What is Education For?

Everything we do sends a signal about who we are, and what we value. Nowhere is that more evident, or more neglected, than in education. My son has his final year 12 exams today. Every step of the process has made me angrier and angrier about the ways in which we try to ensure “objectivity”, and wind up causing immense distress, and entrenching disadvantage in the system.

Let’s start with his first exam, VET (Vocational Education and Training) music. This is a performance exam, where students have to choose a scenario and perform as though the scenario is real. My son’s band, the Unsociables, decided on a small gig in a record store. They had some appropriate props, and had scripted their introduction, announcements of each song, and farewell appropriately for this scenario. They had to play to their “audience” and pretend they were actually playing a gig. Their only audience was the examiners, and here’s the bit that really made my blood boil: The examiners are not allowed to interact or respond to the band in any way. They are literally REQUIRED to sit there like stones.

I do a lot of public speaking, and the only thing worse than performing to no audience (or a screen full of black squares where people have their cameras off) is speaking to an unresponsive, disengaged audience. Performances are a two way process. The responsiveness of the crowd is important for energy and feedback to the performers.

The VET music exam setup is designed in the most dispiriting and off putting way for the students. I suppose it could be worse – the examiners could be throwing rotten fruit! – but it’s awful. What does this tell students about what we value? It tells them we expect them to value performing to a real audience, but they have to demonstrate that in the absence of that real audience. We don’t value the students themselves enough to make it real and engaging for them. We are trying to “level the playing field” and make the experience the same for everyone: Awful.

After he survived that experience, my son settled in to study in earnest for his written exams in Literature, Maths, Biology, and Psychology.

For Literature, the exam is about analysis of the texts he’s studied. That’s all fine and dandy, except that thoughtful analysis is rarely improved by exam conditions. He must conduct his analyses in 2.5 hours, he must use quotes from the text (but he is not allowed to bring any notes, or the texts themselves into the exam, nor to access the internet), and he must write the analyses by hand. What are we valuing here? We are valuing memory, performance under time pressure, and the ability to hand write legibly and at length.

For Biology and Psychology, the study designs rhapsodise at length about understanding, analysis, working collaboratively, and developing inquiry skills. Both study designs include this statement as one of their aims: “develop attitudes that include curiosity, open-mindedness, creativity, flexibility, integrity, attention to detail and respect for evidence-based conclusions.” And yet both exams require students to memorise terminology, processes, and technical details and regurgitate them. If they describe the right phenomena but don’t use the right buzzwords, they don’t get the marks. Some questions do test understanding, but even those require memorisation as well. Collaboration would be considered cheating – an instant fail. What are we valuing here? Mostly good memories, and fast recall under time pressure.

Incidentally, memory is compromised by stress, and any student that has a stressful home life will perform worse on the exam than if they were happy and well supported. What does that say about objectivity? There’s also evidence that results correlate with school attended, and Socio-Economic Status – another blow to the level playing field myth. While we’re speaking of objectivity, a study of Medical School entry requirements at the University of Queensland found that removing the interview from the selection process actually increased the gender bias – taking men from 50.9% of students to 64%. Men, apparently, consistently perform better on section III of the GAMSAT, the entrance exam for medical degrees. While it’s not proof, there is a strong implication that section III of the GAMSAT contains some form of gender bias. It also suggests that our understanding of the assessment process remains flawed, if we can’t reliably write an unbiased, equitable exam.

At my son’s school, and others I have heard of, the teachers checked uniform compliance while year 12 students were lined up for exams that they are repeatedly told are the most important of their lives (this, by the way, is an incredibly damaging lie). Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of whether school uniforms are appropriate or not, why on EARTH would you check uniform compliance while students are lining up to go into their already unreasonably stressful exams? What does this say about what we value? Style over substance, all the way.

The very existence of uniform rules, other than those required for safety, suggests that appearance is more important than comfort, practicality, and meaningful learning. I’ve yet to see a secondary school uniform that’s warm enough for a Melbourne winter, or cool enough (and sun smart enough) for our summers. Another disturbing statement about what’s important to us.

Our education system is distressingly good at teaching kids that we value them sitting down, being quiet, submitting to authority, producing the same answers as everyone else, and memorising things. That their worth hinges on their performance in a heartbeat of time on a handful of days. On a number that we allow to limit their options and control their futures.

What if, instead, our system was designed to value kindness, compassion, creativity, ethics, problem solving, and critical thinking? What if we empowered kids to solve real problems and challenge existing ways of doing things, instead of teaching them to follow the rules and behave themselves? What if we taught them real things, and helped them develop meaningful skills? What if we taught them to question and to grow?

What if we took our centuries old ideas of what education is for, and made it fit for purpose? What kind of world could we build?

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