Early this week I found out from my  English father-in-law of a call to revamp assessments in schools, towards more exams as kids were not prepared for academic rigour in university-level.  My first thought then was that the pendulum was swinging back to tests as assessments.

I didn’t make any more of it until this  article from The Guardian showed up a few days later,

The article was written to elicit response (clickbait as @lasic cleverly puts it) – the choice of photo included.  Aghast would sum it up for me.  Daniel Willingham, who inspired Gove, later tweeted a reasonable reaction, i.e. wait for the speech to be published and then perhaps write a blog post about points of accord and discord. It’s kind of what I’m attempting here though highly unlikely to be in the same calibre, nor perspective, as Willingham’s.

Anyway, the speech did become available and elicited more response – adeptly by Greg Thompson (aka @effectsofNAPLAN) as evident in his tweets which I’ve Storify’ed here. This time for me, “aghast” did not come into mind and also I was struck by the difference in my perception – or interpretation – of the speech compared to Greg.

I think that’s a big whole problem here – how things are interpreted can vary from the original intent, if in fact that can be discerned given the limits of language.   So here’s my opinion, fwiw, and that’s all it is….ok? Opinion….based on my experience, observations and yes, interpretations.

What a prologue! onwards…

Is there another way to look at all this?

Rote Learning / Memorisation

I’m not very good at memorising; in an English assessment in high school,  I challenged myself in high school to talk about Improving Memory.  I kid you not, I forgot the first few lines of the introduction and improvised! Ha! Fortunately, I got into the groove as my teacher looked up from a hardcopy, smiled (laughing, I’m sure) and encouraged me to go on.  To this day I regard highly a speaker who memorised his/her speech as more engaging than one reading it; I don’t think I’ll ever make an engaging speaker.

As a parent and a maths teacher, I challenged the need for rote learning multiplication tables and ‘facts’. However, I observed that students (and my 2 daughters) who struggled remembering their ‘times tables’ generally thought themselves ‘bad at maths’ even though they showed competence in other strands such as geometry and spatial reasoning.  I noticed that the problem was not in understanding the concept – they understood what multiplication meant; teach it even – but rather, remembering ‘facts’ quick enough, perceptions of which varied from person to person – i.e. what’s quick enough for some could still be perceived as too slow by others – which then affected self-efficacy, motivation and performance.  Cognitive Load Theory helped me understand why this could be happening.  Basically, students expend so much effort in their working memory doing calculations as against recalling ‘facts’ from their long-term memory.  So they were working hard, in fact, except  not necessarily on the crux of the maths problem they were trying to solve or understanding a new concept….then they lag behind and the consequences mount. And this self-efficacy persists beyond school making it the norm/acceptable to be ‘bad at maths’.

A few years ago, I was moved to blog about Conrad Wolfram’s idea of Maths not = Calculating.  Shift the focus from calculating as computers can do the grunt-work.  Simple idea but much harder to implement, especially since there are still non-calculator tests to deal with (my maths faculty had common assessments) and, to be honest, I really didn’t know how to take the idea into practice, a change for good.

There is also a matter of fluency. If one is to do mathematical reasoning, it helps to know the language, i.e. terminology. This applies in other subjects as well with each subject having its own jargon (partially why I think literacy is important in every subject), some with overlaps and worse, a different meaning (obtuse, anyone?).  Having attempted to learn a few languages, I know that vocabulary just needs to be memorised. I can understand why Gove referenced Willingham.

Daniel Willingham again makes the point powerfully in his work when he points out that, “research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and think critically –  require extensive factual knowledge”.

My view is…memorisation is useful as part of the learning process and as a skill in itself.  Think of how we expect this from professionals and tradespeople.  As with most skills, deliberate practice is important. Gove interpreted Willingham as that the ‘thought and effort required to build memory,  can be developed by preparing for tests and exams, which The Guardian article took for as rote learning.  I’m not sure this is what Willingham or Gove meant but I know from experience, as a teacher and as a student, that exams nudge (need for) memorisation along.


