Exam season: prevention not cure

School blackboard
© | Dreamstime Stock Photos

It’s that time of year when a good proportion of the population works itself into a state of agitation.  It’s school and university exam season; time to judge the learning you’ve learned.  I guess almost every reader of this blog will have taken an exam at some time and/or shepherded their son(s) or daughter(s) through doing so.  They will have a broad array of memories about the experience.  Does our collective recollection indicate we were affected by the same degree of anxiety that seems to prevail today?  Or, is this one of those situations glimpsed in the rear-view mirror that appears smaller than it really is?  Were we scared, short of sleep and forgot the single most important coaching line ever uttered, “Read the [insert appropriate profanity] question”?

However, is there a deeper, more important question to pose at this time?  That is, “Is our approach to education fit for purpose?”  Have we forgotten what makes sound pedagogy; what represents real learning as opposed to mere information transfer, which like water finds its own course in and immediately out of someone’s head?


What are your happy memories of your education or your children’s or grandchildren’s?  I can think of the extreme of a newly qualified chemistry teacher allowing ten minutes at the start of the lesson to discuss the previous evening’s episode of Monty Python and responding to our encouragement to throw an even bigger piece of potassium into the water-bath (cries of anguish I hear from the contemporary Health and Safety brigade and “How much did that cost?” from the financial hawks) to a long-established history teacher who would dictate for all 45 minutes of the lesson period.  With those joint impediments at play in 2017, what are the different approaches that can be taken that will make learning fun once again?  If that sense of lack of fun is carried from formal education into the place of work, what will that mean for people’s willingness to learn?  What are their expectations; just give me facts that I can recite in response to certain prompts?  What is that going to do for the customer experience or, for that matter, innovation?

The fun of learning (or, rather, lack of it)

The recent report from M&C Saatchi called “Risk, Realism and Ritalin”, see https://www.dropbox.com/s/arzixrp8j2mudd5/S36%2032117%20SOURCE%20GEN%20Z%20BOOK.pdf?dl=0, makes for uneasy reading.  It describes the attitudes of the post-millennial generation.  It says they’ve lost the fun of learning, which I find dreadfully sad.  What does this mean when they enter the world of work?  They’re crammed to overflowing with facts yet described by employers as unready for work and the critical and creative thinking demands it imposes.  Neither are they adequately socially deft and dextrous to deal with a new world of people residing in supply chains, client pools, inter and intra-departmental groups?

The renowned author and columnist in the Times’s Saturday magazine supplement, Caitlin Moran, wrote a fabulous column at the end of April about why she should be appointment as the second Times columnist to be Education Secretary.  This might open through this link – https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/caitlin-moran-why-i-should-be-education-secretary-9llh939r2 – but, there again, it may not because of the Murdoch firewall.

How can learning be made fun again as well as purposeful and applicable?  This throws out further questions about the purpose of education.  Is it to create the new “cannon fodder” for the production and consumption of materials in our consumerist society?  Or, is it about advancing human-kind’s knowledge and ability to husband the fragile blue sphere we inhabit that whirls through the cosmos at 60-odd thousand miles an hour?  Access to education is one of the United Nations’ sustainable goals.  Is Moran correct in saying all the knowledge content we need is there on Google?  What we need are new pedagogical approaches to bring it to life and make it relevant.

Different approaches; e-learning

For over 20 years, I have worked around the area of e-learning, which is entirely the wrong label.  Shunting out content to read on a computer screen rather than a book or telling people to watch or listen to a video or webinar is passive information sharing.  Knowledge is transferred from source to individual but is it assimilated and understood?  More particularly is it applied?  In terms of traditional courses, how many fat tomes remain in boxes in attics or garages untouched since that week away in a nice venue and a particularly boozy, final night?  Is the concept of 70:20:10 learning effective or is trying to get more development done at the coal-face counter-productive in terms of lowering productivity?

Premises before people

Millions have been spent on smart new premises for schools and universities, yet has the quality of education provided been upgraded?  The recent publication of the first Teaching Excellence Framework saw some surprising ratings announced.  In the US, Salon magazine has been critical of the spend on campus facilities rather than the learning experience, see http://www.salon.com/2014/09/15/the_big_college_ranking_sham_why_you_must_ignore_u_s_news_and_worlds_report_list/ and  http://www.salon.com/2014/10/01/college_is_ripping_you_off_students_are_cash_cows_and_schools_the_predators/.

Work in 2040

Artificial Intelligence (AI) or machine learning is mooted to take away up to 40% of contemporary jobs, which is illustrated in this column from Schumpeter in the Economist last year, see http://www.economist.com/node/21674779/all-comments.  What jobs will be out there in 10 or 20 years’ time?  What education will be needed to deliver the skills and behavioural competencies to enable people to undertake them?

One area AI is predicted not to consume is caring yet that Honda or Sony branded android look rather cute.  Given I will be turned 80 in 2040, I’d be happy to have one or other serve me a G&T and my wife a Pimms when its 5 o’clock and, after all, as the song goes, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”.  Ice and a slice, please!

Virtualising learning – the immersive, experiential approach

In the USA, two universities are making progressive use of virtual learning environments to teach science.  Environments are built that students and teachers access via ordinary PCs and lap-tops through the guise of an avatar.  Sitting at lab-benches, they can conduct experiments in osmosis or they can walk around a giant human-cell to understand the role of mitochondria.  Elsewhere, they can visit a simulation replicating the Roswell alien crash-landing site and collect DNA samples for examination.  In another venue, students use contemporary forensic techniques to investigate a famous “double jeopardy” murder from their university’s host city’s history.

The students love learning this way, the teachers enjoy teaching in these very different places.  Oddly, perhaps, they feel closer to their students.  This is not high-cost, high-tech.  learners and tutors are not cut-off from their physical world presence by wearing expensive VR headsets and headphones.  They can work together in a physical computer lab or remotely from their homes using ordinary kit and broadband connectivity.  As one student of chemistry remarks, which takes me back to the potassium and the water-bath, “I can use kit and chemicals that I wouldn’t otherwise be allowed near.  I can’t harm myself or anyone else.”  And the cost of doing the experiment six-times over is no more than the cost of electricity to power the PC.  No expensive materials are consumed.  What you can imagine, you can construct as a place of learning.  Note that critical use of the word “place” not technology.  What are being created are new venues in which immersive, experiential teaching and learning can occur that are built from line of code not bricks and mortar.

I learnt most of my banking skills through playing simulation games; now unattractively termed “gamification”.  Virtual learning environments allow all sorts of simulations to be devised and enacted.  As with the US chemistry student, no-one is put at risk.  Different approaches can be tried, tested and evaluated.  Great things can be done with diversity and inclusion; unconscious biases can be surfaced in a non-threatening or acrimonious manner.  For instance, men can be given female avatars or trans-gender ones.  Ethnicity can be mixed-up and swapped around.

The times they are a changin’

We have seen huge changes in the delivery of most services from booking hotels or people’s houses via Airbnb to on-line grocery shopping and personalised specification and build of cars.  People buy individual tracks of music rather than albums and gorge themselves on devouring box-sets of TV series through a single sitting.  Accordingly, is education due its Amazon-like seismic disruption?  Probably, yes; however, Trump Universities are probably not the viable solution to take away anguish and stress that manifests at this time of year!