Friday, 29 January 2010

Don’t blame the exam protesters

A Facebook protest group about a recent A Level Biology exam has attracted thousands of members. The complaints seemed to be that the questions did not give students a good enough opportunity to reproduce the content of the syllabus they had sweated to learn. It was hard, apparently, to discern what the right answer to the question was. They were annoyed and fearful that all this would result in a poor mark which would spoil their chances of their desired university place.

Only having second hand information, I’m in no position to comment on the specifics. However, it seems that these students have learnt one lesson very well. Education is about preparing for and taking exams. Exams are the opportunity to show that you have learnt the content of a syllabus. It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t understand providing that you can describe how something works or what happened and the consequences of that. To be honest, I have passed exams by simply reproducing what I’ve been told without having any understanding. This view of education has been pushed by politicians of both major parties when in government and society has gone along with it. The beauty of it for an instant results oriented culture that it is measurable. Results can be analysed and we can congratulate ourselves on how much better schools and universities are doing or blame someone when results decline. But it isn’t education!

A defender of the Exam Board suggested that questions in this particular instance had been designed to get students to apply the principles of what they had studied rather than only reproduce ‘facts’. Exactly the right approach in my view. Education isn’t a memory trick. It is about understanding, knowing how to use, critical thinking.

But don’t blame the exam protestors. They’ve only bought into our delusion.