Exams, it would seem can have several meanings and therefore, subject to conflicting interpretations.  Greg has interpreted Gove’s exams to mean standardised, high-stakes exams (one of the tweets here) and on this built his lucid and succinct argument (I’m blogging because I can’t compress my thoughts into 140 character chunks).

I’m more inclined to interpret Gove’s exams to be more broad than that because he said,

and why the success of any technical or vocational assessment depends on satisfying the requirements to practice trade or profession.

This to me means that he may contemplate having different exams (more on this later), just as there are different types for career pathways, say, or having written and practical tests. Lawyers take different tests to medical doctors. As an aside and because I’d love to share this story….my grandfather, Attorney Leonardo Amores, is one of the top 10 Philippine Bar Topnotchers of all time. He had photographic memory (not so much now) and incredible analysis skills.  He said he never lost a case and takes pride in declining an invitation to work for President Marcos (yes, the President Marcos – also a bar topnotcher) – hearsay perhaps yet I’m proud to accept because I love him and none of that really matters; he was disappointed that his favourite granddaughter, me, did not go into Law.  He gave me his blessings to go into Computer Science and was very polite, thankfully, when I said I was going into teaching (not highly regarded in the Philippines) because love conquers all.

Gove would do well to cite my grandfather as an example for his assertions of what exams can do.  Gove justified exams for the potential they can bring and reality, as Greg pointed out, is nowhere near those assertions.  Stories like that of my grandfather’s are mere anecdotes then….just don’t tell my lolo (Tagalog for grandfather).  Actually, my sisters and I are anecdotes as well.  We all gained academic scholarships, doing well on requisite tough exams. These scholarships were government-funded with opt-in exams administered nationally and quota adjusted regionally. Not saying it’s perfect but it did aim to provide equal opportunity.

Another story. My mum got up to Grade 6 in piano. My dad could not even read notes and yet could seemingly play any musical instrument.  He had not taken any music exams but he was very good and he definitely enjoyed music….very much. Music was very much a part of my childhood memories. Exams give you certification (and possibly motivation) but it does not imply enjoyment.  Anyway, here is another type of exam which I don’t know anybody ever questions.

As a student, I hated open-books exams the most which really did away with the need for memorisation (so much for rote-learning to prepare for exams!). Or maybe it’s just because I only had them for Physics.  I was also very shy (truly) and oral exams were nerve-wracking.  As it happened, my last exam for my undergrad was an oral exam on Philosophy of Religion. I got surprisingly emotional and cried as I began; my professor gave me a box of tissues and waited for me to get myself together….a very human encounter during an exam! Who’d have thought it possible, eh?  I got a B+.

No NAPLAN or HSC for me as a student. Universities, even courses within universities, had their own entrance requirements. I had to write an essay as part of one uni application and sat an exam for another. I think this approach helped unis select students that would fit in with their culture. There was, however, a national exam which was more like an overlong IQ test.  Standardised. Unis used this as one of their requirements, e.g. uni I went to only accepted students upwards of 98%. It was one of the unis preferred by employees and following this line, one can see why Greg argues against exams as providing equal opportunities….reeks a bit of Animal Farm, I know.

Gove’s speech also reminded me of what a learning support teacher once said to me, “I wish teachers would have more assessments that assess students rather than their parents.”  This goes more than the modular assessments Gove spoke about but also touches on issues of equality and opportunity.  Some students can afford to get more help and they do.  Exams cannot do away with it.  Those who can afford it can get tutors, for example. Aside,  I thank @veritasium for helping me see that tutors are not merely there to exploit standardised tests but that indeed for some, it is the only chance to learn at all.

I wonder if corresponding professions question the need for exams as part of the certification process. I wonder how external exams could look. I wonder how teachers would react to such a policy, i.e. changes in their practice. I wonder how parents would react. Schools? Students? Universities? Employers?

