Al Kingsley is CEO of NetSupport, chair of a multi-academy trust in the U.K., tech writer, speaker and author of "My Secret #EdTech Diary."
Today's education systems are intended and regarded as preparation for employment rather than the historical model of providing education for education's sake. Yet many are stuck in a time warp—structuring testing and assessment around easy-to-quantify assessments, still delivering learning in a fundamentally traditional way in line with curriculum requirements (albeit now with the assistance of technology) and still (sigh) often teaching to the test.
The future is happening here and now, and the world is constantly changing. We no longer need to rely on recalling information to enable us to do our jobs. When we have the right skills to work independently and with others, we can find the information we need from others or online in an instant, apply it and still work effectively. Businesses need these soft skills—people who can work in a team, be creative, solve problems and empathize as well as talk to, negotiate with, lead and motivate others. These are the traits that employers everywhere are looking for but that most formal "external" education assessments still ignore.
The Education System's Definition Of Success
Let me begin by emphasizing the distinction between "schools" and "education systems." There are legions of forward-looking educators striving to incorporate a whole range of soft skills into their classes so students have the experience to draw upon further down the track. However, so many education systems are stuck in the rut of quantifiable testing that any formal recognition of a student's character, resourcefulness, resilience, creativity or initiative is bypassed in favor of data that can be compared against other schools, students, districts and countries.
Current education systems force students down a narrow path that will be a fit for some but not all. They seem at ease with the high-stakes testing that labels students as failures if they do not perform in the "right" way—with the blinkers firmly on when it comes to the damaging effects it could have on their mental health, confidence and self-esteem. However, school does not suit everyone, and it sometimes takes a different approach to unlock an interest in learning and open up new worlds. Students considered low achievers in school may find that they thrive in college or vocational training or that they rapidly rise through the ranks of employment once they are in an environment where they can engage with learning that is (finally) relevant and useful.
Wouldn't it be better to learn in a system where knowledge, skills, resilience and confidence had equal weighting and learning could be relished rather than associated with passing or failing?
Success In The Workplace
Success lies beyond what data-driven assessments can measure. Consider Richard Branson, one of the most enterprising people of our time. He left school without any qualifications, but far from being a "failure," his drive, creativity and combination of wider skills led to exceptional achievements. Of course, not everyone has the potential to be a Richard Branson, but he is the perfect illustration of the folly of the education system's narrow focus.
Employers are way ahead in how they evaluate and encourage progress and success. When they recruit, they look for a much broader range of attributes than simply a candidate's qualifications. They consider what other special skills or experiences they have acquired, how they interact with their peers in the workplace and with others, their critical thinking and problem-solving skills and more.
Employee learning takes place on the job, and as they progress, their professional development is supported step by step. For example, employees might work on project teams before leading their own projects and, perhaps, undertaking training or taking on additional responsibilities. Yearly in-depth reviews with managers reflect on performance and progress but ultimately look ahead to what comes next and how best to get there. It feels like a much more "active" process of continual assessment where the employee has real input and involvement rather than the more passive practice of recalling how best to answer contrived exam questions.
Bridging The Disconnect
Of course, it is understood that everyone needs a basic level of education and that specialism cannot occur too early. However, imagine if we formally assessed employees on everything they had learned over the past two years as we do with students. What would be the point when they put their learning into practice each day, and their managers can make the necessary adjustments on the fly? Everyone has their strengths (and smart employers nurture these), but if we graded each employee as if they were in school, there would be many unhappy, unconfident people in our workplaces. Why do we do that to students when confidence is a cornerstone of learning?
There must be better ways of measuring a successful education. Reform is needed to realign assessment with how learning, achievement, progress and review happen in the real world. It is increasingly necessary if our education systems are to prepare students for the future, but as it stands, the gap is becoming wider and wider year after year.
Focusing On The Person
Helping students become well-rounded people should always take precedence. Standardized testing can be damaging to many and only confirms what teachers already know—NAEP is a prime example. Surely, this suggests that more varied measures of progress would be far more inclusive and less detrimental to well-being. This way, students would be free to "fail" and learn from it in their own time without the fear of being retested. I truly believe exam scores alone should not be a final verdict on anyone's abilities; they are merely indicators (hints of future success, if you like) and should be given much less priority and exert much less pressure.
Let's shift the focus once and for all onto students' holistic development and establish a system that develops their confidence, nurtures what they can do and builds on that achievement to encompass wider learning. Our society will certainly be healthier, more prosperous and more productive if we pull it off.
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