Just before Christmas there was much media coverage of allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the content of exams at expensive seminars. But let’s be clear about what the real scandal is here, writes Kevin Stannard, GDST Director of Innovation & Learning.
Examination boards offer seminars and give feedback on exam performance, and insights into how the exams work, and even entice delegates with pastries and jammie dodgers. So much could be in the pursuit of transparency – a commendable aim. But for a long time now teachers have had to accept that a lot of important information is conveyed not in official documents, but at these sorts of meetings, and in the off-the-cuff remarks of examiners and other insiders. Occasionally examiners get carried away and go beyond their brief, and exam boards need to be vigilant in their quality control. For the most part, it can’t really be called cheating, but it does create a fog around the exam system that undermines attempts at transparency.
The real scandal is not that examiners are telling people about how the exams work (except where they stray way over the line) – it’s the fact that what they are saying is true – and it forces teachers to teach even more narrowly to the test, rather than expansively and in the pursuit of learning.
So the far more insidious story here is about how exams – and the hoops they create – have come to dominate and distort teaching and learning. If a syllabus requires the study of ten poems, but you really only need to cover three, the fact that exam grades count for so much – to the pupil, the teacher and the school – means that there will be immense pressure to teach narrowly to the test, rehearsing the answers to a limited number of likely questions until they’re word perfect, and all love of the subject has been destroyed.
As Thomas Huxley said 150 years ago, ‘students learn to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know.’ He also said, presciently, that ‘examinations make good servants, and poor masters’. Discuss.
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