The little nine-year-old boy sat at the kitchen table in front of two computer screens. Open on the first one was ‘World of Warcraft’, which he was playing furiously. Open on the other was Skype where he was consulting with four of his young friends on what move to make next. These children were engaged in that most common of human activities – they were collaborating. They were consulting each other, learning new tricks from each other and getting the best out of each other by sharing information.
This is what humans are good at and arguably the ability to collaborate and communicate with each other in detail in order to share information is one of the key evolutionary characteristics, which divides humans from other animals. Our willingness to consult and learn from each other, perfectly summed up in the old expression “two heads are better than one”, has been the driving force in our success in so many fields of endeavour.
The nine-year-old boy above is the son of a friend of mine and he and his little mates are doing what comes naturally to the human race – they are collaborating. They are also collaborating in a world where technology has made the ability to collaborate almost infinite.
My own son plays a game called ‘FIFA 13’ – a football-based video game. It allows kids to pick their best teams, deploy their best moves and it also puts them into the position of manager. It also allows them to talk to each other, to consult and seek advice from each other and they love it. They are working in teams, displaying a diversity of opinion. They are still independent and decentralised but the technology allows them to aggregate their opinions and turn private judgments into the best collective decision.
This is what all humans do in real life, we share information and ability; we break into teams, consult, listen and normally elevate group decisions over individual solo runs. The key foundation of collaboration is the acceptance that there are lots of possible answers to any question. It would sound silly if you held the view that there is only one answer to any question, wouldn’t it?
Most of us accept the idea that there are lots of possible answers and lots of possible ways at arriving at these lots of possible answers.
This is what that dreadfully overused expression “thinking outside the box” is all about. “Thinking outside the box” implies we should strive to be the type of person who isn’t driven by conformity but by diversity, the type of person who sees multiple answers, not just one. As a result, we should try to create systems and companies that foster this type of thinker.
Now contrast this creative, tried and tested human urge to both experiment and collaborate with the structures we impose in the education system and the examination process. Collaborating is in essence copying, yet we tell kids in school that copying is cheating. One of my abiding memories of school is fellas with a big protective arm around their work in exams shielding their answers from prying eyes, coggers and cheats. In the real world this type of protective behaviour is frowned on. It is the very antithesis of the creative process.
Yet this is what our exam system is based on.
This morning more than 117,000 young adults will sit down to do their Leaving and Junior Cert. And yes of course the sun is shining. They will have come out of a system which labels the notion of copying or collaborating as cheating. The students will not be allowed to talk or exchange ideas; rather the sum of their intelligence will be reduced to a massive national exercise in short-term memory retention.
Give me another example in your real working life where a memory test is central to whether you succeed or fail? Yet we grade our children as we were graded ourselves on the basis of a giant memory test.
I realise that this is the nature of standardised testing and achieving a standard is important. It is also difficult to see how else it could be done, particularly as the great merit of the Leaving Cert is that it is fair, everyone faces the same test at the same time without explicit favouritism.
It has been a vector for massive social improvement in the past and smart kids can make great leaps if they have the sort of brain that can stake information in a certain organised way and get that information down on paper in a linear fashion.
However, this is only one type of intelligence. This rather narrow gauge type of intelligence is rewarded. The standardisation process punishes other types of intelligence. The standardisation process elevates an academic type of brain. Anyone who has hung out with academics for long knows that this type of training can produce a bitchy, neurotic type of character more interested in narrow gauge point scoring than open ended, generous, general education.
In addition, a system like this ensures that there are plenty of reasonably clever people who leave school thinking they are actually stupid. This can stigmatise people for a long time.
More egregiously it also means that there are plenty of quite stupid people who leave school thinking they are really clever! This can elevate these types to positions in the real world for which they are not suited at all.
All in all, the Leaving Cert is a relic, but like many relics it is given undue prominence and it becomes almost totemic in its significance long after this very significance has become anachronistic. However, a test based on pure individual memory in a world of open, crowd-based collaboration is surely past its sell-by date.
When standardised tests were first introduced they were revolutionary in a world of elites and favouritism where who you knew not what you knew counted for everything. Standardised testing eliminated this type of discrimination and that was an unambiguously democratic move.
But today when the world is faced with disruptive technology and rapid economic change, the education system’s key metric of reward and punishment should reflect real-world challenges and not old-world academic prejudices which elevate a certain type of brain and denigrate another type.
In a world of infinite possibilities there is always more than one answer.
I’m chairing a debate – ‘What is the point of the Leaving Cert’ – on Saturday, June 15 at the Dalkey Book Festival. Tickets available here.