• There is a lag between technological development and educational reform.
  • The world of education has not caught up with industries such as media, telecommunications and consumer financial services.
  • Big questions are being posed about the future of examinations.

Educational reform tends to be a delayed process, and the catalyst is more often than not new technologies.

Seventy years ago, the Cold War space race led to an acceleration of research and investment in the sciences. But it is only now that we are really seeing the effects, with STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupying a privileged place in curriculum discourse.

These areas are often funded more than humanities and arts subjects and have become perceived as particularly important in education.

The surge of digital technology that took place in the early 1990s affected classroom practice at various speeds depending on the context, but only started to take a strong foothold in the form of massive online learning and school-run virtual learning environments some 30 years later.

The role of technology in learning and the strong emphasis of STEM can be debated but there is a definite lag between technological development and educational reform, whether that reform is right or wrong.

Few rituals in education are as old-fashioned and out of kilter with the way the world works today as examinations.

—Conrad Hughes

Many have complained that both higher education and school systems more broadly are something of a dinosaur, out of sync with the expectations of industry 4.0. Classrooms don’t differ all that much than 100 years ago; a didactic model of knowledge transmission, textbooks, handwritten exercises and lectures.

And so it is that the world of education is still waiting to catch up with industries such as media, telecommunications and consumer financial services, which have been totally transformed by algorithms. Perhaps the most salient symbol of this is the school examination.

Examinations: the test of times past

Few rituals in education are as old-fashioned and out of kilter with the way the world works today as examinations, both in their physical format and their end goal of regurgitating reams of notes and index cards containing declarative knowledge to be mentally stored but forgotten soon afterwards.

For the last 30 years, access to knowledge has been open and one of the most important skills has become knowing how to select, analyse, synthesise and combine existing knowledge in creative new configurations.

Modern research and science is carried out using data probes, large-scale information gathering and the careful analysis of big data. However, examinations test knowledge retention by hiding information to see how well students can recall narrowly selected pieces of it. Even online examinations do not escape this contradiction.

This is not to say that knowledge is not important, because it is: there can be little higher-order thinking without vitally important prerequisite long-term memory consolidation as much research shows. However, when examinations are used as the only way of testing knowledge and relatively few higher-order skills are assessed in the process, we are falling short of assessing students holistically on a range of processes related to deep thinking, doing and even being.

Not only are examinations out of date in format, they are one-size-fits-all in structure, and they exclude a high number of gifted people who simply do not shine in their high-stakes, stressful format but would in other types of assessment. As the pressure mounts on young people to perform in these monolithic end-of-year processes, so does anxiety, sometimes leading to extremely dramatic consequences such as burnout and even suicide.

However, few institutions are prepared to substitute terminal examinations with more creative styles of assessment, passing the buck and saying that other institutions run them. And so everyone remains in a circular argument of examination gridlock.

What could be done instead of examinations?

Everyday life, most especially in the workplace, almost never involves exam-taking techniques. People do presentations, they write up assignments and argue positions. Might not critical thinking, curiosity and social skills be better taught, therefore?

Assessment systems that schools should consider because they are much closer to the type of assessment used in the workplace include portfolios, projects, interviews and presentations. The skills these assessments should be assessing include lifelong learning, self-agency, interpreting data and interactively using diverse tools and resources, all part of UNESCO’s future competences.

Necessity is the mother of invention

The COVID-19 crisis threw schools into a lockdown and forcibly disrupted many assessment protocols. This was no longer a case of schools and examination boards taking their own time to adapt to the needs of the environment, it was a violent breaking off of business as usual, requiring a quick response and strong decision-making.

Many terminal examinations were cancelled, such as the International Baccalaureate, Cambridge A-levels and Swiss Maturité. This was mainly because the social ritual of examination was simply not possible and the idea of subjecting students to examinations in the aftermath of school closure was not feasible.

In the future we can expect violent disruptors caused by an unstable environment to interject educational processes in similarly unprecedented ways. Will the response be to cancel what is in place because it is not fit for purpose? Or should we be thinking now about assessing students in different ways that are robust to change and, at the same time, allow us to catch up with what all the research tells us about the types of skills that we should actually be assessing?

One school’s journey

The International School of Geneva’s La Grande Boissière has created the Universal Learning Programme with UNESCO. It is designed to develop 52 evidence-based competences that are life-worthy and future-proof. During this COVID-19 academic year, the school has substituted examinations for collaborative deep understanding projects and viva voce interviews.

The projects involve entrepreneurship, creative thinking, student agency and ask students to reflect on broad philosophical questions such as “what makes a good education?” or “what matters most?”.

In philosophy, students designed their own personal philosophies, in the sciences they wrote their own examination paper, and in mathematics they created questions that were easy, medium and difficult, explaining why. In economics, students designed macro- and microeconomic theories to suit a new world in which change is the constant.

If we want a more balanced, sustainable world, it is essential to interweave ethical questions on the consequences of our actions into all of our assessments.

—Conrad Hughes

The viva interviews involved 1:1 discussions between teachers and students to reflect on the year and assess on-your-feet thinking skills much as one might find in a job interview. In philosophy projects, students were asked to reflect on the ethical implications of their thinking.

If we want a more balanced, sustainable world, it is essential to interweave ethical questions on the consequences of our actions into all of our assessments, so as to stimulate deep reflection.

The school has partnered with the World Economic Forum to enhance project design further by using the organisation’s Strategic Intelligence tool to further develop student associative and systems thinking.

By substituting declarative knowledge regurgitation assessed in examinations with projects and vivas, students are being prepared for a world that will need innovative thinking, strong people skills and higher-order thinking. It may be that this is what the future of education needs for a post-COVID generation that looks to an ever more complex future worldwide.