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The tyranny of exams and grades

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My son will be doing his ‘O’-level exams in the near future, and I was recently discussing his subject choices with him. I was trying to understand which subjects he enjoyed doing, and which ones he just had to get through. The aim was to pinpoint what his future might hold.

‘In all subjects, it’s just about getting through the exams, Dad. That’s all.’

I was taken aback by his words. I cut in quickly, talking about the joy of knowledge, the need for the human being to have a life of meaningful work based on genuine expertise, etc…and then I just stopped.

Because actually, he’s right. That’s what we have reduced education to. Just get through the examinations. That was true when I was doing them; it remains true decades later. We can talk all we want about the deeper satisfaction of knowing things and deploying that knowledge in our lives; but the world we have set up is just about the exams, not the knowledge itself.

It is the rare child who, when within touching distance of looming public examinations, can actually enjoy the learning. It isn’t really permitted. What is expected is that you give yourself systematically and methodically to clocking the grades in the exams. If you do well, you will be given a ticket to the next stage of your life. If you falter, your life choices shrink dramatically.

The teachers need the child to get past the examinations. The school needs the grades. The parents want the relief, and often the applause. The kid, filled with fear and pressure, must now knuckle under and give up most of his or her life to swotting for examinations for several years.

Studying for examinations, please note, is rather different to just studying to learn. When you have an exam to get past, you must memorize a lot of things. You must learn to retrieve material from your memory efficiently, and transfer it to paper. You must put things down quickly, as the time ticks away. You must practice using past papers. You must do ‘mock’ exams in order to get used to the pressure. You must learn the common tricks examiners use to trip you up.

I was good at that stuff, and so I did well in most of the exams I had to get through. But I look back, and I realize the truth of my son’s words. Which part of this is about the spirit of enquiry, about the joy of revelation, about the achievement of wisdom? I’m sorry, but I got pretty much none of that from my schools and university, highly rated though they were. We were playing a fast-moving game. The students pretended to care about the knowledge. The teachers pretended to impart it. But this game was not won just by taking part; you needed to have the grades to be called a winner. No one rewarded those who actually received some deep learning. Unless they got the grades.

This is because we rig our world to create winners and losers; and we deploy crude filtering methods to identify who the winners are. That’s what most of education is: a giant filter that shakes out those who don’t qualify, that identifies those for whom we don’t have space in the inner circles of society.

But here’s the thing: which skills does playing the examination game impart to the child? Playing the game as received. Memorization and regurgitation. Participating according to known rules and codes from the past. Disgorging knowledge under strict time pressures. Being judged according to rigid, pre-set rules.

Those were great skills with which to proceed into a career in the industrial era, decades ago. Are they really the skills you want your child to be armed with in the digital era, when most rules-based work will be done by robots and software, and the human being will be most valued when (s)he brings creativity and empathy to work? The future will belong to those who can coach, who can make connections, who can imagine and mould. Will that be your child?

I don’t mean to sound too harsh. I am trapped in this system, and so are you. There are schools and teachers who make heroic efforts to do this bad thing differently, and they deserve applause. As parents, we should encourage brave initiatives in education; and we should simultaneously prepare ourselves to find alternative life chances for our children, away from the archaic tyranny of exams and grades.

(Sunday Nation, 9 June 2019)

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