Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Hate Exams

Exams are the great enemy of learning. They are a false goal, allowing the attainment of objectives to be decreed, regardless of the truth. Students hate them, but come to treat them as the purpose of their studies. Lazy, incompetent, embittered or just worn-out teachers use them as an easy way to justify what they do, or to look tough, as the case may be. And they encourage the (temporary) accumulation of useless information at the expense of understanding. Without understanding much of the information is worthless, is not retained, cannot be profitably employed, and, of course, cannot be analyzed. But it is much easier to order children to study a page of information and test them on it than it is to help them understand what it means, why it matters, how to check its accuracy and how to use it to find out more. And it is very much easier than trying to motivate them to take an interest in learning when the teacher himself has lost interest in teaching.

A good, or even a moderately competent teacher, knows at all times how each student is doing. There is no need to base assessment on exams. But once you do, they become the central purpose of the entire process, and good exam results are taken as a vindication of both student and teacher, and of the education system in general. This in turn encourages their manipulation, which is easy enough to do.

Teaching is largely a matter of common sense, authority (both personal and intellectual), knowledge of the subject, and dedication. Not everyone can do it, but not everyone has to. If you can, you don’t need reams of instructions from people who’ve never done it telling you how to, and if you can’t you should find another job. The 2006 Spanish education law consists of 50 pages of A4. The laws, derived from it, setting out details of aims, methods, attention to diversity and assessment run to 400+ pages for each section of the education system. The law on assessment in ESO, the compulsory section of high school, alone has 66 pages. Most of this is then duplicated at regional level. Very little of this is of any use at all. You either don’t need it or you won’t know how to use it, and most of, despite the length and detail, is vague and aspirational, whereas teaching is an overwhelmingly practical art.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding about cognitive ability that is remarkably common. Many people seem to think that all children are born with the same potential, that they are empty vessels, tabulae rasae, and if the same is written on all of them they will all be clever and successful. It isn’t true. But the belief that it is so, or should be so, is behind much education policy in the wealthier world. That and benighted social dogma. And there is the instinctive belief of legislators that more legislation is the answer to all the problems that the previous legislation created or failed to solve. Much of the Spanish law seems to be aimed at telling teachers who can’t teach what to do with children who can’t or don’t want to learn.

Incidentally, I tend to blame teachers for the mess that is public education not because they are the only ones to blame but because they are the only ones who can change things. Governments are too busy playing ideological games, parents don’t realize that things could be different and children just take things as they come.

There are many things wrong with our education systems, but the love of exams is one of the biggest, and it leads directly and indirectly to many others.

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