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Good Luck, Charlie

Exams – a critical reflection

“Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests– Sir Ken Robinson

Last week I hosted podcast with Karl Pupe (@actionheroteacher). Karl spoke so eloquently about the Victorian nature of our education system and the need for innovation and context-centric pedagogical approaches to engage and educate our students. These are my reflections from that conversation and Karl’s underlying question, “What is the purpose of education?”

The curious case of Charlie.

I met Charlie during my NQT year. A tall lad who loved football, playing guitar and Philosophy. Charlie was in my boy-heavy Religious Studies class. This was a tough crowd, some serious behaviour issues and being in Year 11, the stakes were high. As an NQT I was keen work with this class and also adhere to the school teaching and learning policies which included fortnightly assessments. My class HATED assessments, exams and just the thought of sitting in silence with relentless pen-to-paper pressure. A handful of years on, I realise the anxieties of my students back then and the need for radical changes in how we assess the knowledge, and more importantly, the skills of our students.

Exams and assessments are the be-all and end-all of education. It is ‘common sense’ and rather banal that we can develop an understanding of our students progress through an assessment or exam. A grade, whether this is a letter or a number, it supposedly conceptualises all that our students know about a specific topic. From as early as reception, children sit assessments in their various forms which become numerically translated, added to data bases and Excel spreadsheets. Data, exams and assessments are big business. Many schools have roles and TLRs allocated to exams, data and assessment. However, with the exam debacle over the past summer, is it time we ditch exams?

We often draw upon Albert Einstein when dialogue about the disconnect the education system has from reality and the true complexity of learning. Image: Pinterest

At the heart of all pedagogical discussions come reflection, analysis and a broader understanding of context. Certain ideas, viewpoints and narratives have become almost biblical in pedagogical literature. A Head of Department once told me, “lesson, assessment, lesson, assessment, lesson, assessment.” This rigid bureaucratic structure made lessons feel somewhat like Groundhog Day. I prepared students for assessments, they either got their target grade or they did not. We would then spend a lesson using purple pen to ‘reflect’ and ‘improve’ their grade and we moved onto the next cycle. It was the cookie-cutter approach to teaching and learning. As schools begin to embed the much adored ‘retrieval practice’ and ensure students can retain knowledge for examinations, despite both ideas being completely valid depending on context, learning is more complex. Our cognitive development is more complex than to simply aim to improve our long-term memory. Finally, education is more complex than examinations and assessments. Most teachers I would assume step into the profession because they believe in developing their students both academically as well as to become active members of our democracy. The holistic and intangible element of pedagogy can be lost whilst there is such an over-reliance of examinations.

Since 2010, education has seen far-reaching changes as the disconnect between policy makers and educators continues to grow. But it has taken a global pandemic these cracks in the education system to become chasms and canyons. Many students have missed six months of school, so in GCSE and A-level terms, that is potentially a quarter of the time to complete their respected courses. Today, the DfE announced that the 2021 exams will take place which adds fuel to the existing ‘catch up’ programme fire. When ‘disadvantaged children’ falling behind were key rationale behind the hasty decision to reopen schools, this era of anti-expert has taken a turn for the worse. Fellow teachers are trying to help plug gaps in knowledge but the gap and gulf in attainment due to social class remains unspoken of.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson himself has said, “we know that examinations are the fairest way of measuring a student’s ability and accomplishments, including the most disadvantaged”. Summer 2021 exams have even been pushed back three weeks as that will clearly compensate for six months of lost learning won’t it? It’s almost as nebulous and absurd as to say Pupil Premium can compensate for generations of socio-economic inequality. Also, with declining social mobility, the children from disadvantaged backgrounds inheriting generational inequalities and international data all stating the opposite, are you sure, Gavin? That aside, perhaps considering such unprecedented times, a radical overhaul of how we assess the effectiveness of teachers and also teaching and learning is required. Examinations in their current format fail to bridge gaps, offer equality of opportunity, empower our learners, develop our teachers and provide an accurate broader picture of the knowledge and skills accumulated and cultivated in our learning environments.

