Assessment – My road to Damascus

After my blog about exam day next week and my belief in the need for a change in our assessment practices, I’d like to share where this has all come from.  Some 15 years ago or so, when I was Head at Govan High, I was part of a small, dynamic group looking at where the school should be going, particularly in the light of radical changes to the curriculum structure that we had recently made.  The school’s focus had changed to getting positive destination for allof its leavers.  We came to realise that gaining qualifications was but part of the story;  equally important was being able to succeed at interviews and to do this, leavers had to be aware of what they were good at.  In short, this meant they had to know what skills they had.  Within the school, a taxonomy of skills was developed, and a system created that identified, developed, assessed, recorded and reported on skills development.  Quickly, skills became part of the students’ vocabulary.

Some time ago, in Tes Scotland, there was information in a side panel from a CBI survey, indicating that 49% of young people believe that their education has not prepared them for the world of work.  This figure is high and yet I was not surprised.

I believe that the assessment system is based on archaic principles, with the majority of what is assessed being reliant upon the capacity to memorise and regurgitate the thoughts and findings of others.  This certainly prepares nobody for the world of work, unless they intend to earn a living from winning money in pub quizzes!  Students are put in exam rooms.  They are not allowed to communicate with anyone in the room or the world outside.  Most of all, they cannot access the vast store of information and knowledge on the world wide web.  In fact, should they be seen to be even just in possession of a smart phone, they will get no award in the exam.  What – in the 21st Century??

In any work place today, the emphasis is on teamwork and collaboration in a problem-solving approach.  Use is made of all available information on site or on the web.  As an example, in my Govan days I visited the design office at BAE Systems shipyard in Scotstoun.  Being a Greenock boy of the 60s and 70s, I was familiar with the yards from student summer jobs.  However, I was now really taken by the use of computer aided design compared to the drawing boards and pencils that I remembered from my shipyard days.  I was introduced to a designer (a Govan High FP) and he explained the problem he had in trying to site a fresh water circulating pump, because of pipework for other lines being placed in his optimum areas by other designers.  Within seconds, he was surrounded at his PC by 4 other designers and he was outlining the challenge he was facing.  He was in the Chair.  Within a few minutes of discussion, a solution had been found through their collective efforts.  Working separately, they had created a problem; working together they solved it.  The Chair finished by saying, “So everyone knows what we need to do?”  Off they went, problem solved, and the freshwater circulating pump had found a home.  The designer was not made to sort it himself in isolation!  This is how the world works.

Skills of communication, problem solving, team working, evaluation, developing positive relationships, planning courses of action etc. are what matter today – not the regurgitation of knowledge.  In 2005, Dan Pink, in his seminal book, A Whole New Mind, said, “We’ve progressed from a society of farmers, to a society of factory workers, to a society of knowledge workers.  And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathisers, of pattern recognisers and meaning makers… We’ve moved from an economy built on people’s backs, to an economy built on people’s left brains, to what is emerging today: an economy and society built, more and more, on people’s right brains.”  He contends that we are beyond the knowledge-based economy and we are!  It’s what we do with knowledge and information that is important.  Deep learning is important not rote learning.  The future is skills and yet our education system is rooted in the knowledge acquisition that was important in the past.

I have believed this for so many years now and yet it was really crystallised for me 3 years ago through personal rather than professional experience.  My son was preparing to sit his National 5 examinations in Business Management, English, Mathematics, Modern Studies, Physical Education and Practical Woodworking.  In this preparation he literally wasted days of his life, learning “stuff’ for regurgitation; “stuff’, the memorising of which had no intrinsic value; “stuff’ that there was no need to commit to memory, because it can be accessed in a matter of seconds from his phone.  The skill of memorising quantities of knowledge is of almost no value in today’s world.

I had such great hopes for Curriculum for Excellence, but so much is being lost along the way.  In Building the Curriculum 4 and the Experience and Outcomes, a skill set exists from which a skills taxonomy could be developed easily.  The Report of the Higher Order Skills Excellence Group said as much (1) but, sadly, the message has failed to get through.  It would be possible for the development of skills in students to be assessed, internally, along the way, and complemented by external open book exercises.  Then we might get close to assessing that which is relevant and valuable for success in the 21st Century world.

If you ask a Scottish school student the question “What are you good at?”, the answer that you will get, overwhelmingly, is “Modern Studies” or “PE” or some such – in other words a school subject.  Nowadays, we need young people to be saying communication, or team working or hand-eye co-ordination – in other words a set of skills.  That answer will never come till the students actually have a focus on skills development in their school life and are able to articulate their qualities and progress in the vocabulary of a skills taxonomy.  The future is skills, but somebody has to let students find out, and understand, what they are good at in these terms.  Our system doesn’t!  It is possible though– we did it at Govan. Back then, our success was confirmed for me when an English teacher spoke to me about a conversation she had with one of her students.  She was exhorting him to work hard for his upcoming National 5 English exam;  his response was, “Yes Miss, qualifications will get me an interview but it’s the skills that will get me a job!”

I had a conversation with a colleague who holds a senior position in the SQA examination team at National 5 level.  It is his view that open book assessments could be devised in English “any time.”  What is the value in memorising endless quotations from novels or poems in our world today?

In my considered view, based on my extensive professional experience, and now as a parent stakeholder, our education system in Scotland has a number of serious shortcomings that do a disservice to our young people and lead to the system failing to meet their needs, the needs of our economy and the needs of our society.  The assessment regime being unfit for purpose is but one of these shortcomings.

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