What the Dodo got wrong

Most things in life are not a competition so why do we insist on young people’s future being one

Amelia Peterson Social Policy Fellow at the London School of Economics, Harvard PHD research in qualification systems in OECD countries

The Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?’ At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

In Melanie Phillips’ All Must Have Prizes, the Dodo represents the folly of paternalist and socialist ideas: everyone will be okay if we just say that all have achieved. But as Phillips argued, all cannot have prizes, or if they do, the prizes become meaningless – no more than a children’s party bag. 

But the Dodo is absurd not in awarding prizes to all winners, but in declaring the activity a race in the first place. It bears little resemblance to one:

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. They began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over.

It is evidently not a fair race and in fact is only one because he declares it so. It is all just a game, but the Dodo’s “solemn” and “grave” demeanour, and his handing out of thimbles, makes it into a competition. 

Exams are a far more serious matter. They determine what future opportunities people have. They are one of the few means in society of legitimating state-promoted inequality. On the basis of exams, we say who is allowed to progress to further or higher education. But as with the Dodo, we have to ask, is this really a race?

“It’s not a competition”

We have a natural tendency to “turn things into a competition”. Contests can be enjoyable, but they are very far from being all there is to life. In fact most things in life do not make for good competitions. They are not zero-sum – where the more someone takes, the less others can have – and in fact, many things are prone to network effects or positive returns, where the more each person engages, the more there is for others (think Twitter – or the economy).

Even without positive returns, most arenas are not competitive. Most paths are not race tracks, but roads. And we already have a perfectly good way of managing the use of roads.

Licenses and Contests

When we all want to share a space, we need ways of regulating it and coordinating our behaviour. For certain contained sets of skilled activity – driving a car, drilling someone’s teeth, doing their taxes – we regulate it through licenses. Licenses ensure a requisite set of knowledge and skills and incentivise good behaviour – so you don’t have it taken away.  

School qualifications should be an obvious candidate for a license-credential. It shouldn’t really matter to us what kind of education other people have had, provided they know enough not to do anything too dangerous that could harm themselves or others. There might be lots of other things that enlightened educators want to teach their students, but from a state perspective, in terms of what we would use to bar people from further learning opportunities, we can’t really insist that people master more than what they need not to hurt anyone else. (Quite where the limits of that lie is for others to decide).  

A license-based system would leave far more flexibility in the curriculum to do things that are meaningful but difficult to assess reliably and at scale. The outstanding issue would be what to do for those aspects of educational transitions that really are a competition: like getting access to limited further learning opportunities. Medical schools already have their own mechanisms for assessing the readiness of applicants alongside the limited evidence given by school transcripts, and a small number of universities[P1]  use their own highly path-specific entrance tests to differentiate between a surplus of candidates. It would be perfectly possible to assess access to other pathways and destinations at the point of application, in a manner appropriate to the needs and restrictions of the given pathway.

Laying the Dodo to rest

The point of the Dodo is not that all cannot have prizes, but that most things are not a race – even if someone with a solemn voice says they are. If we recognise this, we can separate out the few assessments that really do need to be contests from those which ensure that everyone can safely move on (licenses). 

Both licenses and contests are high-stakes tests and so require a high degree of validity and reliability. This limits the kind of content that can be assessed because many kinds of valuable capabilities are difficult to assess reliably at scale. If we allow the curriculum to be determined by the design of these tests, we end up with an excessively narrow education. 

The upshot of this is that we have to call it a day on curriculum-based exams. They had many advantages but they have been too slow to adapt. The gap between what we might want adolescents to learn and what we can reliably assess at scale has grown too large.

The upshot of this is that we have to call it a day on curriculum-based exams. We have allowed too much to rest on them. The conditions for their phase-out are already with us and the elements for their replacements already exist. My next piece will focus on what those are: standards beyond a syllabus; assessment beyond marking; and reporting beyond grades.

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