Back in 2013, Michael Gove was warned about the pressures and dangers of high-stakes testing and assessments. Yet, with ideology rushing through the course of his veins, Gove pushed through with changes to educational policies that were never mandated by those effected by such policies on a daily basis. A ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, changes to early years frameworks, obsessive and nebulous comparative international testing data (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS), the scrapping of coursework, new GCSE grading systems and linear A-levels were hurried through under the veneer of ‘standards’. Education was being made ‘rigorous’ and teachers had to implement such these policies under our performative and competitive educational culture. Exams and assessments became the yardstick of success for both teachers and their learners. A simplistic correlation has been made and remained central in conversations about targets, appraisals, performance management, Ofsted frameworks and league tables. How do we know a student knows what we have taught them? Assessment/Examination. It is THAT black and white, apparently.

Do you have any alternatives?

From the vantage point of social justice and equality, no catch up programmes could make up for the six months schools were closed. Teachers worked tirelessly from the beginning of lockdown to now but the loss of time, routines and opportunities to ensure students are best placed to sit examinations in the summer of 2021 is questionable. With the additional workload in mind, alongside the obvious gaps in learning and disruption caused by the global pandemic, maybe it is time for a radical overhaul of our exam-reliant education system. Perhaps even, examinations could be altered, changed and supplemented with something else to judge our students, their knowledge and skills. Realistically, what options are available?

  1. Externally- assessed coursework,

  2. Teacher assessments,

  3. Portfolios or e-portfolios,

  4. E-assessments

These are just a few and a non-exhaustive list. Again, the straightforward correlation between assessment and knowledge is not so straightforward. I don’t have the answer but the solution certainly is not anxiety-inducing, do or die, high stakes testing. How many teachers are left disillusioned and disgruntled when a totally random exam question appears in a specimen paper or the real exam?! At the heart of any alternatives to moving away from rigid and inequitable examination and data-driven methods ideals, there must come greater professional trust placed in teachers. With the current political climate, this remains an incredibly unlikely utopia. But one day, maybe just one day, teachers and policy makers will meet somewhere in the field of unity for the students.

The late Sir Ken Robinson spent many years talking about the need to embed creativity and innovation back into education. As even with vocational education, the exam-centric nature of knowledge and demonstrating progress is creating a very standardised one-size-fits-all approach for teaching and learning. Teaching is so much more complex as is learning. Both deserve respect and their practitioners deserve the time and space to exert their expertise.

Back to Charlie

Charlie struggled to concentrate in class and his assessments and mocks continued to fall well under his predicted grade. I was under pressure, he was apathetic and intervention season sprung upon us. Charlie was a great thinker and could remember almost infinite details but suffered, in his own words, “a mental block” when he got to exams. He was anxious at the sight of an assessment and his class would do everything for “5 more minutes of revision.” It became painfully obvious to me that my class did not have the study skills to make notes, to revise, retrieve, reflect and then articulate their ideas in examinations. These snap-shot assessments could never conceptualise the engagement, love for learning, skills and discussions my students were developing in lessons. With this class, I changed focus and moved away from working to exams to helping students have the skills to attempt these exams. But when you are fighting external pressures to meet deadlines and expectations, we do get boxed in to a corner. Results are the only real empirical que for us to say, “I have done by job.” It is tough. In the end, Charlie got an 8 which was two grades above his target grade and on results day in his typically nonchalant manner he said, “Khan, I just thought out loud in that exam.” For a child like Charlie and we all know a Charlie, exams are not the best way for us as teachers to showcase his skills and talents as a student.

In Summary

I have sat over a hundred exams in my life. From infants school all the way to undergraduate level and at face value, they are the only tangible measure of my qualifications. This does not mean the knowledge and skills we develop are not of equal importance but rather, examinations and assessments take precedence. This year was a real opportunity to reflect, reconsider and radically overhaul our dated education system. Pen to paper examinations have existed for centuries but as Karl Pupe reminded me, education remains in a time capsule and teachers and students remain straitjacketed by traditionalists methods. Such methods do have a time and space but if we analyse education and its purposes more holistically, are exams really what education is all about? What is the purpose of education? Why do we teach? Is all knowledge objective? These are all questions we need to be asking ourselves as educators.

I also expect a U-turn from the government with regards to the 2021 exam season still taking place. The pressures placed on schools, teachers and students to ‘catch up’ is unparalleled. In some regions the infection rates are leading to many pupils having extended periods of absence. The cracks that appeared in our education system have had bandages placed over them but in reality, it is painfully obvious what needs to change. Learning is so much more complex than an examination. It needs to mean more and be worth more too.

Thank you for reading

Shuaib Khan

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