An inevitability or a disaster? Our panellists battle it outby Christine Blower, Rachel Wolf / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
In April, Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the OCR exam board, said it is inevitable that schoolchildren will eventually be allowed to use the internet during tests, including GCSEs and A-Levels—but critics say it would reduce standards
Christine Blower—General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers
Mark Dawe’s proposal that pupils should be allowed to use internet search engines during exams is an idea that opens up a serious and worthwhile discussion. It has nothing to do with “dumbing down” or cheating, and everything to do with how we prepare young people for a changing world.
Young people need a range of knowledge, understanding and skills, and the way they adapt those for life far into the 21st century will change, not least as technology changes. Just as we need to engage children with a diverse and creative curriculum, we must also consider how they interact with technology and the ways in which they use it critically. We need to look seriously at proposals for assessments which are fit for purpose, and whether technology can contribute to that usefully, either in the nature of the assessment itself, or in using technology as a tool for undertaking the assessment.
This need not be a polarised choice. The opportunities that Google offers, or the benefits of using a calculator, do not mean that learners need not be taught more “traditional” skills such as using library classifications for research, or mental maths techniques or map-reading.
The decision of the 2010-15 government to rely almost entirely on memory and recall in written examinations was a backwards step. That does not reflect how most of us deploy our knowledge, understanding and skills in the real world. The importance of this wider view of what constitutes attainment, achievement and ability is highlighted by recent research, commissioned by the National Union of Teachers, which found that children are increasingly conditioned to view the purpose of schooling as solely to pass exams.
Unlike the last government, Dawe does at least recognise that a Hard Times view of education has no place in modern schooling.
Rachel Wolf—Senior Vice-President of Amplify Learning and a former advisor on Education to Michael Gove and Boris Johnson
How annoying it would be if everyone reading this article had to look up Hard Times, and then Charles Dickens. By using a literary reference, you have assumed a shared knowledge and understanding. It is imperative we teach this, or only the privileged few will be able to understand the arguments of the National Union of Teachers.
Using exam time to search the internet is pointless. It would mean that students spent hours nervously searching for and checking facts, instead of using their knowledge and mental energy engaging with problems.
The idea belongs more to the era of Dickens than today—ignoring the scientific revolutions of the last few decades. We are still at the beginning of understanding the human brain, but we have ever greater insights into how it operates and learns. If our brains were like computers, it might make sense to teach and test the “processes” of looking up information. But cognitive science has shown they are not. Instead, humans operate and solve new problems by drawing on an existing, wide range of knowledge. It is only through mastery of that range that we can be confident students will learn the new skills needed by the next generation of technologies. That should be our priority for exams.
We also have absolutely no idea what the useful technologies and methods of information retrieval of the future will be, and it is a conceit to pretend otherwise. If we had tried this while I was at school (and we too received the “you are a different generation that learns fundamentally differently” speeches from our elders) we’d have spent our time on pager skills and instant messenger techniques, with dozens of wasted hours on using meta-search engines. We should not subject our students to today’s equivalent.
Our exams should test whether a student has received a world-class education, and understood what they have learned. We should not waste a second of students’ time formally assessing anything else.
The use of technology and traditional pedagogy are not either/or. Used appropriately, they can be complementary.
Pupils spending “hours” on the internet during exams is not what has been suggested. Dawe was quite specific that there would be strict time limits. Students would be using their mental energy to engage with a problem by evaluating the sources. I see nothing controversial in that so long as we can assess it. The use of search engines does not cancel out critical thinking.
We should teach children and young people to use all media critically, while we ourselves also evaluate whether, when and how technology can bring benefits to teaching, learning and assessment. The question for me is about how teachers and examiners can use technologies to enable learners to acquire knowledge and engage with problems. It makes sense to help students understand the variety of media and tools that they can access, and how, as increasingly independent learners, they can best use them.
A student working towards a qualification in design and technology, for example, will use computer-aided design, as well as paper and pencil. It is right that they should have the opportunity to achieve competence in a range of design skills, using any and all of the tools available to them. No one suggests that we must use these technologies in classrooms, or enforce them in exams. But we should not be closed to exploring more fully their potential to contribute to a high-quality education, and to enable young people to demonstrate they have received one.
