The education system is… – reflections on rote learning and exams

The piece below, by a teenager in the UK school system, challenges the damaging effects on children of the “call-and-respond” exam and education system. It was first published on their site, TabletandStylus.

** Conversation between me and my friend over a Teams chat on 20th January 2021 **

[10:24] (My friend) I don’t get why it’s [exams] getting harder every year. Like what is the point, we’re not going to remember much. My mum doesn’t remember anything about school. Why do the government make it harder each year for us. We’re doing GCSE stuff our parents did in A-levels.

[10:28] (Me) It’s just so dumb, they act like teenagers have some weird capacity to do an immense amount of work, with little relaxation time and not complain/have a breakdown.

[10:29] (My friend) They always talk about mental health and how it’s important but then they do this to us, acting like none of us have mental health issues or problematic families.

​[10:29] (Me) WHY do teenagers complain about exams? “Because they’re teenagers” isn’t an answer, it’s an evasion.

[10:38] (My friend) So 2 days ago I was doing my chores right after online school. I vacuumed and mopped the house, I washed and hung the clothes, I washed and dried the dishes, I also changed my bedding. After that I had to finish one of my art pieces to show my teacher that I was actually doing work. While I was in the middle of completing my art work someone called me to go and change their bedding. I don’t know what happened and why it happened but I started to cry while changing the bedding. I didn’t understand why, since I wasn’t necessarily sad. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

[10:40] (Me) Of course there’s nothing wrong with you. Not to be that person, but everyone is feeling like that these days. We’re all stuck in this one place and it sucks, and things that were normal just keep getting harder, and life is just tiring, and things that were fun, aren’t so interesting anymore, because you’ve thought the same thoughts so many times they’ve become stale. So you want to run away, breathe some different air, do a different thing ​and get out of this cycle, but you can’t.

[10:43] (My friend) When I went to bed I used to think of the fun things I’ll do in the future or like create fun scenarios in my head to make me fall asleep. But now when I think of them, it’s boring.

[10:45] (Me) It used be so easy to use our imaginations, and now I’m stuck getting my serotonin boosts from YouTube videos. Reading tires me out, imagining scenarios doesn’t work like it used to; I just want to not use my brain, because my brain feels overused. But the thing is, this is so normal that everyone accepts it. When did everyday contentment become an unattainable dream and a goal in life, instead of being a part of living?

Of course someone might think that I made this up, but I promise I did not. And that’s why I wanted to include it in this blog. Typically, as teenagers, the stereotype is that we talk about trivial things, and complain too much. This kind of conversation? Damn you’re the nerds in school. That’s the stereotype.

But that’s just not realistic. As we progressed through the school, this kind of conversation became more normal amongst everyone. I mean, yes we talked about our favourite songs and celebrities, and Tik Tok and Netflix etc. etc. But a prevailing topic was always how stressful the exams were, even 3 years before actually doing them.

When my second oldest sister was at school, the exams were modular. Do a topic, revise the topic and key areas. Do the exam. Move on. This enabled teachers to spend more time focusing on the key information, and students were able to complete the exam without having the pressure that they must still remember this whole unit of work for another 2-3 years. The recent exam style shows only the capacity of a student’s memory, and the amount of mental strain that they can take, rather than how intelligent they are. Why it ever changed is beyond me (cough Michael Gove cough – I mean why are the decisions always implemented by people who never have to face the consequences???) 

The preferred pedagogical approach to helping students pass their exams, now seems to be inputting the ability to call-and-respond when faced with a certain question. This does not necessarily mean that teachers have particularly terrible methods, but with the amount that students must get through, it is easier to have them memorise a process than understand a concept.  In recent years the end result has become more important to the government and therefore more important to teachers and students alike.

As a student myself, I know that me and many of my peers are more focused on remembering certain facts in order to achieve good grades at the end of Year 11. Essentially, education has become about crossing the finish line rather than running the marathon, when the grade or diploma received should be a prize of hard work and skill, rather than the ultimate goal. 

There are many questions we could ask about the education system, which is aimed at helping the younger generations achieve a better life, but instead have become a process of repeating years of work in one exam. With the UK curriculum we have today students go to school, memorise any facts they may possibly need, and recite them just to pass. 

One example of the somewhat elitist system can be the impact on future prospects; the practice of separating students into higher and foundation levels can have many consequences. One of my other friends has said that being in foundation for Maths means that even if she gets 100% on her exam, the highest grade she can receive is a 5, and it is only the grade which employers or universities will look at, not that she was able to get every question correct. More personally, I have been told by maths teachers that I would find foundation work too easy, but struggle with the higher-level tests. This means that I can almost be guaranteed a pass in foundation, whereas in higher I have a better chance of good grades, but also an increased risk of failure. Both my friend and I are limited because of the idea of selective education.

