtle in its purpose that it appeared – and the solution to the current narrowing of teaching and learning may be the opposite of what presently seems obvious.