Anyone watching the debate over the UK’s revisions to its curriculum and examination system for 16 year olds could only be utterly perplexed by its banality.
Secretary of State Michael Gove, a former Times journalist, has been involved in a wholesale reform. That isn’t to say the system wasn’t in need of reform — it has been in serious decline for some time — and many of his reforms have great potential, but some of his curriculum and above all examination reforms are an ideological, rather than pedagogical, revision and are a serious and profound step backwards.
The curriculum and the exam system serve different, though related functions. One is about imparting an education, the other is about certifying that process.
The reforms to the atrocious ICT curriculum look fantastic. That children as young as five are going to learn aspects of coding is to be completely welcomed. The changes to mathematics are a missed opportunity (see Conrad Wolfram’s excellent TED lecture on what Mr Gove could have done).
But some of the other reforms look a lot more suspect, none more so than the much talked-about History curriculum. The Department for Education has made a virtue out of the insistence of the learning of facts at the expense of understanding concepts, a spokesman saying the new history curriculum will have “far less focus on the teaching of abstract concepts and processes in history”. Instead it will focus on a chronological view of history — history as linear progression.
It is arguable that in the 1950s (a period to which these reforms seem to wish to revert) before the availability of mass information, the ability to memorize large amounts of information was an important skill. This was a document-centered world. Information came on paper; it was whole, discrete and unconnected. Creating those documents was slow and expensive, retrieving the information from them was difficult and time-consuming. In such an information age, the ability to memorize vast chunks of information was a desirable skill.
But we no longer live in that world. We live in a world of information streams. In such a world information does not come in discrete packets, but rather it is assembled from different sources.
In a world of vast, and free, data, knowing how to find data sources, the ability to assess their veracity and the skill to link those datasets up in new and unseen ways is surely a far more important skill than the ability to commit to memory screeds of text.
We need to teach children to think abstractly, we need to teach them to think in non-linear ways. Linear thinking leads to linear results. It sounds a lot like the skills we need are “abstract concepts and processes.”
The UK exam system at 16 does not reward originality; it does not test collaborative skills (indeed it punishes them); it doesn’t test creativity. Yet what are the skills that employers in a knowledge-based economy seek? originality, collaboration and creativity.
These new exams reward just one skill: memory, and uses that as a proxy for intelligence. Students who are able to commit vast swathes of information to memory will do well — those who can’t, won’t. Is a retentive memory really the single most important skill we seek in a future workforce? No employer has ever listed is as such.
In what world is reverting to a 1950s examination regime a suitable filter for the children who will enter the workforce in 2020?
Examinations will now contain no course work, no continual assessment and limited ability to retake the exam. You get just one chance at success.
One of the major cultural obstacles that the UK, and many other western European countries, faces is its attitude to failure. Yet this is an exam system that brutally punishes failure. You get one chance at it. Screw it up and you are out — at 16.
The UK government has something of a love-affair with the startup community, it admires its can-do approach, its entrepreneurial zeal. It has repeatedly sought to bathe in its reflected glory. Perhaps it should learn a few lessons from it to: iteration, non-linear thinking, creativity and above all an acceptance of failure as a path to success.