‘This house proposes a ban on diplomas and degrees’ –sounds extreme, and since I was arguing FOR the motion to a large audience,who make their living from teaching, designing an delivering diplomas and degrees, I woke up the night before with the thought that I’d be lucky to get any votes at all! Here’s what happened.
It was two against two. Jef Staes and I against Sue Martin and Kirstie Donnelly.
We are all sheep
Jef Staes (my partner) argued, using a brilliant set of posters, which he got members of the audience to reveal one by one (including Jay Cross), that we had become sheep; parents, pupils, teachers, lecturers, politicians - all marching our kids through a process that doesn’t deliver. We have 2D teaching and 2D testing that leads towards 2D thinking and 2D people who live and work in a 3D world. Where’s the passion? Where’s the real competences? It was witty and delivered with his characteristic flair.
7 FAILS! (when diplomas & degrees go bad)
I went for the 7 fails I’d give the system if I were awarding it a qualification.
FAIL 1: Qualifications-led culture has crashed
The London riots by disenfranchised youth, riots in Greece with 55% youth unemployment, riots in Spain with 53% unemployment, the same in Portugal, now Italy with 35% youth unemployment. Meanwhile the graduates financiers, bankers and politicians who caused this mess remain untouched and immune. Inequalities and hardship are rising. Education, in its current form has failed. Similarly in the Arab world, where the Arab Spring was led by young people suffering from unemployment in the face of nepotism and corruption. This is a serious issue, not just a debating point. The massive increase in investment in education and testing has led to this position. We don’t have a qualifications shortage, we have a skills shortage.
FAIL 2: Teach what is easy to test
This slide tells you everything you need to know about the failure in assessment. First, the obsession with maths. Who really does need to know algebra and Pythagoras Theorem? I’m 56 years old and never once had to use it, except I the context of my kids’ homework. Secondly, the question can be answered in many ways, by guessing, drawing it to scale, knowing the 3/4/5 triangle rule and lastly, the most awkward solution, Pythagoras Theorem.
This slide tells you everything you need to know about the alternative. The kid who answered is exactly the sort of person I and most employers admire and would want to hire. He or she is way smart, innovative, a touch of humour, lateral thinking, good communicator and a REAL problem solver. It’s borderline genius. Yet look at the teachers ‘red’ mark. RED pen, which has its origins in the deficit side of a ledger. No marks. Marking is a plague in education. It has replaced meaningful, formative feedback and acts as an end point – failure for most and even for those who get good scores a sign that they’ve achieved competence, even though they scored only 80%. What abut the other 20%?
What’s more, testing abstract knowledge completely ignores what we’ve known about for centuries in the psychology of learning, that we learn by doing and that many competences need to be tested by showing that you can DO something. Essays test an extremely narrow skillset. In any case, as we still expect pupils and students t sit exams using pen and paper, they test almost nothing but memory. No one writes first drafts that are any good. The essence of good writing is redraft in, reordering, shortening, changing words – so let them use word processors. When you don’t they MEMORISE essays.
FAIL 3:International arms race in assessment
Whole countries are now being assessed and seeing themselves as having failed. This deficit view of education has been caused by the leaning tower of PISA, with its obsession with maths and infected politicians with assessments. Test them till they bleed!
FAIL 4: Distorts teaching, learning & life
We know that it’s now all about teaching to the test. Around the world we’re tutoring our kids into submission, turning them OFF subjects and ON to learning how to simply pass exams. Memorisation, cramming, even drugs to get you those pieces of paper. Go to Hong Kong and see the hideous posters on hoardings and buses for celebrity tutors and read about the kids who are being tutored until the early hours of the morning and falling asleep on their desks at school. Entire families are subjecting themselves to stress leading to anger and conflict because of the paper pressure. Parents against children, parents against teachers, students against teachers. No one is winning here, except the very few who get the most paper, then go onto screw the rest of us over. The system is distorting learning, teaching and life itself. Life is NOT a course!
We all leave school and never go near qualifications again. Most learning is informal and even formal learning (training) in organisations is rarely accredited. I spent most of my adult life delivering online learning and almost nothing was accredited. Adults need to be trusted not subjected to primitive testing (usually of short-term memory – read Ebbinghaus).
FAIL 5: Holds back adult education
When I was a Trustee at Learndirect I saw how we could get people back learning through good online work on numeracy and literacy but many would fail to turn up for the physical assessments in colleges, as those places were associated with their past failure. Governments have become obsessed with testing as they think it shows progress – it doesn’t, it shows that we teach to the test.
FAIL 6: Qualifications bubble?
When Peter Thiel put forward his argument that HE is now a bobble waiting to burst, he wasn’t far wrong. The price of a degree has been rising way beyond the rise in inflation or even house prices – that spells trouble. Student loan debt is now well past credit card debt in the US. For the first time in history the number of jobless workers over 25 have been to college. This has all the signs of being a bubble. More worrying is the recent research by Arum that shows how students are spending more and more money but doing lass and less serious study at University. Their work on problem solving, writing and critical skills, shows a worrying lack of improvement
FAIL 7: Testing for profit
Finally I pointed out that Sue, my first opponent, was the Global Certification Director for SAP. She is in the BUSINESS of SELLING certification that locks people into her company software. Kirtsie works for City & Guilds, the UKs largest certification body in vocational learning. To be honest I have some sympathy with Kirtsie, as I’m on the Council of that organisation (unpaid) and feel that vocational learning has been screwed over by excessive University funding. That’s what’s got us into this mess. My final act was to ask the audience of they knew who the Platinum Sponsor for the conference was? Answer – PEARSON – I rested my case!
We won by a comfortable margin.
These debates really enliven conferences and, I think, make people think and reflect beyond the normal presentation format. The audience participation was fantastic and the whole event felt like something really different and worthwhile. Every conference organiser should take note. Forget the endless presentations, landfill black bags. Push those boundaries with real discussion and debate.
Sue, Kirstie, Jef and I are still al good friends and thanks to the audience for such great contributions. It was a huge amount of fun.