I Will Not Let an Exam Result Decide My Fate – A Contrarian Response

The talented poet Sully Breaks recently released the poem above. It has gathered momentum across social media and has garnered some 800k views on Youtube. It follows on from Sully’s more popular video Why I Hate Education but Love School. I noticed it first after I had released my own video for students who are preparing for the upcoming summer exams in their schools and it made me think, Does this has the effect of empowering students towards self learning or was it another soundbite challenge to the system without providing adequate answers to push back against the system with alternative thinking?

Prima Facie
On the face of it I like this poem and the challenge that the title throws down. A passionate, articulate and well delivered monologue similar to those posited by Sir Ken Robinson in his TED and RSA speeches. (I will come back to Sir Ken.) It has certainly struck a vein with not just adults, especially those who hate standardized tests, but also those students who would take issue with the whole point of school. Whilst I believe that this great piece of poetry is down to individual interpretation, on the whole the majority of responses I have seen online have been supportive and have lauded at as piece to remember. Much like Sir Ken Robinson’s pieces I think it deserves a critique to how it holds up in the grand conversation around education reform.

Qualifications as Currency
One of the things I think is important for young people is to learn how in the professional world qualifications do act as currency. In the vocational world there is a greater and more preferred emphasis on experience but qualifications hold as much value.

The point was made that “Exams are societies way of telling you what you are worth”. I struggle with this. I am not sure that such a broad statement is a reflection of society. I think exam results do bear an effect on further education and of course we list exam results as standard on CV’s, Applications or digital profiles but as to them being a measure of what “students are worth” I am not sure. I know of great tradesmen, entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists who don’t have a raft of qualifications but are worth a hell of a lot. By virtue of their trade and experiences as opposed to paper work. Of course in most professions exam results are currency. Top legal, accounting, medical and political organisations are not going to accept most people into positions of leadership or even level entry jobs unless they can demonstrate good exam results. To those recruiters it is evidence of commitment, application of knowledge and a work ethic.

Given that there are students who achieve high grades with learning challenges such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, etc. and in turn think differently about the world around them, maybe the focus is not so much exams but the way we perceive and guide to approach learning as a whole both within and outside of the classroom.

I am sure it has not escaped some commentators that Sulli has a law degree. Something which probably puts his chance of employability, in conjunction with his proven communication skills, at a much higher chance than many of the commentators on his video actually realise.

Testing Alternatives
I detest the way our education system does place a lot of emphasis on tests. Having worked as a mentor, tutor and educator for the past twenty five years I have seen how damaging it can be. As a parent even I have had to take time out to explain to my daughters to see testing only as  a small part of their overall learning and curiosity for the outside world. Yet when all is said and done it is the benchmark for further education and future employabilty.

I come back to Sir Ken Robinson. So many people have bounced up and down over his video, which ranks as one of the most popular on TED. Yet when we break it down and put aside his cheeky one liners and somewhat selective evidence to prove his points there are rebuttals. See here, here and here here. I bring this up to say if we are going to critique the testing, let’s do so by allowing students to see what the wider implications of learning are. Yes the current government are trying to get rid of the modular grading and portfolio, otherwise gradual, approach of learning but these are the alternatives.

Education is a political beast and those of us who would use such a platform to tear down education must empower those who already feel powerless as to how we can tackle it.
– Where do we point students to learn to love maths and science?
– How do we get all students to understand the need to read around the subject, as encouraged so much in fee paying schools and top performing state schools?
– What support systems do we have in place not to make students feel dumb if they are not academically excellent?
– How come some teachers can both teach students well and get them to pass exams with a love for a subject? What can we do to model their thinking behind learning?

Exam Results and Fate
In my video to schools I mentioned why I think learning Pythagoras Theorem can be a positive point. Of course you may never fully embrace such a a theorem or quadratic equations in your working life, but is education just about work? I think of my own education. Any interest I lost in the sciences was quickly regained when I watched shows by David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan. I hated economics A Level but when I discovered Freakonomics and read Wealth of Nations through a different lens the subject came alive. What it made me realise was how these subjects dovetail into the wider world. Not just for work but my approach and thinking of life as a whole.

We can easily dismiss subjects as irrelevant but then how do you go about picking and choosing which elements of the curriculum in Maths and English and Sciences and Arts you think are irrelevant? Surely the emphasis is more about piquing the curiosity through good teaching but also learning? Something that advocates of the flipped classroom encourage.

It is amazing how many professionally minded students pursue certain career paths unaware of the subjects they must take or that some companies require you to go to particular universities. We are a classist society. This is the bare naked truth. Still it is the learning, application of logic, critical thinking in certain subjects, especially here in the UK at A Level, that set the tone for the kind of degree or higher learning path you pursue. But moreso it is about how you think rather than just regurgitating facts and figures.

You know what it sucks that society rates education in such a way that it does but also sucks if you don’t know how to play the game.

Many communities and social groups who are in strong financial positions, granted not something every aspires too, do so because of a strong ethos of education. They learn and apply and even those who are not considered the brightest academically will still build their enterprises off the back of those who have acquired knowledge through the exam system. We may applaud Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg and others for dropping out of school but we must also acknowledge the schools they dropped out of and the networks they had around them to support such absconding. We may venerate dyslexic entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson but we must take note of the graduates and well educated people who he employs for his airline, intergalactic and subterranian projects he is so passionate about.

Of course an exam result shouldn’t decide a fate but unfortunately for many that is not a choice they can make in isolation. Basic retail jobs which once any school leaver could walk into and get now require minimum GCSES. For employers this is a reflection of work ethic and committment. Given the high rates of unemployment with young people, the chances of being employed improve greatly with good exam results or a good network both here in the UK and abroad. Unfortunately all too often it is those in certain socio economic classes, which fare worse because they don’t have these results or support network. The lack of such wider education means they are crushed by the competition of those who do have those qualifications both within and without our country.

So for me until the system changes somewhat to something where there is more parity where are exams, work experience on work ethic are treated on an equal basis I find it hard to support the notion that individuals can easily chose whether exam result can decide their fate. Rather I prefer to give questioning techniques, guidance around wider learning and tools and tips to revise and use accelerated learing to pass those exams and maintain an advantage until they are old enough where exams don’t matter no more.


2 thoughts on “I Will Not Let an Exam Result Decide My Fate – A Contrarian Response

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the point about learning such things like pythagoras theorem or any other the many topics you learn in maths or science. Its not just for use in a work environment but for education of the mind as a whole. Why seek to rubbish it as useless information when in fact it could be the very thing that spurs a creative and innovative idea or what helps you connect with individuals on a wider spectrum. I’m glad to have found this post on Sulli’s video. Thanks

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