I quite agree that our brains do not operate like computers. However, neither are they simple knowledge repositories. Students must learn the skills to acquire, absorb and marshal knowledge. Learning how to use technology is a part of this.
This seems to have turned from a debate about assessing internet searches in formal examinations to a proposal for some use of technology, in any teaching context, now or in the future. If you are arguing that technology can have a place in education, I agree. I also agree that we should be open to new evidence. But the proposal we are debating isn’t a general one about new ideas in education: it is highly specific. Mark Dawe did not suggest using technology in the classroom, or a new education research programme. He suggested implementing new questions, in formal exams, to assess if students could search the internet.
We should not do this for a simple reason: it is not a valuable use of student time. Results in national exams change students’ lives. We should be confident that in these incredibly high-stakes situations we are only testing what is most important.
What is important? I think we probably agree. We should be requiring students to make arguments and inferences. They should analyse, not just recite facts. This is vital. And so the question is—should they be armed with the fact base before they go into the exam hall, or be asked to spend exam time finding it on Google?
The latter would be a waste of time. It would mean asking students to spend their available mental capacity on finding the fact base for arguments rather than on analysis and interpretation. We should be ensuring students have the background knowledge they need before they enter the exam hall.
That achieves two ends. It ensures we can concentrate on testing how they use that knowledge to show real understanding. And it means that the onus remains on the education system to deliver the knowledge base students need to succeed in later life.
I disagree with looking at assessment, including examinations, as separate from the process of learning. From a very early age, much of that learning takes place through the medium of technology, and I think it reasonable to explore whether assessment could similarly embrace technology. Dawe didn’t propose “new questions” in exams to test internet research skills. He related his proposal clearly to the “age-old debate” about open-book exams, and he also related it to how children and young people use technology “when they learn in the classroom.” It is about making tools available, where appropriate.
It is a caricature of my argument to suggest that I think it is appropriate for candidates to arrive in the exam hall needing to look up facts on Google. I agree that candidates need a strong knowledge base and that education needs to enable learners to develop this. However, I do not think that knowledge and facts can be “delivered” to students as passive receptacles.
We need a broader vision of education and assessment, which enables candidates to show that they have developed understanding and skills as well as acquired knowledge, and whether they are able to show a richer engagement with their subject than the simple ability to recite spoon-fed information. This deeper learning is the foundation that young people need throughout their adult lives, including in the workplace and as lifelong learners. In the debate about a broader vision of education and assessment, we should consider the question of whether high stakes examinations under “secure” conditions are the only, or indeed the best, means to enable young people to show all their abilities.
Perhaps we have both been guilty of caricature: I’m sure you don’t truly believe all your opponents are trying to impose Gradgrindian misery, or that I am arguing for the exclusive, passive receipt of facts. Nor do I think you are arguing for a knowledge-free education. I do, however, think we may have interpreted Dawe’s comments differently.
His specific proposal was that students “should be allowed to use search engines like Google in exams” and it is that precise proposal I disagree with, not technology generically. It’s not possible to “agree” or “disagree” with new technology in education: it depends on how it is used. The printing press was a great new technology—but a bad book is still a bad book, whether it is illuminated or printed. Or, for that matter, read online.
Instead of throwing around terms like “technology” or “21st-century skills” to sound progressive, we need to be thoughtful about specific applications. For example, personalised, adaptive education is very exciting. So is the use of gaming research in education. Both of these could substantially improve outcomes.
Assessing googling would not. Why? Because you cannot analyse without knowledge—that is what cognitive science has taught us. Given that, the performance of students searching the internet would depend on how much they happened to know beforehand about the topic the examiner came up with. This is using luck when students depend on exam grades for their futures. Using googling skills to determine that grade is a disservice to them and a cop out for the education system.
I agree that assessment can embrace technology, but this specific application—testing how students search on Google—is a bad one. We should not implement it.