Funny story about exams

There’s a debate going on today about exams, due to Gove’s ‘leaked’ memo.  Apparently, Gove wants to return to the more traditional O Level style end of year exams, and people are now debating the merits and working out if GCSE’s are ‘easier’.

Some GCSE’s have a significant coursework component, while O Levels tended to be decided by a single exam after two years of learning (you sometimes got a go at ‘mock exams’ half way through).  It’s not, therefore, easy to compare the two in my view.  The important question is, do the kids know the same stuff at the end of it, in which case, surely they’re comparable?

However, for me that’s not even the deciding factor.  I did O Levels and some CSE’s, and then I went on to do A Levels.  At A Level, a significant portion of my Computer Science course was a written project.  You had to pass that as well as the exam to get the grade.  This was a revelation to me after the exam only O Level approach.

Even more surprising was when I did my Computer Studies degree and found out that a very large percentage of my overall grade was as the result of my thesis at the end of the fourth year.

Nothing I had done at O Level had prepared me for either of those two situations.  I hadn’t been taught how to write a thesis, I hadn’t been taught how to write 4000 word reports on the implications of social change as a result of computing change.  I’d done English at school of course, and some of that was focussed on how to write, but it wasn’t how to write scientific or investigative papers.

Then I left University and got a job in the real world – and do you know how often, in my ~20 years of working I’ve had to sit an exam to complete a piece of real work?  Never.  How many times, however, have I had to learn something, understand it, investigate it, and then write about it?  All, the bloody, time.

My job, in the IT industry, is to write.  I write analysis, problem investigations, root cause documents, plans, explanations, suggestions, solutions, recommendations, etc., etc.  I don’t sit exams.  I write critical reports.

If we want to teach our kids how to do well in jobs, then we should be teaching them how to learn, how to use what they have learned, and how to write about it.  It’s not just the IT industry, nearly everyone in a white collar job writes reports of some kind of another.  Take that away, push kids back towards plain ‘learning for 2 years and then seeing how much you can remember at the last minute’, and I think we may be taking a step in the wrong direction.

Sure, check and ensure GCSE’s are still fit for purpose, make them hard enough that they stretch kids who need to be stretched, make them interesting and challenging, but don’t take away the ‘course work’ component.  Because that’s the closest thing to real work there is.