Let’s stop teaching young people that learning is neatly boxed and finite

We need to move beyond making our education system more efficient in favour of making it more effective

Richard Gerver Speaker and author

Imagine setting a challenge to one of the world’s most successful chefs, someone like Lorraine Pascale or Heston Blumenthal, testing their skill and knowledge, their creativity and innovation by asking them to create something new, something different but then telling them that it has to look and taste exactly like your favourite chocolate cake. What are they going to do? They will simply focus on efficiency. After all, they know how to make a chocolate cake. They have been doing it for years and they’ve perfected it. The opportunity for real transformation dies right there, by the egg whisk and the cocoa powder.  

We have an extraordinary opportunity right now, to shape the future of education and with it our young peoples’ life chances but we need to be careful. Assessment should be at the end of the journey not the beginning. Yes, the first step must be to open up opportunities and that means putting an end to GCSEs. For generations they and before them ‘O’levels have been the chocolate cake. We all know that there has been a need to look beyond making our education system more efficient in favour of making it more effective but we have been trapped in the Groundhog Day that always leads us back to exams.

In the 2013 OECD Skills Outlook report, there was a warning that countries who focused too much on the acquisition of qualifications over the development of actual skills would be the countries where, increasingly, young people would find it difficult to get jobs. Why? Because in those high stakes, high pressure environments, educators were under pressure to prepare students to take exams, at the expense of developing those skills in contexts that were relevant beyond school.

Assessment, both formative and summative is vital if we are to understand how and what our children need to learn and how and what we need to teach but, it should not be the aim of education. The Skills Outlook report focuses on the importance of lifelong learning, of the ability in a complex world, to learn as you go. That means that we must stop promoting through formal testing, that learning is neatly boxed and somehow finite.

We have an opportunity here, to take a step back and to explore the fundamental question of what we want our young people to look like; as human beings and as learners, when they leave school. We need, as the OECD has urged, to forge better links between the worlds of work and of education, in order to more accurately write a narrative that gives our students the best chance in the story of life and that means we need to explore what we measure and how we do it. We know that routine cognition is no longer a major factor in the modern workplace, but interpersonal skills are. We know that collaboration and problem solving are major attributes in the modern world.

We can’t just argue to get rid of chocolate cake if we are simply going to replace it with a Victoria sponge. We need to explore a new vision before we hamper it with a fixed outcome. We therefore cannot simply design a replacement to GCSE’s before we truly understand what we are trying to hold to account.

Last year I interviewed Barry Barish, the 2017 Nobel Prize winning physicist. When I asked him what he looked for in a great scientist, he told me that he wanted well-rounded people who had arts, sciences and humanities in their background, but more importantly, he wanted scientists who had the ability to keep asking stupid questions. Maybe we should start by asking how we can assess that?

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