Testing, Exams, Karate, Newton

When my wife did karate at school, the instructors made a point of promoting gender equality.   With all the authority of a fourth dan, sensei confidently declared in a deep voice there’s no place for sexism in the dojo.  He glared challengingly at the boys, and said girls and boys can both go karate, and some girls are actually quite good at it.

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Sometimes, our deepest assumptions are unknown even to ourselves

This is easy to laugh at, or perhaps easy to get angry about; but at least there is a gesture towards equality here.  And this is a well-known phenomenon – that when there is a social change, those who see the change can speak about it, and even believe in it, but somehow, they cannot quite leave behind the old values. The most extreme example of this that I know about is Isaac Newton; despite being a key driver towards the modern scientific outlook, he still pursued the occult with a passion (there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to it!).  Perhaps he was, therefore, more the last man of the old generation, rather than the first man of the new.  The thing is here that we all have cognitive ‘deep structures’ that we do not even know about.  Under this model cognition is commonly depicted as an iceberg, whereby we are only conscious of behaviours above the waterline, and not of the assumptions, norms and beliefs below it.

We sometimes see the same thing in education.  We know that we do not want for our children what we had; authoritarian, top-down, narrow academic learning.  We want an values-based education that prioritises learning to think over narrower, multiple-choice measures.  We want a system that develops creativity, that can deal with ambiguity and that focuses on deep understanding (these are, after all, the things that are needed after school life).  But then we sometimes ask why we don’t give more ‘rigorous’ testing with clear outcomes, like percentages, so we can compare students with each other.    There is a place for tests, for sure, but less than we sometimes think.  It’s not an accident that our most complex, intellectually demanding course (Theory of Knowledge) has no exams whatsoever  – and really, when you look at the work an average class produces you can see why an exam is simply the wrong way to assess here.  Let’s be a bit more nuanced than that.

I am not against traditional exams per se.  My argument is that we need to align our school practices with our modern understanding of education –  and that means better testing, not more testing.  In fact, it may well mean less.   To want modern, progressive education and then to always reach for tests, regardless of context or purpose is like sensei and his dojo, or Newton and his alchemy.

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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