Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Examining the exams

GP prelim exams are over. I'm amazed at how many essay submissions look so much like one another. Same lazy reasoning, same examples, same conclusions. It seems like the vast majority of the kids imbibed from the same content resources and reproduced what they had memorized without reading further into the issues.

The scary thing is, our exams tend to reward such behaviour, at least at the lower levels. But that sets up a very wrong expectation that success is dependent on copying from others who have succeeded before. Overseas institutions have a name for this kind of academic methodology: plagiarism.

I'm not saying our methods are wrong. To the West, original thought per individual is valued whereas we in the East tend to believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We lock onto something we can identify as a "best practice" and mass produce it. What worked well for someone else, we believe, will work just as well for us.

Which is probably why our exams tend to produce lots of soulless drones for whom personal self-expression has been suppressed in favour of the hive-mind, at least at the level where we believe the foundations of personal success lie. So on the one hand, we do recognise our individuality and uniqueness from one another, but on the other if we want to get ahead in society, we must be just like everybody else.

The recent agitation to eradicate the primary school leaving exam is a knee-jerk reaction to this schizoid existence of ours. But the problem isn't the exam itself, but rather the approach to preparing our kids for the exam. Our method is to make the final exam familiar to us. We believe the more familiar we are with the expected exam questions and question-types, the more prepared we will be in responding to the said questions.

So in order to familiarize ourselves with the exam, we drill and practice answering past exam questions. We read and re-read successful past exam answers so that we can produce the same thing in our turn, and hopefully get the same result. We learn little else beyond the limits of what has been prescribed in the exam syllabus, and yet what we do learn often has little relevance to our lives at the time we are learning it. Rushing to familiarize ourselves with next year's syllabus material so that we will be prepared one year in advance is meaningless to what we need to know now. But that is our approach to education, pushing our young to accept advanced knowledge before they're ready. By 'not ready' I don't mean that our kids are not intellectually capable of understanding what we are trying to teach them, but that what we are trying to teach them often bears little relevance to their life experience at that point in their lives.

In all this hullabaloo over fixing our exam structure, it's easy to overreact and attempt to fix what isn't broken. The exams themselves aren't broken. As long as they test what the kids have been taught, and if what they have been taught is knowledge they can put to practical use for their age group on average, the exams are fine. What we need to fix is this method of making the exam questions familiar to us by repetitive practice.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and it cuts both ways. Familiarity breeds a "been there, done that" kind of complacency and it also breeds boredom with the subject matter. Complacency causes kids to take the question for granted, assuming it's the same question as another they've been preparing with, thus failing to take into account the subtle differences that might require an altered approach to deriving an answer. Boredom causes kids to not pay attention to what they are doing, so the mind wanders, unable to focus on the task at hand despite all the preparation done before.

I believe every exam question should be viewed as if it was the first time: like going on a first date with a desired someone. What are we like on a first date? We make ourselves well-groomed and presentable; we are attentive to our dreamboat's requirements; we listen closely to his or her interests, quirks, and conversation threads and we respond accordingly, rather than according to some predetermined script prepared a year ago that we stick to regardless of how the conversation is going. This sort of relationship is quite different from the kind we have with our familiars. Because we think we already know them quite well, we expect them to behave in certain patterns and any time there is a change in behaviour, we either miss it or ignore it until it becomes a crisis. We don't want to get too familiar with our exam questions. Seldom is one exam question exactly the same as another... for GP anyway. We do want to stay alert to the subtleties of each new question.

So how do we prepare ourselves for an exam if we eschew the good ol' drill-and-practice method? Well, how do we prepare for a date? Obviously being handed a biodata sheet to memorize is hardly the foundation for having a good time with your honeybun-to-be. So what do we do? We study our subject at a distance and up close when we get the chance. We ask around and find out as much as we can about our subject from many different sources and consolidate what we have discovered in order to find corroborating information that helps us understand our subject better. We learn from an interconnected network of social contacts to see how we and our date could possibly form further connections within and among our individual social networks. Yes, we have the licence to be intellectually promiscuous, and we learn best when we can make those mental connections between the different subjects we are studying at the same time! How's that for a mental orgy, a.k.a mind f...?

We always marvel at the kids who can score a long string of 'A's for their exams and wonder how they do it while still behaving like normal, well-adjusted people. They will tell you they work hard, which they most assuredly do, but what they won't say is that the kind of work they do helps them to meet several learning goals simultaneously.  Magic? Nope. Superhuman ability? I don't think so. It's all in the technique employed. What they know is that memory is merely the end result of study whereas the rest of us work on the misconception that memory IS the process of studying. The former allows them to learn all the time, regardless of what activity they happen to be caught up in. The latter, let's just say there aren't enough hours in a day to learn everything we need to know at the time that we need that knowledge.

The difference is whether we take our tests and exams as an organic, integral part of life experience, or if we view them as an alien, evil but necessary torture device (like a Klingon painstick) that we are obliged to beat ourselves with periodically, and immediately shelve until the next time we have to take it out again. The challenge for our industry is to change the prevailing latter view to the former. Any ideas about that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice blog