What then?

As a teacher, I struggle with writing exams because a good one is really hard to write. Those things that Gove said exams give? Yeah well, they’re I’mpossible if the exams are not well-written.  My post-grad certainly had nothing on writing exams. Fortunately, I have no trouble consulting (read: look like a real n00b); I seek to learn from teachers with more experience. I see Gove’s point on making it external.

I am hopeful that this is true:

we will be consulting soon on what a future – more intelligent – accountability system would look like. And I would welcome as many views as possible as to how that might develop.

It would be silly to create policies from mere anecdotes/stories. However, I’d be sad too if policies are informed by research alone, statistics devoid of personalities – with every majority (average), there is a minority (outliers); with every generalisation there are exceptions.  Also, I hope policy-makers will help teachers make this work.  There are tons of good ideas out there, much less bridges into practicalities (interpretations of the ideas).  Getting it right is important because even with good intentions, sometimes we break them (kids).

Like Gove, I believe education can serve different purposes. Education has served me well and I wish the same for my kids and every student I come across with, whatever their paths are. For now, I am keeping an open mind that Gove’s assertions have potential to come good, as is my experience. 


I’m still wondering how I got sucked into this time vortex thinking about something that does not even affect me directly. Not yet anyway.  To be sure, there is joy in reminiscing and engaging in a joint discourse with esteemed friends (here’s looking at ya: @effectsofNAPLAN and @lasic). So while this is what I think now, it may change yet again subject to further discussions.

This as an opinion piece. I am not qualified to critique Gove.  There is a reason I didn’t go into Law (reasons, in fact). Yet, my experience ever groweth…and hopefully, so will wisdom.

Important Update (after @lasic’s comment)

Tomaz, like my English and Philosophy teacher mentioned above, has shown kindness in egging me on, even on the face of my ignorance and ineptitude.

Tomaz reminded me of the paper linked through by Greg re: Ball’s policy as effects (PDF here).  Immediately, two things became clear. One, I gained a greater appreciation for Greg’s Twitter handle – @effectsofNAPLAN. Two, I became aware of my open-mindedness as a (unintentional) guise for ignorance and narrow-mindedness, i.e. the exact opposite of what I thought I was doing.

Basically, my argument above was limited to policy as text and policy as discourse, as per Ball’s framework. What’s glaringly missing is policy as effect because the stories above are of winners – not losers…and there are losers, a lot closer to home even. While my grandfather, sisters and I were winners, my brother can be deemed a loser. He struggled with issues of self-esteem (not being as good as his sisters) and it took him years to see his own strengths. In fact, far from being a loser, he was one of few electronic engineering undergraduates hand-picked by a Japanese company.  He worked in Japan for 10 years, became fluent in Japanese and its culture; he has since moved to the US, working for another Japanese company. The point is, he was a ‘loser’ in the game of exams and the consequent effects of such a game; he was lucky the effects were not permanent.

Thus, my decision to get sucked into this time vortex is justified.  I am affected directly, after all, because of NAPLAN and the HSC and I am a mother as well as a teacher. It is important to be aware as well as spread awareness – this could go some distance to help diminish negative effects….I’m sure Tomaz and Greg are happy to further my education along these lines. 🙂

I also continue to stand by the hope that consultations will help inform policy and its implementation/interpretation. This may mean that there’ll be different types of exams, perhaps having the choice to opt-in/out, or better appreciation of its potential and limits.  I could hope for it to go away but somehow I don’t think exams are going away, not in my lifetime anyway, so hopefully we can find a way to make it work with far less losers, if any at all.

I live and learn.

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6 thoughts on “Exams?

