Teaching, Knowledge and Assessment

Are exams a good thing or bad thing? It depends on whom you speak to. As children grow up and enter the academic world of school, they enter periods of testing and exams and homework. Most people would agree that exams to a certain extent are good, because they give the students something to focus on and apply their knowledge. A lot of school involves the dissemination of knowledge and facts, particularly in the early year of Maths and Science, but the sole memorisation and replication of these facts does not necessarily guarantee a wise student – merely one who is good at parroting back information.

The problem with exams and test is that schools and other education providers can get too involved with literal facts and the accumulation of them. The students are judged by how much information they have soaked up and can reproduce. But that is not necessarily learning; it is learning for assessment. And teachers end up teaching to the test – in short, teaching about things that may eventually be used in an exam. It is a very narrow-minded method, of selectively teaching information that is going to be assessed, rather than giving a broad range of education.

Why do they do that? Well, when you are choosing a school for your child, what do you look at? You look at its Ofsted ranking and its GCSE results, or where possible, how the school ranks in terms of SATS tests achievements. Better results suggest that the school is better – although they may only be teaching towards the test. In many schools, there are exams, and then there are mock-exams to prepare for the exams, and then a further round of mock exams. The students sit a battery of tests and are expected to find out why they made mistakes, and then plug the missing information into their brains. Learning for examination, and learning by examination. Schools have to do this because of the political game of attracting enough students to qualify for funding.

Learning a skill puts this style of learning into perspective. If you are learning a musical instrument like the piano, you have to work out reading the notes, hand-coordination, and develop that sort of fluency by going slower and being comfortable to doing many things at once. And once you have managed that, then you think about doing piano music exams. If a piano player were to learn and sit for an exam the same way as the school system seems to be going, they would merely be playing the same songs over and over again, entering themselves for exams over and over again, and hoping to pass – rather ineffective.

We should consider removing too much assessment in the school method, giving teachers the freedom to teach knowledge for its sake, rather than teaching to the test! The knowledge gained is more relevant, has more meaning and is likely to stay with the student for a longer period of time..