Are exams killing our planet? (Spoiler: Yes)

In this post (first written in 2014), I attempt to set out a long view for education reform. I realise that what follows is quite far removed from most of the current debate around education.

I initially intended on entering education not as a teacher, but as an academic. Back in 2004, I started arranging meetings with various teachers and academics to talk about my ideas. Initially, my intention was to carry out a hopelessly positivistic comparison of different approaches to education, in an effort to amass enough evidence as to ‘prove’ once and for all ‘what works’. (Hence my aversion to the ‘what works’ element in the current education debate – I oppose it with all the zeal of a recent convert.)

In one memorable meeting, a world-weary Anthropology Professor sighed and said “I’m not interested so much in mainstream versus alternative, or traditional versus progressive. What I’m interested in this: should schools focus on educating people to perform better than other people, or who work better with other people?”

Better than, or better with? This simple dichotomy hit me like a steam train. Does our education system inculcate an competitive, or a collaborative mindset? Which should it seek to nurture? Is this even a useful distinction, or are weighing scales a better analogy? And if so – where is the balance currently, and where ought it to be?

 

ind coll scale

Is competition itself winning? 

 

To explore these questions, it will be helpful to take a dual perspective: the big picture (which, I will argue, directs us toward a desired destination – let’s call it B), and the smaller picture (which describes where we are now – let’s call it A). How we might get from A to B is a question for some other time.

The big picture

There are no bigger pictures than the one below, taken by the Voyager 1 space probe on February 14th, 1990. Talk about a Valentines gift: in terms of shaping my educational philosophy, this photograph has been the intellectual love of my life.

PALE BLUE DOT

If you aren’t familiar with the picture, I would draw your attention to the tiny smudge of light in the middle right of the image. That tiny smudge of light – the ‘pale blue dot’, as it has come to be known – is the planet earth. It appears to be in a ray of light – “suspended in a sun beam”, as Carl Sagan put it; however, this is mere geometric happenstance, caused by sunlight glinting off the space probe.

Over the last 10 years or so, I have shown this picture to literally hundreds of schoolchildren, and we have often discussed it at length. However, in seeking to articulate what it can tell us about what it is to be human, it is not really possible to improve upon the words of Carl Sagan, the astronomer who persuaded NASA to take the photograph in the first place:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” *

This final sentence is where it’s at for me. These are the twin roots of my educational philosophy: I strongly believe we should seek to educate young people in ways that underscore our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish our fragile planet. In short – we should educate to be more steward, and less stupid.

The smaller picture

If I may take a moment to ‘state the bleedin’ obvious’, a cursory glance at your average news bulletin suggests that things aren’t panning out too well currently. Despite the uplifting trends pointed to recently by Pinker and Mack, the news in recent years has been almost unrelentingly horrific, marked internationally and at home by ever-increasing inequality, violent resource grabs, refugee crises and yet more trashing of the planet’s finite resources.

Now. I do not mean to suggest that the world’s education systems are directly to blame for the extremely unsatisfactory state of current affairs. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that education is on the side of the angels. However, perhaps herein lies the problem. Teachers often speak of education as having the power ‘to change lives’ – as in individual lives. But to what extent is education geared towards engineering a brighter collective future for our planet? One in which, we explicitly educate young people in the art of living together? Whenever I contemplate this, I find it difficult to escape the suspicion that if we had a different education system, the world might not be in quite such a mess.

Take exams. There is perhaps no clearer manifestation of a better than mindset than our annual exam frenzy. Every educational buzz phrase in living memory – raising standards, closing the gap, league tables, performance-related pay, target grades, growth mindset, value added, great teaching, what works – all these agendas are rooted in an unquestioned acceptance of exam results as the most suitable outcome (and measure) of education. But surely – surely – the outcomes that matter most are those we see in our news bulletins?

There are many problems with the examination system, and these have been well documented elsewhere. Personally, I take exception with their compulsory nature; but that’s for another time. For now, consider just one group of students, the ones we concern ourselves with the least: the winners. Those who succeed in our education system – those we see on the front pages on results day, leaping in the air clutching their transcripts – those who go on to study at our most esteemed Universities, and then on again to occupy the most powerful positions in our society. By definition, the people who assume positions of power and wealth in our society are there because they have performed better than ‘the competition’ in some way. Better at passing exams, better at hustling for money and power, better at climbing the greasy pole. These are the eloquent chancers of the bluffocracy, as the Spectator had it this week.

So when a politician describes their role to lobbyists as a ‘cab for hire‘… when the Prime Minister enthusiastically signs up to engage in another oil-soaked conflict, and declares it a humanitarian intervention… when bankers trash the economy with illegal and immoral financial practices, and then ramp up the scale of their already obscene bonuses rendered from gambling with other people’s money… and when head teachers and academy chain executives line their pockets with taxpayers’ money, at the expense of children’s education…  well, we really ought not to feign surprise. Given the nature of our education system, with its emphasis on rewarding competition, rather than collaboration – it could never have been any other way.

* Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech has spawned a thousand YouTube videos, lovingly edited by people who have been inspired by his words – return love letters, if you will. Here is a particularly good one, which was lovingly crafted over many hours by my good friend and a truly inspirational Science teacher, Paul Meredith.