Examinations

Examinations are becoming ever more important. If knowledge is free, the education industry has to rethink its business model. It has to make money not by teaching but by proving.  This is why ‘course work’ was invented. Schools were worried that work and power were slipping away from them to the the examining boards. They wanted to get in on the proving act.

It is only in the last 150 years that the need for an artificial measurement of achievement has become a compulsion. Examinations are to many, the whole point of education. It is not enough to be educated, others have to be aware of the fact as well. These exam certificates are to be presented to universities and employers as proof of academic achievement. Showing off one’s intellectual prowess may be a little vulgar and annoying in a social setting but such restraints are set aside when it comes to the world of work. Exams are a product of the 19th Century, an age of industry and bureaucracy. So what happens in the post-industrial and the post-bureaucratic age?

My instinctive response to this would be to get rid of the lot of them but the people who have such powers have degrees so they are unlikely to make such decisions as it would undermine their self-worth. The reasons examinations are so important and demand such obsessive attention from schools and students, is that it is always in the interests of graduates to talk up their importance. So we will have to work with the exam system and use it as a means to undermine and revolutionise the entire education industry.

Much depends on the subject. With art, the proof should be in the pudding, not in a certificate in Creative Pudding-Making Skills. In music or dance, a performance reveals far more than a certificate. Employers are more interested in character than achievement so we need something which reveals character. Music exams are there purely to motivate the student. They are an adult conspiracy – we lead children to believe they are as important as the performance and this taps into a child’s or the child’s parents’ competitive nature to score highly.  The exam boards are also publishing companies and are keen to propagate the fallacy. In 2009 a ten minute exam costs £48 and that does not include the cost of buying the publications so there are strong commercial pressures at work.

So for arts subjects to show a level of creativity, the exam has been the only valuable medium. What a dull, pointless and ineffective medium that is!  A musician who wants to prove he’s good gets his guitar out – he doesn’t point to a framed certificate above the mantelpiece. But lucky us – the web is here. We can film a performance and submit it to YouTube. Or it could be films, short stories, poems, novels or essays to whatever website is appropriate. For the arts in particular, the evidence function of the exam is redundant. Even the motivation factor is declining as students nurture their natural inclination to show off, by choosing new media over certificates.

All arts exams are utterly pointless because every judgement is subjective. This is not the same with subjects which require students to prove possession of a body of knowledge. They have a greater need for examinations. These are often multiple choice, and can be examined and assessed by computer though they will have to be invigilated in the conventional way. Foreign languages also need to remain subject to examination but essay-writing subjects such as History, should be regarded as arts subjects, as it asks for opinions based on cultural factors as well as facts. If a student really has a different take on the Crimean War, blog about it.

One unforeseen result of mobile internet is the death of the quiz. Everybody has the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. Knowledge of facts is no longer important. Instead we need to demonstrate the products of our imagination in ways other than the artificial restrictions of the academic examination.

The school curriculum is subject to the constraints of the timetable. With open-source education, there is no limit, neither should there be limits to the number of examinations a student can take. This can only come about if exams adopt the Long Jump Model instead of the current High Jump Model. With the high jump there is success or failure: a clean jump or the ignominy of metal bar clattering on your head. With the long jump there is only a measurement. Students should not orientate the learning to the exam but choose the exam that best measures their learning. This is where professional help will be needed. A smattering of French will not be enough for a pass but may get a few marks which will add up to a grand total. The final result can be in the form of a coloured pie chart, the size indicating the total number of marks and the colours denoting areas of knowledge and ability.

This is a time for experimentation and innovation. I propose that a control group be identified. They should be given honourary, but secretly honourary, degrees. Let’s see how they fare in the workplace and measure their success against those with ‘real’ degrees. Would employers be able to tell the difference? I doubt it.

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