The Illusion of Enduring Knowledge in Schools

Sky, sun, and cloud

With gratitude, I dedicate this piece to all students, particularly those in middle school and high school who may be beginning to appreciate that knowledge can really be wonderful.

The performance of students in school is measured by marks with the use of standardised testing procedures. A great emphasis is placed upon these marks since they currently the only widely recognised method to quantify knowledge. It is natural, then, these results can be considered important, but it is very unfortunate that some may take this view to extremes. In this piece of work, we will explore the reasons of the emphasis on quantifiable results and the questionable goals and methods of teaching for examination. Then, we will suggest solutions to these problems.

Schools help students to develop great skill in examinations in addition to their role in providing general education. Since results are measured in terms of examination scores, great attention is given to activities that promote the increase these scores. This may be made easier due to the nature of the examination papers. The format is announced in advance and the questions asked are similar to those asked in the past. In this way, students are able to make use of the ‘history repeats with itself’ property of the papers by ‘targeting’ subjects, by frequency analysis of questions, by memorising of definitions of key words, etc. And in this way, great results may be expected. There is nothing inherently wrong with such activities since there are no rules prohibiting such conduct. However, when the teaching of examination skills is detached from meaningful learning, we are forced to re-evaluate the situation. When the ability of the student to correctly answer a question on the examination paper is more important than the development of knowledge and understanding of the subject at hand, we may assume that something is amiss. This is the case at present.

It is most unfortunate that high scores are considered to be a mark of distinction, because having achieved excellent results should directly mean that the student has mastered the test. It, by no means, means having achieved real understanding of the subject at hand. It is possible that a student has also achieved a good understanding of the subject, but this is not guaranteed. Standardised tests are good indicators of examination ability but poor indicators of knowledge and understanding.

We can see that the importance of understanding is sometimes swept aside by the obsessive pursuit of excellent examination results. This is because understanding is not an essential ingredient to obtaining great results. There exists a shortcut to the destination, but the severe disadvantage of such a shortcut is that it deprives one of a sense of understanding about world. People are prone to think that subjects such as Mathematics or Physics are chapters of disconnected facts, unrelated to the existing framework of knowledge they already possess. It is said that games are won by players who focus on the field, not the ones looking at the scoreboard.

It is our job to ensure that we do not deprive ourselves of the wonder of the world that we have swept aside in the pursuit of our goal of excellent examination results. Examinations are important, but we should view our grades as an inevitable by-product of the energy spent in acquiring knowledge, and not in doing examinations for it own sake. By then, we may be certain that what we have scored is not just a number or a letter, but a feat of learning in itself. And by then, we may observe that what we do never ends. What we should be doing is creating a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.