Disrupt Assessment

It’s like the 21st century never happened

Take a look at the image above.

The purpose of school is dictated by assessment methods”.

This is clearly the wrong way around and yet we choose to accept it. Why?

Imagine, for a moment, if the sentence was “The assessment methods are dictated by the purpose of school”. How would we do things differently in our teaching practices and how would we design our schooling provision?

The notion that the assessment tail wags the dog of learning seems so illogical and yet it drives the entire process of educating our children as they get processed through the conveyor belt of the school system.

Work hard, get good grades, go to university, get a good job. Why do we continue to collude in this illusion when even a degree from the best university doesn’t guarantee wellbeing and employment for life?

We operate our schools as teacher-centred, subject knowledge focused systems and continually test around that. Not just the students but we also have teachers spending as much time evidencing their practice within these metrics rather than by the kids whose curiosity and wonder they've ignited by great teaching.

No wonder excellent teachers are leaving the profession in droves when they have been reduced to content delivery specialists and rewarded on the basis of grades rather than inspiring young minds. The craft of teaching is rapidly diminishing given all it takes is a 6 week course on top of 2:1 degree to call yourself a teacher. In some cases you don’t even need the 6 week course. Imagine if that’s all it took to become a doctor. There would be riots.

I came upon this poster at a local school outside an examination room. It might as well have said “you are now entering the 19th century”. It’s like the 21st century never happened and this, in my opinion, is a huge problem.

Further, I then took this picture of the examination room being set up for this weeks exams. This ancient layout for examinations says quite clearly “NO COLLABORATION ALLOWED”.

This, in 2016, when all governments and education thought leaders are in agreement that collaboration is one of the vital skills for this century rather than the sort of command and control structures that kill innovation and radical problem solving.

So how did we get here?

The monetisation model for education is a huge business worth $ hundreds of billions by for-profit commercial corporations that own not only the awarding bodies but the content that forms the syllabus for the examinations that will apparently get you into a good university or that good job.

Unless you believe that the purpose of school is to pass tests then this is a broken system, a system of the last industrial age with no relevance to the students who will need to solve the big challenges that are on our doorstep from rapid population growth to global warming, the mass displacement of people and global civil unrest.

Silo’d subjects and tests of memory recall aren’t going to get as very far in the face of these formidable challenges and yet the education-industrial complex’ response isn’t to change the testing regime rather it is to add more tests and more expensive and complex tests so that these corporations can maintain their bottomline at any cost.

The perverse consequence is that the incentives around grades turn schools into examination factories where the parent body expect schools to perform some kind of didactic magic on their child that gets them a set of A* passes. What these parents really mean is that they want their child to live well in the world. The exam grades are merely the proxies.

For the last 10 years many pundits, commentators and investors have been waiting for educations grand “disruption” but what we have seen instead is digital technology deployed to deliver broccoli coated in chocolate in the form of rote learning and testing. In short we are now training kids to compete with machines and I don’t fancy their odds.

How do we get out of this commercial lock-in?

We start with what we think the purpose of school is and what we value and then design collaborative assessment programmes around those and put the tail of learning back in its place.


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An entertaining & thought provoking slayer of sacred cows, Graham Brown-Martin works globally with senior leadership teams to help organisations adapt in the face of rapid change & innovation. By challenging entrenched thinking he liberates teams to think in new ways to solve complex challenges. His book Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury and he is represented for speaking engagements via Wendy Morris at the London Speakers Bureau.