In my previous post, Learning to think properly, I ended on a question of how our system of education could be changed to give people the appropriate critical thinking skills necessary for their future lives. As briefly mentioned in the comments following on from that post, I believe a significant part of the problem is the typical structure of many exams taken by students as they go through school, which largely involve repetition of material covered in the classroom. Here I will identify some possible alternative methods of assessment and explain how a different approach in the classroom could prepare students not only for their exams, but for the countless other situations awaiting them in life in which the wider range of skills involved will be exercised.
The two main problems with the way students are assessed are these: firstly, there is little incentive for either teachers or students to devote time to developing the skills I’ve been talking about- those of interpreting information, forming opinions, making decisions- when there is a minimal need for them in the exams; secondly, when students are asked for their opinions/interpretation the situation is often an elaborate facade- in actual fact what seems an open question is not designed to assess the ability to form and defend a point of view, but a test of ability to remember the ‘correct’ interpretation as explained by the teacher during preparation for the exam and repeat it. Those of you in the UK may well have heard of the case of Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who took and failed an exam on his own work as his answers didn’t match those in the exam board’s marking scheme. This is almost certainly an urban myth- I can’t find any written evidence of it anywhere- but it is certainly believeable enough that I didn’t even check its veracity until I started writing this post. It’s not a matter of forming your own opinion, just being able to regurgitate whatever has been decided upon as the right opinion to have.
In coursework assignments, the situation is more flexible, with students given the opportunity to express themselves more freely (if they are capable of doing so) but here also there are stumbling blocks. Teachers are often uncomfortable allowing their students to champion standpoints which differ from those which will be required in the exam- it can be awkward giving feedback like “You gave a reasonable answer and explained the reasoning behind it well, but in the exam write something like this instead”. Also, the overall emphasis of the assessment is on the exams, which always carry a larger fraction of the final grade a student achieves than his or her coursework- typically the balance will be something like 20-40% coursework, 60-80% exam score.
So what is to be done? Essentially two changes are required. The education system should focus more on developing thinking skills and, in order to motivate the development of these skills, the assessment of students’ and schools’ performance should be redesigned with greater call for structured thought on the part of the students. The latter is in my opinion very important if we are to get away from the current situation, in which exam results in both GCSEs and A levels give a false impression of a person’s overall intelligence.
Anyone who spends time marking exam papers will hate me for promoting this idea, but the simplest way to assess a broader section of intelligence would be to have more open-ended questions, with more recognition given to the process of coming a particular (reasonable) conclusion than to the eventual answer itself. For example, in my experience of exams in Maths and Physics, even up to early degree stage, I hardly ever had to give an explanation of the significance of the answers given- I just had to remember the necessary formulas and mathematical processes to reach the correct answer. Being asked also to give some written analysis of the situation, particularly in Physics, would obviously have required a greater understanding of the subject matter and tested me on many more levels.
A basic rule applicable to the process of assessment is that, generally speaking, the more a candidate has to write, the more rigorously his/her intelligence will be tested. This will of course leave the marking of exams much more subjective than at present and therefore will require much more manpower to be carried out reliably, but the education of future generations is surely worth the investment.
As to the matter of nurturing these abilities in the classroom, I will come back to this question in the not too distant future after further research but in the meantime I welcome any comments on this point as well.