  1. Tomaz Lasic says:

    What a piece Malyn. Interesting read and nice weaving in of your own background. Things we find out about each other hey? 😉

    Exams? Of course we need to have some sort of mechanism to certify that eg. the surgeon cutting people up knows the fact where the liver can be found and what it looks like, not to mention, ahm, a few other handy things to know about human bodies. Same for teachers, engineers …

    But I wince every time politicans speak of exams and ‘rigour’. I do so because I have read and seen first hand how the particular flavour of rigour plays out in micro settings of a school, classroom, individual (Ball’s policy as effects – Greg sent you that paper, right?). And the pattern is just the same if not getting worse.

    Tinkering with exams and cognitive theories (as valid as they are) is not going to change the gap and, importantly, expectations between the kids in ‘elite’ and ‘poor’ schools. “You can be whatever you want” is littered with obstacles Gove and many well meaning folks put in place or leave lying undisturbed for decades.

    Cheers Malyn, here is to more conversations.

  2. Greg Thompson says:

    Hi Malyn, firstly can I say I really enjoyed your blog. I think you are right, we all come at issues like exams differently. As a teacher and a lecturer I have written and administered exams, and I think that they have some uses; even though in various contexts it may mean that the utility of exams is rarely about measuring learning, and often about measuring performance. In certain contexts that may be OK as well, I often joke that I don’t want my pharmacist to embark on discovery learning when filling my prescription.

    I think the real point that I was trying to make, and I continue to think about, is that we seem to be stuck in a kind of educational vacuum, where at the policy level what seems to drive our direction is some return to the past – as if we can go back to the way education was in the 50s or 60s – complete with the expectation that somehow the inequities/inequalities of that period will magically disappear if we say that we are doing will improve ‘equity’.

    Exams of the type that Gove mentions won’t improve equity. They will further stratify educational achievement, exactly as it was in the 50s and 60s when the vast majority of uni students came from affluent backgrounds.

    Just saying that exams will improve equity (as Gove does) doesn’t mean it will happen. In fact there is so much evidence it will make it worse. There are things that we can do that will provide rigour, enrich learning and challenge students that are new and full of possibilities. Wouldn’t it be great if Gove (or most politicians and policy-makers) even knew what they were?

    • malyn says:

      Thanks for the kind words and more importantly, thank you for the dialogue!

      Questions about equity has always been a thorny one for me – ever since being exposed to the idea of social justice (via Theology of Liberation at uni). In post-grad, and specific to edu, I had to grapple with equity in terms of access and opportunity. Like, who has the answers????

      Ultimately, social justice has to address the very structures that allow injustice to happen. This, to me, means there’s got to be a multi-pronged approach. And yes, I’m with you that getting rid of standardised high-stakes testing as they are used now is one of them. If exams are a tool, is it how they’re used that needs to be addressed, somehow? Should we ban the sale of knives because they can be used to kill/harm? Should we ban social media because of increases in bullying?

      It’s all relative! (this mindset is partially another reason I didn’t go into Law)

      No simple answers and unfortunately, policies are simplified in order to be understood and have some hope of implementation. As mentioned, Gove (and other pollies) has to be careful about assertions he makes because potential is not reality – so many things could go wrong….and research has highlighted many!

  3. E Delos Santos says:

    One of the Knights of Colombus, an articulated yet very humble abogado de campanilla, a strong advocate for judicious utilization of development resources, the 1953 Philippine Bar Topnotcher (94.05%), a very discreet philanthropist, a human rights activist and a leader by example, a husband, a father, my mentor and my Lolo at 95:

    Farewell to ATTY. LEONARDO A. AMORES
    Born: November 1, 1921
    Died: June 11, 2017

    The MAN OF THE HOUR. For the record-he never lost a case. His memory never fails, he remembers the names especially the figures and can actually recall what transcribed in the past 95 years. He holds the standards of discipline one needed for the next bigger challenge. Every minute matters to him. He consistently knows what it means to be morally upright and spiritually rooted.

    Paalam po Lolo, maraming salamat po!

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