International College Hong Kong
Mar 21, 2017

The Non-Mystery of Examination Inflation

Coming from the UK and working in secondary education, I have grown accustomed to the annual media storm that centers on the release of the IGCSE and A Level results in the late summer. It's a perennial British pantomime of which, happily, we get only a mild version in Hong Kong.

It’s a well-established process. Pretty much year on year, the results get better. And, just as predictably, each year we are told both by journalists and the ‘expert commentators’ to whom they speak, that this is because the exams are getting easier.

They are wrong. The reality is that the quality of teaching is improving. And, in part, this is down to the resources available to teachers.

As a case study, take a look at this screen shot (click for a larger version). It shows the lesson plan I delivered to the Year 10 GCSE History group with whom I am working.

In truth, this sets up a pretty routine and not especially inspiring lesson. I defend it only by referring to its place in an ongoing scheme of work. It comes after a series of more interactive, discussion-based and dynamic sessions, and is intended to clear up any gaps in existing knowledge so that the students can feel confident going into a test paper next week.

All very dull and traditional, if I am honest, not very high on Bloom's taxonomy – and a good deal less interesting, to my mind, than the Human Technologies I teach, week in, week out.

But even taken on its own terms, it is interesting to contrast it with a similar lesson, doing a similar job, even 5, let alone 10 or 15 years ago.

Thanks to Gibbon, in prepping them for the lesson, I am able to enter into dialogue with the students in a way that is directly tied to their experience of previous sessions. I am able to write a short précis that they can revisit after the lesson is over, even save for revision purposes. I can model language and analytical balance that will serve them well in their exam, and suggest terms and constructions that help them to present their ideas succinctly and accurately.

I can embed fantastic resources, which are available for free on YouTube, and which are skillfully and thoughtfully designed to be student-friendly, provocative and entertaining. I can recommend a Thinking Routine (Connect-Extend-Challenge) as a method of reaching deeper understanding, and which they can draw on to get to grips with further information later in the course. And I can do all this knowing that previous Gibbon entries have chunked up, interpreted and supplemented the learning they have done from their textbook, but without offering so much information that they are either swamped or disorientated.

Compare this to the information available through the average textbook. Provided the student is interested, engaged and ambitious, is it any wonder that exam results are improving?

However, one last thought. What this improvement in results does leave untested, because exams are not and cannot be designed to test it, is whether the students are, in addition to being more knowledgeable, also more open-minded, more resilient, more compassionate, are better learners and better people?

These questions will have to be assessed by other means – by the process of life and of living in all its many other dimensions. How much opportunity students get to practice the art of living at schools gains too little attention, perhaps because it defies measurement. In upcoming posts, I will try to communicate a sense of how we manage it at ICHK.

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