DISCLAIMER: As with all our blogs, this post is written as much to explore our own thoughts as it is to state a viewpoint, in traditional Montaigne fashion. It’s not meant to be read as dogma, merely an intellectual trip.
The pandemic forced us to approach education differently. Teachers taught online, students submitted work via derivatives of Teams, Classroom and SeeSaw, and parents prayed to their deity of choice requesting a swift return to normal and a promise never to criticise our nation’s educators ever again.
University shifted lots of learning online. Staff have recorded their lectures for a while now, so the shift to online teaching wasn’t a huge cognitive leap. In fact, some lecture theatres might not have looked much different being completely empty. This practice could have presented us with an unlikely solution to one of the most contentious issues in education: exams.
A huge problem for universities is the drop out rate. A huge problem for students is knowing whether university is the correct choice. I believe we can utilise the practices we adopted during lockdown to address these two problems.
A Levels are the high stakes exam of choice for university entry in this country. In the minds of students (and teachers), a lot rides on the outcome. Numerous educators have questioned the merits of this approach, as it has created ugly side effects, such as teaching to the test and mental health issues in young people. Yet, as we have seen in recent years, how else should we reliably measure young people’s performance?
Before we address the practicalities of this situation is “why do we need to assess young people’s abilities?”
This is an uncomfortable question to ask, as it brings into focus the importance of our education system. One answer might be “we need to differentiate ability as a means of deciding who gets a university place”. This then leads to the next question of “is education merely a tool for career progression?”. If the answer to this question is “yes”, we then have to question the content of the subjects being taught, as much content is wasteful and non-contributory to a successful career. The retort might be “education is designed to enrich and is not about a career at all”. If this is true, why do we need to assess what people know? Enrichment is self-driven, curiosity producing and exploratory. Moving towards exams is forced, unnatural and often against the will of the participant.
Also, if education is an activity of enrichment, the phrase “you need to do well on this exam to get into university / to get a good job / to do well later in life” should never be uttered in a classroom. This creates a false dichotomy in a student’s brain that you need to do well at school to succeed. There are other pathways.
Another, more cynical, answer to the question “why do we need to assess young people’s abilities” is that we are really trying to assess the performance of teachers as opposed to students. This undoubtedly happens; teacher performance is adjudged through metrics such as progress grades, where results of their learners in the final exam has impact. This creates a misalignment of incentives and a culture of things such as teaching to the test, ploughing through the syllabus etc. It also creates incorrect accountabilities. Student attitude is a greater predictor of exam success than teacher input. Teaching young people exam failure can be blamed on poor teaching is teaching them to absolve themselves of all responsibility. We must do better. Ultimately, they need to be taught to take responsibility for themselves.
Grades serve as a motivator for some. We might assess young people to motivate them to do better. In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Phaedrus scraps grades in his class. Apathy ensued. Learners no longer had a reason to learn. Grades placate our need to compare ourselves with others. This can be motivating or demotivating, depending on whether you are winning or losing.
I might be missing something, but there’s no really good reason to assess students, other than to compare them with each other. This, then, informs admissions criteria to places like universities or into different careers, yet we are continually told by employers that there’s little correlation between the best employees and high grades. There must be a better means of assessment.
If we focus our lens onto university admissions and the two problems we posed at the start of this blog, we can begin to formulate a better method of admission.
Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, wrote a book called “High Output Management”. In the very first chapter, he discusses quality control and manufacturing principles. One core principle is to “identify issue at the lowest cost stage”. The analogy he uses is that of a machine that makes breakfast. The highest cost stage would be when the plate arrives on a customer’s table. If. at that point, the eggs are discovered to be spoilt, you have wasted resource and money. However, if you can set up checks and balances at an earlier stage to identify this issue, you reduce the cost of failure. For example, if you introduced a freshness test before the egg is cooked, your cost becomes the cost of a single egg, as opposed to the cost of a whole breakfast.
Applying this analogy to university admissions, the highest cost stage is when a student is when they fail the course at the end as they weren’t cut out for university. Another high cost stage might be when they are applying for graduate jobs and realise they’re going to be in a job they could have got before university. Yet another high cost stage is when they drop out in term 1 due to the fact they hate their course, they haven’t settled and hate the location they chose.
The question then becomes “how can we highlight these issue at a lower cost stage?”.
Online learning may help us to reconcile a lot of the issues outlined in this essay. What if, instead of A Levels, we delivered year 1 of university? We could do this online, in situ at college, using the real course delivered at university, by a proper lecturer. Teachers at colleges and Sixth Form could then facilitate understanding of material covered etc.
Assessment could be the proper assessments learners would encounter in year 1, using university systems, exams and resources.
Admissions could then be made for the people who perform best throughout the year or two this is delivered.
One benefit of this approach is that you could open up “online year 1” to whoever wants to take the course. This will increase the diversity of learners able to access the course. Entrance requirements, at the moment, rely on the fact that A Level learning is similar to university. I would argue it is not. University requires greater self-direction, critical thinking as to which information is important, and an ability to understand core concepts. A Levels tests who can remember the most. Some learners might be poor at A Levels but thrive in a university environment but will get missed due to poorer grades at A Level.
Admission to “on site” year 2 learning is then determined by performance on the “online” year 1 course. Perform in the top 10% and you get a place.
This has three benefits.
- Learners will have undergone a year’s worth of university instruction. They will have true first hand, experience of what university is like and whether they are cut out for it or not
- Universities will have a true sense of whether the learners they choose are likely to succeed. It will no longer be based on the assumption that “they did well at A Level, so they will succeed here”, it will be based on a track record of actually completing the work they will be required to do throughout the rest of their time at university.
- The cost of missteps is reduced.
There will undoubtedly be a raft of practicalities that this model needs to address. With enough creativity, practicalities can be sorted. The main issues to an approach like this will be misaligned incentives, such as: –
- Under this model, do we need university to be a three year endeavour, or can we shave much of it off?
- Do we need as many institutions offering the same courses? Demand might reduce significantly using this approach.
- What about exam boards, these organisations make lots of money and won’t be too happy with this approach
- Teachers. Does this approach reduce their significance?
- Breadth of education. Can we still provide a broad education if we are solely focused on getting students into university?
I want to address this last point, actually. In my model, as well as following the year 1 syllabus of a selected university course, I would offer drop in enrichment classrooms, where teachers of subjects are free to explore aspects of their subject they want to teach, at a pace determined by their students, with no fear of assessment. This would enable students to direct a part of their own learning, experiencing a more organic and realistic method of accessing information.
After meandering through some of my loose thoughts on this area, I think I am left with more questions than answers. What is the real purpose of education? Why do we really assess people? What is the ultimate goal for our education system? I think I will need to unpick my own thinking on these areas before committing to the suggestions outlined in this blog!
My working hypothesis on “what is the purpose of education” is “to develop people who have minimal net cost to society whilst trying to maximise the net benefits they are able to offer”.