In the 21st century, examinations are akin to vaccinations for children; they are painful. We forget about these tests in a few years, but they support us in today’s world. Education, and by extension examinations, is, therefore, a serum that protects us against a life with bleak prospects. Well, at least conventional wisdom tells us so.
At the risk of overextending the metaphor, allow me to draw a parallel to challenge this traditional understanding. Most parents would rather shell out $50 for a vaccine despite the possibility that its necessity may have been the result of powerful persuasion on the part of pharmaceutical corporations.
From a Game Theory point of view, this would make sense. The downside has far graver consequences: Would you rather have your child getting sick, or risk losing $50? There is lots of affinity in this rationale and the inclination for a higher education. We often pursue education not for the desire of learning, but rather because we fall prey to the fear of a lesser life. Fear replaces ambition as the principal driver of education. We fail to inspire as a system and as a society.
Ken Robinson points out that “if the number of children that drop out of high schools in the United States is halved, it will lead to a net gain to the economy of $1 trillion over the next decade.” He points out that worse still is when kids are consumed by an education system that fails to acknowledge their diversity. The standardised testing regimes relate to what Einstein claimed is “judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree”. Teachers push kids to pass exams, instead of understanding what makes kids unique in their own right. The irony of standardised testing is that the teachers fail to identify the genius that resides in every child”.
A fear-inspired safety-net approach to education compromises the foundation of an individual’s personality. Building a solid structure on a weak foundation is hard. What education systems world over are instrumental in doing is, for instance, making an architect out of an individual. However, since we told the child that “architecture will pay your bills for life”, it is likely that we made an architect with a weak foundation – one who will build libraries, without accounting for the weight of the books.
One of the biggest unintended consequences of education in our age is that without choosing to, we are contributing towards building a weaker future species.
Think about any individual who has been conditioned to believe that they need a college education to survive in life. He pursues all these specialist degrees. He gets a job that stresses him out, a job that makes him sick but it pays the bills. He develops health issues and passes it on to the next generation. Worst still is the example he sets for the next generation. He portrays to his children that it is okay to be unhappy and stressed out in life – as long as your job pays the bills. They follow in his footsteps, having assumed that it’s a way of life when it doesn’t have to be.
Economists often refer to the ‘incentives’ model to deal with principal-agent problems in organisations. In its simplest form, the model states that if an individual is judged on two tasks – say, on sales and customer service in a shop – but only one of the tasks has a directly observable outcome – perhaps we can’t accurately measure an individual’s customer service skills due to monitoring issues – then the individual will distort towards the more observable outcome, which is working on maximising sales. They will be a free-rider on the other outcome. Standardised testing has similar issues about incentives. Teachers may want to judge a student on creativity, critical ability and intelligence to determine their grade. However, since most importance is given to performance on exam scores, students may only work towards acing these exams.
Assume the following equations:
T = Exam Score + Creativity + Critical Thinking + Team Player + n
S = Exam Scores + e
-‘T’ is the area based on which a teacher wants to judge a student (plus an error term).
However, what the teacher really observes is:
-‘S’ is the performance measure which is actually observable. Instead of saying “the student tests well”, we conclude that the student is a good overall student – which includes being creative, critical and a team player. That is, a student who tests well free rides as having all these other qualities.
I do believe a lot can be done to improve education. I think universities and colleges are great training grounds that help students build and retain an invaluable work ethic. Nothing makes a student work harder than an impending deadline or examination. But unless the student loves what they’re doing, he will show acclivity towards the more observable outcome – passing the exam. The unobservable, yet desired, outcome of retaining knowledge is lost given the incentive structure. This would be a good starting point for reformation.
Education, when done right, is available at demand just when needed.
“The graveyard is the richest place on earth because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered” ~ Les Brown.
Time to make the graveyard a little poorer by inspiring the youth to pursue their passion, so they leave the world richer than when they arrived.