Why students need to think outside the box, not tick it
On our way to school last Thursday morning, I'm not sure who was more nervous — me or my 17-year-old son, who was getting his GCSE results.
I was trying to present a front of calm confidence, reminding him that he'd done his best and that was what counted.
I meant it. But, of course, we both hoped he'd get the grades he wanted.
Scanning my son's face as he walked out of the school, results letter in hand, it was clear that the news was good — his mile-wide grin told me everything I needed to know.
I'm very proud of my son's exam results — he was rewarded with a milkshake and a pizza, before being dropped off at the obligatory all-night party — and he deserved his success.
But that success is far from unusual: national figures show that, once again, the overall GCSE pass rate rose — for the 24th year in a row.
Overall, almost one in four pupils (23.2%) scored at least an A or A* grade this year, up from 22.6% in 2010, with Northern Ireland pupils once again trumping their counterparts in England and Wales.
There's no doubt that we can fairly churn out the smart cookies. But just how smart are they?
Are they smarter than you or I were, when we sat our own exams, 20 or 30 years ago? Does anyone in their right mind really believe that — by some mysterious and unexplained process — children are getting incrementally more intelligent with each year that passes?
I know, I know. We aren't supposed to say such things, for fear of crushing young people's fragile self-confidence and all that, but it's absurd to assume that they're just naturally getting brighter. They're not.
The truth is that exams are easier to pass these days because they are based on a system of modules: bite-sized chunks of information that go down like sweeties.
Facts are learned and examined within a short time frame, say a term, and then it's on to the next easily-assimilated topic.
You don't have to keep anything in your head for very long and you don't have to demonstrate a truly wide-ranging and thorough knowledge of a subject.
There's no space to develop a rich hinterland of contextual understanding. There's little time to engage with ideas as well as facts, to encourage critical awareness, to evaluate and justify opinions.
Instead, teachers and pupils must work to precise, set targets. It's all about ticking the boxes, getting the grades; keeping it focussed, neat and sweet.
At its most extreme, it's known as ‘drill and kill': in order to enhance their performance on tests, pupils are drilled in simple, isolated skills and any real depth of insight is killed off.
That's why soaring GCSE passes don't correspond to genuine gains in understanding. It's a mechanical, conveyor-belt system where credentials, rather than true knowledge and independence of thought, have become the point.
This is the way that universities now work, too. Credentialism — this obsession with exam results at the expense of all else — runs right through our entire education system, turning it into a much duller, excessively professionalised experience.
When I was at Queen's, I was taught by some exceptionally gifted lecturers, not all of whom had PhDs. Some of them were deliciously eccentric — one man used to write the beginning of a sentence on the board, leave a gap, then write the end of the sentence, before going off into a discourse that ranged across the entire history of Western civilisation. Sometimes, he'd remember to come back and fill in the middle of the sentence, sometimes not. There's no way that could happen now. There's no room for such inspired oddity in the 21st century university.
A further consequence of our results-fixated system is that people get stuck in narrow educational grooves, never looking outside their own area of expertise.
Delivering the annual MacTaggart lecture last week, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, called for the arts and sciences to come back together, as they were in Victorian times, “when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges”. Sadly, we no longer have a society that enables such audacious leaps of imagination. What I remember about my best teachers is the simple joy of learning that they instilled in me; the way they made my brain light up in new and thrilling ways.
Fostering that thirst for knowledge — rather than churning out humdinger exam results — should be the cornerstone of any education system worth the name.