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Outdated exams are holding children back – not computers in the classroom

Exams aren’t testing 21st century skills. Luke MacGregor/Reuters

A recent report has confirmed that simply increasing the number and use of computers in a school is unlikely to result in significant improvement in “educational outcomes”, including in results for reading, mathematics and science.

The report, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), recommended solutions were fairly predictable and included increasing training for teachers and greater use of innovative teaching methods.

According to Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills: “Adding 21st-century technologies to 20th-century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.” We therefore need to get much better at using pedagogies that make the most of technology.

But a significant problem still remains. Even if we combine 21st-century technologies with 21st-century teaching practices we are still stuck with a form of assessment born in the 19th and 20th centuries – the written exam.

Testing the wrong things

Like it or not our national exams continue to dictate children’s “educational outcomes”, the kind of content that is delivered and the skills which pupils are expected to develop. Unfortunately, in many countries these exams do not attempt to assess, evaluate or encourage the development of 21st century skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.

It is easy to understand why the introduction of new technology in the classroom may well have very little, if any, impact on the traditional learning outcomes that are associated with it. For example, if an exam is expected to test a student’s knowledge of a clearly defined subject area which is covered in a single textbook, then having access to the internet in the classroom may well prove to be an unnecessary distraction. Instead, the text book alone may be sufficient.

And if teachers have a proven track record of producing grade A students without using technology, why risk rocking the boat with new technology? Within this outdated assessment framework of examinations there appears to be little incentive for teachers to introduce and use new forms of technology.

The damage being done by a culture of education built around exams is now also being further exacerbated by the OECD itself and its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey and league tables. Member countries now take great pride in being top of the league table. But this means they’re competing with each other to have the most efficient but outdated assessment framework, which is assessing many skills which are slowly becoming redundant.

And this perverse race to the bottom will continue until assessment systems are reformed and begin to focus more on the development of 21st century skills. PISA has already taken an encouraging step in this direction by introducing a test on problem solving; but the traditional tests still dominate much of its analysis.

Unfortunately, an OECD Education Working Paper from 2009 found that while there was much talk about 21st century skills and competencies there were few specific definitions and “virtually no clear formative or summative assessment policies for these skills”. There was also a distinct lack of relevant teacher training programs, which is a real cause for concern.

Bring in the internet

To help drag assessments systems into the 21st century a simple solution is now being proposed by a number of academics such as our colleague Sugata Mitra at Newcastle University and by Eric Mazur at Harvard. Internet-enabled exams involve introducing the internet into the exam hall. The hope is that they could prove to be a catalyst that will encourage the educational system to reform itself from within.

Let them search. Students on computers via YanLev/

The organisations writing the examinations would have to think differently. If students have access to the internet then they would no longer be able to use the same old standard exam questions. Instead, they would have to think of new, open and challenging questions which would require students to navigate the internet and identify different perspectives and points of view.

The curriculum would also need to change from being one that is based on things that are known, to one based around big questions that do not have an easy answer. Teachers would also have to focus less on the teaching of facts and more on developing children’s searching, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Students would also have to think differently. Remembering facts and figures and passive listening skills would no longer be as important. Instead, the development of 21st century skills would become critical, including skills associated with the effective use of multiple forms of technology.

In 2010, the Danish government began experimenting with internet enabled examinations with initial success. Mark Dawe, the former chief executive of the OCR exam body in the UK, has also suggested that this is a reform whose time has come. Now it is time for others to think the unthinkable and blaze new trails.

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