It’s that time of the year again when I’ve got to prep students on how to do their external exams. I say prep them for the exams because technique takes precedence over knowledge and skill. It’s a sad fact of teaching that creativity must ultimately be stifled in order to facilitate the answering of a question ‘correctly’. This doesn’t necessarily encompass teaching young adults the conventions of literary criticism and the importance of this knowledge in further study nor the enjoyment of literature and an appreciation of its process. Instead there are certain conventions – varied across different exam boards – which students must follow. If the students fail to follow these then their grade will invariably decrease. This brings me to the central question of this article: Is life an exam?
It seems a relatively simple question and one would suppose the answer to be a resounding ‘yes!’. If – as a society – we do not accept this hypothesis then surely the whole – virtually worldwide – phenomenon of exams would be drawn into question. However, when one begins to dissect this concept then it would seem that the answer was a rather discomforting ‘no’. Take this rather simple example. Imagine you are at work – or that you are working in any industry for that matter – and your superior poses the following challenge when you arrive at work.
‘I’m giving you two hours to complete the following task. You will need to complete it without consulting any of your co-workers, relevant texts or the Internet. In fact, if you do ask for help and receive it then all of your work will be considered void. Also, if you fail to complete it in the designated time limit you will be fired.’
If your boss was to propose such a task to you, if you weren’t straight on the phone to your union then at least you would be searching for another job, wouldn’t you? I will admit that there are some professions where this type of task might be a necessity in rare circumstances as in the cases of surgery or air-traffic controlling. However, these are by no means regular or universal circumstances.
Moreover, history has thought us over a wide-variety of circumstances that collaboration and the sharing of knowledge has lead to the greatest degree of progress in society. I don’t feel the need to justify this claim as it has been proven numerous times across many disciplines.
So, if life is not an exam then why must we assume them to be the most central part of education? It seems clear that the reason for their persistence is that they are designed to prevent plagiarism and the sadly – all too real – assumption that parents or teachers might otherwise bias the students progress and natural abilities through assistance or prejudice. That said, we do not assume the same issues at university level or the real world.
The fact is that life is a series of varied challenges that one is faced with over time. One needs the skills and sense to ask for assistance where needed and correct one’s behaviour accordingly.
Therefore, would it not make more sense for us to remove the out-dated examinations in favour of a more relevant, and regulated, continuous assessment model? I believe the answer is too obvious to state.