‘Do I need to know this for the exam?’ a question I am certain we’ve all heard, if not asked amidst the anarchy of pre-exam preparation. Accompanying this question is an overwhelming air of impatience, accusation and even hopelessness, as we struggle to maximize our ability to retain facts in our limited yet rigorously trained memories. The question sufficiently highlights the underlying basis of our generation’s approach to education: where we once studied a subject, we now scrutinize a syllabus. We are swiftly transforming into automatons; trained to repeat facts, or more specifically, mark schemes. The thirst for knowledge has been displaced by the desperation for grades.
Education needs redefining: what was once a quest for knowledge, has been warped into an academic industry. Our brains, the fact-factories that determine our very future, absorb information not to further our understanding, but to spit it onto an exam page as if lives ‘depend on it’. The definition of education is ‘the process of acquiring a body of knowledge’-knowledge being the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. So why, may I ask, does the so called ‘education system’ put such emphasis on the regurgitation of knowledge rather than its practical application? The primary focus of modern schooling is to drill the powers of recollection firmly into the minds of their impressionable young pupils. Their intention being that they might rewrite the textbook for the benefit of their examiner. Despite this, schools primary aim seems to be for pupils to recite facts out of a book based upon academic theories and scholarly opinions, yet schools still have the audacity to endorse policies on individualism, equality, and freedom of expression- oh the irony!
Unfortunately, education has become the latest political football. Ministers, unaware of the consequences and ramifications, have embarked on overly ambitious reforms, to the detriment of the entire system. This oppressive results factory that we see today is the inconvenient love child of those in education and politics, whom never really succeeded in making relationship work. The national curriculum has been rewritten to ensure five-year-olds can do fractions, ten year olds can type essays, and 11-year-olds are taught poetry by rote. The focus on “regular, demanding, and rigorous examinations” sacrifices the very values on which education was founded, and around which civility revolves.
The ex-Headmaster of Eton College, Tony Little, argues ‘there is a real risk that the measurable parts become more important than the whole.’ He recognizes that the requirements of society are constantly evolving, yet the system shows an unwavering inability to adapt: ‘We compound the problem by having an unimaginative examine system, little changed from Victorian times.’ It is exactly this archaic, formulaic, and restrictive style of examination, which is culpable for the failure to educate and prepare youth for real life: ‘Students are obliged to sit alone at their desks in preparation for a world in which, for much of the time, they will need to work collaboratively.’
Imagine an education system with no ability streaming. No standardized testing. No high-stakes national assessments. No school inspections and no school ranking. Now add to that high learning outcomes and high quality teachers. These are not just ideal attributes of an imaginary system, but features of an actual education system: The Finnish education system. Could we perhaps, then, learn from this? At the opposite end of the spectrum sits Singapore. The rigor and strength of the Singapore education system in producing academically competent learners is equally admirable. But we would also readily admit that there is room for improvement in all schemes. The challenge is striking a balance between a system that educates all students to an acceptable standard and a system that hones creativity and a love of education.