One of my favourite scenes in the sitcom “Phoenix Nights” is set during a pub quiz. Justin Moorhouse’s character, face painted as a tiger from a previous incident with permanent paint, is sat ready for the event to start. He has written upon his arm a number of words. Brian Potter (Peter Kay) asks Moorhouse “What are they?”
“Answers”, retorts Moorhouse.
“But what are the questions?” asks Potter.
“You never know”, responds Moorhouse tapping his nose.
We have all taken exams in the past. I have spent mental energy, in the past, dreaming of schemes to cheat the system. Somehow having access to answers during an exam would make my success a forgone conclusion. I have never acted upon these desires; earpieces, mirrors and secret notes are more relevant to Bond than a GCSE examination. However, the use of auxiliary aids, including smart phones, in examinations, has recently come under scrutiny as a possible leap into the future.
Educators, including the head of examining body OCR, Mark Dawe, have called for the permission of mobile phones in exams, allowing candidates to access a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips. “Remembering reams of information is not how the world works” says Dawe “Everyone has a computer available to solve a problem but it’s then about how they interpret the results”.
The opportunity to use mobile phones in examinations would open up new possibilities. The emphasis of exams could shift focus, allowing students to develop more of the skills that are crucial to their employability in today’s economy. The modern workplace has no demand for remembering facts. No, the invention of Google removed such a requirement. Nowadays, skills such as problem solving, critical analysis and communication are of higher value than the rote knowledge that resides in one’s grey matter.
Testing knowledge has been the emphasis of exams for generations, but, by advocating mobile phone usage in exams, we can shift this emphasis towards the application of knowledge. Freed from the burden of remembering reams of information, students would be allowed to be exposed to situations where they could apply their knowledge. Take my own subject, Chemistry. A student could be asked about a catalyst for a completely unknown reaction, and why this particular catalyst is used. They might discover, through Google, that the reaction is gas phase and the catalyst a metal. Through this, they could then infer that the metal provides a surface area, onto which the gas could adsorb, thus increasing the reaction rate. Such a situation would be an application of knowledge, and not mere factual recall.
This situation is more representative of real life. In the workplace, our biggest challenges are often presented in the form of problems we have to solve. The answers are determined by repurposing your knowledge and applying it, creatively, to find a solution to a new situation. The solution may require facts. This is usually where Google comes into play; but it is the interpretation of these facts towards the solution that is most valued in the workplace. By honing these types of skills during education, we are providing our young people with the tools they require to be successful in the work place. We are encouraging them to be analytical, creative and pragmatic; purposeful, independent and users of initiative.
Students may feel that the permission of the smartphone in exams would lead to an easy ride. I think that it would give examiners scope to introduce a new level of assessment. As the focus shifts context to application of knowledge as opposed to factual recall, examiners will be able to create novel situations where students will have to utilise their analytical skills and pragmatism. Such scenarios will ramp up the difficulty of examinations, and students lulled into a false sense of security offered by their new crutch may well be in for a surprise. The smartphone will not detract from the work required to be academically successful.
The smart phone is here to stay. It provides us with access to the body of human knowledge, and can offer untold opportunity, should we utilise its power correctly. Students are aware of this power. The common refrain before university examinations is “Why do I have to remember this when I can just Google it in real life?” The students are right. Why should they? Education should be training for situations a young person encounters in the big, wide world. We need to represent these realities as effectively as possible in our education system. The smart phone is a reality. Let’s harness its potential as opposed to suppressing. That is akin to academic snobbery.