Exams, and the stupid arbitrariness of it all
November 25, 2009 27 Comments
Yesterday I was having a conversation on Facebook about education, which is a subject I can get quite worked up about. I was also talking to a friend about meeting the Queen, and between these two things it reminded me of a short piece I wrote some years ago for my occasional column in the Guardian. This piece didn’t get published in the end but I did a search and found I still had it. It’s of no significance but I thought I’d post it here, now that we live in a world where we all run our own newspapers. It also covers up for the fact that I don’t have much to blog about at the moment, since I have my head down coding a simulation of an array of magnetic compasses (don’t even ask!)
A few months ago I was invited to Buckingham Palace, to a reception for British pioneers. Clearly my invitation was the result of a major clerical cock-up, since all my fellow guests were pop legends, heroic explorers or Nobel laureates. But I went along anyway, feeling pretty awkward and out of place in my best Debenhams suit. It was quite an evening.
Thirty minutes after it finished I was back in my comfort zone: sitting next to a homeless guy on Paddington station, munching a burger. As the ketchup dribbled down my tie I suddenly found myself feeling rather serene, as if a great weight had lifted off my shoulders. The moment passed, yet for a brief instant I actually felt rather chuffed with myself. It’s true that I don’t have a proper job and I’ve spent most of my life teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, but heck: I’d just been to Buckingham Palace for the second time in three years. I guessed I must be doing alright at long last.
The other day I was asked to address a conference of head teachers on the subject of provision for gifted and talented children. I don’t know why, since I’m not an expert on education. I wondered if perhaps I’d been invited because I was once a gifted child myself, so I dug out some of my old school reports to see what sort of a prodigal genius I’d been. ‘Incurably lazy’, seemed to be the general opinion. ‘Indecipherably scruffy’ was the verdict on my great works of scientific literature. ‘Could do better’, they said.
In my day we had a two-tier exam system. Those who were smart enough to tie their own shoelaces took GCEs, while the cannon fodder took CSEs. My school put me in for CSEs, and only allowed me to take GCEs as well when my parents agreed to pay the costs. I have never been so insulted in all my life as the day that I sat down to take my Physics CSE and discovered I was expected to label the parts of a light bulb. I ask you! ‘Filament.’ ‘Brass bit.’ ‘Glass bit.’ Surely they were just winding me up? Not long before, I’d invented and prototyped a new kind of fuel cell in my lunch breaks, but were the examiners interested? Did they want to hear about my ideas for what would one day become known as complexity theory? No, they wanted to make certain I was fit to change a bloody light bulb.
In the event I got straight grade ones in CSE and did passably well at GCE, given that I’d been taught the wrong syllabus. But it takes a seriously long time to get over such a blow to one’s self-confidence. Thirty years, in fact.
Partly as a result of this I now find myself in an odd but interesting borderland. On the one hand I’m lucky enough to know some incredibly gifted and talented people who are rich, successful and famous. At the same time I’m privileged to know a good number of equally gifted minds who, by their own admission, are not. I won’t name names, but there is a whole host of people who write to me regularly and engage in passionate and highly sophisticated conversation on some aspect of complexity theory, artificial intelligence or moral philosophy, who I know for sure work in relatively menial jobs and hardly ever get invited to sip whisky with the royal family. What’s the difference between these two groups of people? Nothing that I can see. Luck, perhaps.
Exams are supposed to be there to assess intellectual potential, and perhaps they serve the purpose for those well-balanced, middling-to-bright children who often erroneously get labelled as talented. But when it comes to detecting the oddballs with minds radical enough to make a real difference to human progress, exams seem to fare no better than US airport security, shortly after 9/11. At the very moment that I was being subjected to endless body searches and tests of my political appropriateness in Chicago Midway, a guy at Chicago O’Hare was casually stepping onto a plane armed with three large steak knives and a stun gun. So much for screening.
So what do we do about it? Well let me tell you: I haven’t a clue. Drop the whole stupid exam thing altogether and stop wasting children’s time? Start testing pupils in order to find out if they’re ready to learn something, rather than waiting until afterwards to see if we’ve failed them? Don’t ask me, I’m uneducated, but somebody needs to do something.
As I sat on the bench at Paddington station I couldn’t stop myself letting out a small ironic chuckle at the arbitrariness of it all. Two seconds later, the homeless guy sitting next to me did exactly the same thing.