Monday, August 23, 2010

Like, its like, you know, init?

The English language in its written form is a wonderful thing. In the hands of an expert it can provide the most accurate and precise descriptions and alternatively it can be used to convey subtle nuance and intentional ambiguity. That potential for both laser like precisions and rich layers of meaning provides both authors and scholars with a powerful tool for both communication and analysis in a complex world. It is at that interface between understanding and articulation that knowledge exists as it is at that point that human cognition comes into play and it is that brain action that is the knowledge. Without it the words are passive, the most sophisticated encyclopaedia just a collection of words and the the most complex play much the same. In the hands of a talented actor or actress a script can be rendered into spoken words in almost infinite variety, with each interpretation offering different meaning and emphasis.

Being in command of both the understanding and use of language must surely be one of the most important aspects of education, and a measure of educational attainment must be the ability of a student to both understand the question and to articulate an answer based on their interpretation. The sophistication of the answer will also reflect the ability of that student to accumulate other material and insight and compile and synthesize it in the process of analysing the question and forming an answer in the Mk1 brain. In all of this there is subtly, ambiguity, complexity and judgement.

It concerns me when you hear people representing major examining bodies – in this case Edexcel – explain, with a certain smugness, that they will re write questions that, to an unsophisticated reader, might seem confusing, and even rewrite historical or literary quotes to remove ambiguity so as to make exams “more accessible”.

If a question uses a word that has more than one meaning when used in different contexts but the question requires you to understand that the word is being used in only one of those contexts then that should be fine. This is emphatically so if that reading of the word is the only way the question make any grammatical sense. That is not the same as being ambiguous. Not to Edexcel apparently. If it uses a word that is more than two syllables but has a precise meaning that is also entirely acceptable. I recall as a child that ones “reading Age “ was determined partly by the vocabulary in use. It is hard to believe that a student will have gleaned a great deal from other sources if their vocabulary is so limited that a text more complicated than Janet and John is beyond them. But again not to Edexcell apparently. Personally I am even happy with ambiguity in questions if the subject of the question is open to interpretation. Demonstrating an understanding of competing views is a sound test.

To rewrite quotes is at best disturbing and at worst sinister and deceitful. I have always loathed revisionism that seeks to make facts more palatable to contemporary tastes as I do think this is dangerously reminiscent of the principles of conformity required by Orwell's infamous thought police. I also despise its reductionism and attempts to render events to a monochrome and binary interpretation as I don't see the world being anything less than complex.

This attitude exam paper construction came to my attention in the context of a debate about dumbing down prior to A Level results being announced last week. The examining body, which seems to have a very clear conflict of interest when it states it wants to effectively increase pass rates, is making a profound and dangerous error in “making exams more accessible”. These methods are simply misunderstanding the nature of knowledge and seeing the knowledge creation process as being a simple binary transaction. It is encouragement of this type of approach which can only compound the problem we have with general literacy levels, and inarticulate conversations punctuated with the persistent use of ”like” and “you know?”

I get exercised by this as it is symptomatic of what lies at the heart of many a failed KM program in business where an unwillingness to engage with an understanding of the knowledge generating process as being a complex one and desiring instead to force it into a simple transactional based model.

Its bad enough when this harms business success, but it is worrying when the flawed thinking begins to damage educational standards. With such twisted standards and low expectation is it any wonder 20% 0f children leave school functionaly illiterate!

The point of an exam is to test and challenge not to be accessible.

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