Just what do exam results tell us?

This terrible Coronavirus crisis has many implications.  As one of the very fortunate who has kept healthy (thus far), I have found that I have more thinking time while I spend my days around the house with my family.  Some of this I devote to matters educational.  

I have long had a bee in my bonnet about how we assess young people’s learning.  Actually, through the SQA, we almost always assess only a part of their learning, namely ‘stuff’ they have memorised and can regurgitate, under ‘exam conditions’.  There is a huge irony here.  This must be the skill that is least useful in 21st Century life, given the vast store of factual information available, within seconds, on the web – unless, of course, you earned your living, pre-crisis, from Pub Quizzes.  It’s what we do with knowledge that is important now and how we interact with it to apply it in new situations.  We need skills in problem solving, team working, adaptability, communication and the like.  Yet our exam system does not assess these.

Assessment must be more appropriate to the world today, fit for purpose and focus on skills developed and competencies therein.  Society needs an education system with assessment that is brand new.  Or does it?

My Dad trained as a joiner in the 1930s and served in the Royal Navy for 6 years in World War 2.  As a relatively new recruit in 1940, he applied to train as a shipwright, saying that he could provide papers to prove he was a joiner.  The RN was not interested in his paper qualifications.  He was told to report to a workshop full of materials, tools and machinery,  where he was given a detailed drawing of a window frame.  The assessment task was simple.  Dad was told to make the frame.  He did, and, having demonstrated that his skills and competence were at the required level, he was accepted to train as a shipwright.  There was no written component to the test.  The RN simply asked him to make something!

Maybe what society needs to do today is to ask itself what it needs from the qualifications system in schools; maybe the education system needs to ask itself what it needs to do to prepare young people for life in our ever-changing world and assess their skills development to provide relevant qualifications?  My argument is that knowledge regurgitation in an exam hall is not a required skill any longer; it is almost as irrelevant as ‘sabre toothed tiger chasing with fire’ – once a vitally important skill but no longer needed!  Yet, given Dad’s experience, ironically, we might find assessment tools that are relevant for today in the past!!

Harry White trained extensively in the RN, became a shipwright, deep-sea diver and a Chief Petty Officer.  On leaving the Navy, he worked as a joiner for a time and then trained to be a technical teacher.  He spent his time in schools focussing on getting young people skilled and then into employment.  But that’s another story …

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