I remember reading about Finnish day care centres, and I was shocked. But then I thought, why was it so shocking, to read about a system which focuses on the kids and not what they will one day contribute to the economy? Finland isn’t a different world, galaxy, or dimension. It’s right here, on our earth, and yet I cannot get past the fact that children there are cultivated and nurtured into academic success.

In Finland, day care is to help them develop good social habits, and play is carefully organised to help develop qualities such as attention span, perseverance, concentration and problem solving – strong predictors of academic success. The education system outlaws formal examinations (until the age of 18) and streaming by ability. Competition, privatisation and league tables simply do not exist. The idea of teaching in preparation for a standardised test is an alien concept, which means that less pressure is put on teachers in order to cram all knowledge of a subject into the student’s head.

So why are young people being taught to behave like robots? If the government wants students to be prepared for life in the workforce, surely, they must learn to be socially skilled, creative and critical?  While I am at secondary school, retaining information is much more important than understanding content. The enormous pressure of being repeatedly told that my exam results are the defining moment in my life, and will dictate all my future success, does nothing to help with the fact that I simply learn how to do a process, not why I am doing it.

With the response to Covid-19, I believe that the issues with the UK education system have been further revealed as critical flaws.

At first, schools were suddenly closed as the entire country was plunged into the first proper Lockdown last March. I was glad for this, since infection rates were steadily rising, and I still think it is the right decision.

But many schools were not prepared. Mine certainly wasn’t, and I spent six months working to my own schedule, since there was simply work set online that had to be completed each week. Take notes and answer questions. Upload to ClassCharts (the system my school used to set work). I had little contact with my teachers, until we neared the end of the year, and they finally managed to set up Teams meetings. They didn’t know how to do a whole class and set work etc. but it allowed for 5-10 minute one-on-one sessions where the teacher checked your progress, asked how you were and then see you next week!

I appreciated these sessions since it helped me to know that my teachers saw what I was doing, and also let me know what else I had to do. I managed to teach myself a lot considering, and I also managed to retain quite a bit in, for example, History. But this didn’t mean that all was fine.

When I went back in September, exams had not been cancelled, and were expected to go ahead as usual. A little further into the term, and the government realised that might be a tad unfair since most of the student population had missed like half a year of critical schooling. So they allowed for some formula sheets etc. to be taken into the exams, which would have completely fixed the problem I’m sure.

Then, in January, another lockdown. Schools closed, only this time we could actually have lessons. So back to online school, but with teachers. And then, suddenly, it seemed they realised that exams would still be unfair. I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. Maybe since most students across the nation would collectively be the most unprepared for their exams as had ever been seen?

Sorry. It’s been a month since I left school, but I’m still a bit annoyed about how things went. Actually very annoyed.

I won’t go into how stressful even my smaller exams were. Seven weeks of tests, most of us were burnt out by the end. But because of lockdown, all our mocks had been cancelled, so we have no idea what it’s like to take exams, sat in a hall, with invigilators, and separate desks. However bad the testing was, I won’t complain now. It’s over, and at least we didn’t have to do the full exams in an unfamiliar way.

But here’s how all of this exposed the flaws.

If we still did modular exams, most of us would have completed a lot of our units after we finished learning them. This would mean there would be less to do ourselves the first lockdown, and less for teachers to teach and revise with us, because a lot of the exams would have already been done.

And then, this education system of robotic memorisation – deemed to be the “fairest way” – does not take into account effort or behaviour, or the fact that some students find exams difficult compared to ordinary classwork. One bad day can ruin everything with this system, which is just completely unfair. The idea of allowing formulas should be normal. Exams should be open book; students have the information, and must showcase their skill in answering a range of different questions. Simple, logical, effective. Unless the government makes exams harder each year because they want more students to suffer intense stress, and have an increased area of failure. Which it seems to. Just saying.

Finally, the reason why it should be open book is because, in this day and age, everything is progressing so quickly that it is one of the simplest matters to search up a formula, or a quote, or anything you need. This system is outdated, because these technological advancements exist, and using them to one’s academic advantage should be encouraged. We embraced calculators didn’t we? Why are any other inventions not then as useful? Without them, none of us would have been able to continue studying, or been able to have lessons with our teachers online in the past year and bit.

And if, perhaps, I was stranded somewhere remote, completely alone, with no access to the internet, I think I would have bigger problems on my mind than what was that quadratic formula involving square roots and division?

TabletandStylus, 28 June 2021

Author: Workers' Archive

Covering sensitivity at work and beyond on my website:

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