The times they are a-changin'

Do you check the use-by date on food items at the supermarket? If our examination systems and assessment structures had a ‘use-by’ date, they would be well and truly past the expiry date. Current processes were created as part of education systems that stretch way back to the 1800s. Report cards contained minimal words and on many occasions just a sequence of numbers. Those numbers though, have caused havoc for many a learner who has felt failure or shame, because they did not pass some arbitrary benchmark – that most likely was meaningless in the first place. I look back on my high school reports and see something like 2/30 and 79 – accompanied by two words ‘well done’.  A totally fruitless exercise that did nothing to excite a passion for learning.

But there remains the problem of governments, politicians and legislated requirements. Clearly the growing indicators of a system well past its effective use are obvious. The Competency Works movement in the US ( and other similar movements are the start of a broad wave of change that will sweep through education and schooling. Some universities and colleges are already creating pathways into their courses that do not involve examination marks. Universities are very wary of the high-ranking student who has been ‘force-fed’ information and knowledge, finishing up in a course that is not their chosen future or passion. Many companies, once requiring a college or university qualification, have now opened their doors to non-graduates, recognizing that experience and focus is potentially producing better employees. Many parents though are often none-the-wiser about the changing context, drawing back to their own experience as a student and a model they hope might still work. But it is undeniably in decline. For many parents, it is not until their child becomes disengaged from their learning, that they recognise that solutions are few and far between.

And then there is the entire ‘cheating’ industry that has grown up to surround schools, colleges and universities with daily challenges. It is yet another indicator of the demise of traditional assessment methods. Finding new ways to try and identify cheats and assessment scams is like trying to plug ever increasing holes in a sinking ship. Our money and time should be invested in proactive fresh ways of recognising capacity, rather than trying to pick up what is likely to be only a very small part of the ‘cheating’ industry.

So, it is time to change. Politicians and governments must recognize this. We should not be driven by a desire to come top of the OECD ranks. It is not difficult to find statistics that point to increasing mental health, anxiety and other related issues for students from a number of the higher-ranking PISA countries. The crisis is real.

The problem? The reliance on the traditional examination structures is the one thing that constrains any school, college or university. It means that teachers and students have to lock down their creativity and stay on a ‘have to improve results’ bandwagon. Please don’t get me wrong. Outcomes are very important – but a system that preferences the more compliant learners who have strong memorising capacities, is not the way ahead. The other 90% are likely to be on perpetual 'struggle street', until they drop out.

So, what is the solution? I am pleased to say that projects such as based in Barcelona have chosen a starting premise – what could learning be like if we did not place the assessment/examination constraint in the picture? What would we be freed up to do? What are the possibilities?

And the answer? The possibilities are endless. Learning becomes a far more relational experience, centred around authentic projects and fed by passion. Curiosity and authentic need become the drivers to personal growth. Learning becomes the focus, not the credential. But if the model itself creates the credential through a continual journey of co-created learning experiences giving rise to new competencies, then learning and the credentialing of learning become essentially one and the same thing. And that makes total sense!