Decolonising all the way: Do we really need exams?

 In South Africa

The struggle to decolonise education has raised issues of course content and the colour of educators, but deep decolonisation also calls into question the methods of education forcibly exported to the world from Western Europe along with capitalism.

One question hardly raised yet is: do we really need exams? This is not only for the future: last year and the year before, Vice Chancellors justified enormously disproportionate violence against #FMF on the basis of protecting the sanctity of exams.

The argument for exams goes that we need exams to test whether you really know the work – we can’t risk having a surgeon or an engineer who doesn’t know what they are doing.

But exams are a very bad way of testing what you know. They test more about whether you are calm under pressure or can memorise things in the short term, than about the subject in question.

If anything, exams stand in the way of real learning. What exams mostly teach you is how to write exams. Their main effect is to divide society into ‘successes’ and ‘failures’. In this way they legitimise the class and racial divisions in society, making it appear that anyone can succeed through personal effort with all those news headlines about kids who get distinctions despite living in a shack.

Not about learning

Most students’ experience of exams is trying to cram as much as possible into a panicked brain. Exams encourage students to simply memorise facts, then write down as much as possible in a limited time, instead of concentrating on developing real understanding. The focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer to get marks.

You seldom get the paper back after an exam with an explanation of where you went wrong. You just get a mark. So you don’t learn anything new from an exam.

Exams hold back creativity. Only the most confident student would use a new and unusual way to solve a maths problem or a geography question in an exam, because you risk losing marks if the answer is not ‘right’. And because of time pressures, it is always quicker and easier to use the accepted, tried and tested methods. Once again, you don’t learn much new from an exam.

Exams test knowledge in a completely different way from the way it will actually be used. In an exam you have two to three hours to answer questions that you have never seen before, usually without reference books and without discussing it with anyone else who knows the subject.

Yet before building a new kind of bridge, a trustworthy engineer would consult books on the subject, discuss their ideas with other engineers, build models, and think long and carefully about it.

A doctor might have to sometimes make a snap decision about how to save a patient’s life – but she or he would make this decision on the basis of a lot of previous discussion and learning amongst peers. Most often there are other medical people around to help decide what is best. Even the most brilliant rocket scientist learns more through co-operation with others than alone.

The production of knowledge is an intensely social and collective thing, even when individuals appear to be working alone. For example Einstein could not have developed the ground breaking theory of relativity without a whole body of knowledge before him and without the numerals and maths which spread from North Africa around the Mediterranean Sea centuries before he was born.

Exams test an individual when in reality knowledge is most always developed and used together with other people. Exams put the stress on individual achievement and competition with others. So helping a fellow student answer an exam question is branded as ‘cheating’.

Exams are more about grading people than grading their knowledge. Some pass, others fail; as a result, some are accepted into universities or better jobs, others are rejected. If I make a mistake and someone can show me where the mistake is, I come away having learned something. By contrast, a fail mark usually makes me feel that I am a failure as a person. I end up demotivated to learn further. The main effect of exams is to divide people into ‘successes’ and ‘failures’.

Justifying Divisions

The exam system reflects the stupid priorities of capitalism. Education under capitalism reinforces class divisions and naturalises racism. It divides us into rulers and ruled and makes sure we ‘know our place’.

Schools in townships and other working class areas are usually short of facilities, overcrowded, and have too few teachers. This makes quality education very difficult despite the efforts of some truly amazing teachers.

It is easiest in these circumstances to concentrate on cramming children’s heads full of ‘facts’ and memorising – without necessarily understanding – the correct order of solving a maths problem or the sequence of events that followed after Van Riebeek arrived at the Cape.

This kind of learning does little to prepare learners to deal with unexpected situations such as the unseen questions in an exam. It also encourages teachers to rely on discipline rather than painfully stimulating genuine interest in the subject.

Learners then learn to respect authority, sit quietly and behave while carrying out boring, repetitive tasks that they are not very interested in. All this educates us perfectly to become a worker taking orders from a boss.

The fact that there are always some children who get good marks despite dire circumstances helps to disguise how tall are the structural hurdles in education.

Our rulers are not interested in greatly improving these schools. Schooling is only extended to working class learners to equip the ruled with ‘skills’ which can be used in a factory or workplace to churn out profit for the bosses.

The cream of the township crop – the children who get good marks even in bad circumstances – are skimmed off by ‘charitable’ bursaries to attend elite schools and universities, eventually to provide more complex skills in the workplace.

Children from rich families, on the other hand, generally attend elite, formerly white schools where they are taught to think for themselves, where the focus is on understanding and creativity. The difference between these schools and township schools is stark in the extreme. The facilities available and quality of teachers employed equip the offspring of the rich to deal confidently with a wide range of situations, including writing exams.

Exams therefore simply reproduce and confirm advantage of those who are already advantaged, and place an extra charge of stupidity against those who are already disadvantaged. Working class pupils often do badly in exams, while upper class pupils do well even if they are not particularly intellectual. On the whole, exam results just confirm the existing inequalities in capitalism.

This helps to convince us that the rich are rich because they are more capable, whilst the rest of us are badly paid or jobless because we are stupid. It prepares us for the inevitable reality of capitalism, where a tiny minority are ‘successful’ and rich, while the rest of us must struggle to survive.

Education without exams

A thoroughly decolonised and de-commodified education would concentrate on developing every individual born into this world, at their own pace and according to their own interests. The whole of society would benefit from this.

A much better way to both learn and test knowledge could be through group work with continuous assessment, for example. Students could be assessed throughout the year on the basis of projects and essays. In this way it is possible to see not only what facts one knows, but also one’s ability to reason creatively, how one is progressing and where one is getting stuck.

Group work means co-learners can also assess each other. Students working in a group very quickly see gaps in the knowledge of their peers. And one of the best ways to learn something is to try and explain it to someone else. Unlike the exam situation, in group work the learners are able to help each other out. The effect is to pull everyone up while further developing each person’s ability.

We must remember that as long as society remains unequal, even better methods of education such as group work and continuous assessment would still allow inequality in the doors of learning. But in changing society we would certainly need to change methods of education

Methods such as those outlined above equip people for a society based on cooperation for the benefit of all. These are methods that have been used across the world in many student rebellions where pupils have launched their own learning programmes in the midst of struggle against the authorities. They were used in revolutionary Russia. These are the methods embodied in the slogan ‘Each one, teach one’. This is very far from the general picture of education that was pushed in ANC education circles of ‘outcome-orientation education’ and ‘vocational training’.

Rather we should take for our inspiration the vision of education held up by workers’ struggle for a classless world. In such a world exams will be rejected for the dull, stupid obstacle to learning that they are.

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