Radio interviews and, sometimes breakfast television, have become something of an early morning routine for me. I must confess, however, that Thursday morning’s discussion was something of a surprise. And I am not usually surprised by ‘breaking’ news about education. On the BBC Radio 4 Today programme” John Humphrys was quizzing myself and Mark Dawe, the head of the OCR examination board, about the pros and cons of allowing GCSE and A-Level candidates to use internet search machines such as Google in the examination hall.
It seems that youngsters these days are so addicted to the internet, and so technology-dependent, that this is a way of adapting assessment to the way in which they learn. According to Mark, “keeping all that knowledge in your head” is old-fashioned and “not how the modern world works”. Examination success should be based on “understanding what results you’re seeing” on the computer screen. Is this a realistic and viable direction of travel for our exam system?
Left in the hands of examination ‘experts’ we have seen huge grade inflation since the mid-1980s. The accompanying self-congratulation by teachers’ leaders and by politicians has now diminished. More educationalists in England, at least, now recognise that so-called ‘skills’ are not enough. Young people actually need to display substantial subject knowledge as part of the examination process.
We have been promised that the new generation of GCSEs and A-Levels will be more rigorous in terms of such knowledge. Time will tell if this promise can be kept but, for sure, resorting in the future to Google assisted examinations will be a retrograde step. It will be a step back to the current ‘knowledge-lite’ learning that we desperately need to put behind us. The message to pupils preparing for exams will be: “Don’t worry about subject knowledge. You can look it up on the internet.” And, of course, this notion already seduces many teachers because it makes their life easier. The truth is that it is not the teaching of ‘skills’, often bogus or cross-curricula, that presents a challenge, but the teaching of subject knowledge.
We have a crisis in terms of educational standards in our schools. Since 1953, spending in real terms has increased by 900 per cent and yet, according to the OECD, and uniquely in the developed world, our recent school leavers are less literate and less numerate than their grandparents, educated in the 1950s. We have slipped into mid-table mediocrity on the PISA international rankings of educational attainment – up to three years behind the best of the Asia-Pacific and, even, some way behind developing countries such as Vietnam. In Europe we are ranked level with Slovakia, a country that spends around 50 per cent less per head on education. Many of our universities have to run remedial ‘catch-up’ subject knowledge courses for their new undergraduates. Employers are consistently telling us that too many school leavers are unemployable. These are serious matters!
Back in the 19th century we used to send religious missionaries to China. Today, the Chinese are sending educational missionaries to our shores to teach our teachers how to teach.
Frankly, we are a becoming a bit of an educational ‘basket case’. We need a solution, but all that Google assisted exams will do is to further undermine the importance of subject knowledge and thereby make matters worse. As a quick search of Google will reveal: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad!”