Pedagogy – Scrap exams to create schools of the future – news – TES

A report on the findings of this year’s Equinox Summit. Amongst the more interesting:

the summit’s conclusion was that, in less than 20 years, “knowing facts will have little value”, meaning that schools will have to scrap conventional examinations and grades and replace them with more “qualitative assessment”. This would measure a student’s all-round ability, rather than testing their knowledge in a particular subject.”

A lot of other sound and common-sense ideas are reported on here. All good stuff.

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Teaching gestalts

I’m preparing for a presentation and discussion tomorrow with some doctoral students on the orchestration of lifelong learning. Having come up with the topic some time ago on a whim I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be talking about, so this is mostly an attempt to focus my thinking a little and is very much a work in progress.

In brief, the central jumping off point for this discussion is that teachers are not isolated actors but are instead are gestalts formed from

  • numerous technologies, including pedagogies, regulations, processes, techniques and tools,
  • an uncountably large number of individuals and groups and, most notably of all,
  • learners themselves.

For it to work, everything must harmonize or must make the right kinds of dischord to bring about learning. There are various things that shake out of this perpsective, not least of which being that there are many ways to organize this teaching gestalt that do not involve an educational system of the sort we are used to, and that do not involve individuals labelled as teachers. This matters because most of the learning we do throughout our lives does not take place in or result from formal education.

The teaching gestalt

Even and perhaps particularly in a traditional educational system, teachers are not just the ones that stand (metaphorically or actually) in front of classes and explicitly perform an act that we label as teaching. Teachers are also the authors, editors, illustrators, designers and publishers of textbooks, the builders of websites, the writers of articles and so on. Teachers are designers of school systems, timetablers, architects, designers and furniture builders. Teachers are makers of videos, programmers of online environments, system administrators, TV producers, designers of door handles and technicians. And, above all, learners are teachers – of themselves and of one another. In short, teaching is always a distributed role.

Unpicking this a little further, almost all learning transactions involve at least two teachers – the one with knowledge of content, process, etc, and the learner. Learning is always an active process of knowledge construction, linking, and sense-making in which we constantly reflect, reorientate, examine, and adjust our knowledge in the light of new information or new ways of seeing. We always teach ourselves at least as much as we are taught. We are not given knowledge – we make it. Another person may help to guide us, shape the directions we go, correct us when we are confused or wrong, and motivate us to go the extra mile, but we are always a teacher in this process, whether we like it or not.

In an educational context, a vast array of actors add their own contributions to the teaching whole. Some, like authors of textbooks, or creators of curricula, or other students sharing ideas and (mis)conceptions are very obviously playing a teaching role. Others are less obviously so, but they do matter. The people that made decisions about where to place a whiteboard, which tools to enable in an LMS, or what wattage of lightbulb to include in a classroom may make a huge contribution to the success of failure of a particular learning transaction. The designer of the timetable, the legislator who demanded a particular kind of content or a particular kind of behaviour, the setter of normalized tests, the curriculum designer and the person who cleaned the classroom, all play significant and sometimes crucial roles as part of the teaching gestalt. Timetables teach, LMSs teach, hallways teach. In an educational system it is the system that educates, not just the individual teacher. I particularly like the timetable example because it is a great rejoinder to those who rather naively suggest that teachers should put pedagogy first. Sure: but first you must do it only at these times, over this period, for this amount of time, in this physical or virtual place, on this subject. Whatever. Anyway, within this context, the person who is performing the explicit role of a teacher is thus just one of the teaching gestalt but, potentially, quite a special one, sometimes (but not always) second only to the learner in importance. He or she typically acts as a filter, conduit and interpreter that orchestrates this whole, that responds, gives feedback, shows caring. It’s not too surprising that we label this person differently from the rest of the gestalt.

Orchestral manoeuvring

Since we are talking about a process of orchestration, it is natural to think of music at this point, and the analogy works quite well. A teacher may be an orchestrator, adapting to a context in which many constraints and structures have already been determined by others, using the tools, techniques and technologies to play a part in the construction of knowledge that is hopefully the outcome. Some are conductors, trying to elicit harmonious learning through tight control of the process. Like the best conductors, the best teachers of this sort make use of the materials they are working with, fitting the strengths and weaknesses of the players, the acoustics of the venue, the nature of the instruments, to the demands of the piece to be played and the intended audience. Other teachers are more like arrangers, who organize the pieces and leave the playing to someone else. Some are like players in a band, maybe drummers or bassists providing a rhythm to keep learners on track, or perhaps as soloists showing virtuosity and improvisational skills that inspire the learners to new heights. Some are content to play second fiddle, bringing out the best in the soloist but always in the background. And then there are the ones who sit in a recording studio who play all the instruments themselves, sometimes even making the instruments, and arrange everything the way they want it to be arranged. Some play blues, using the same three chords and often simple technique to play an infinite and subtle range of tunes. Some play classically, sticking closely to but always interpreting a score. Some are composers. Some are jazz improvisors, modern or trad. Some go for unusual scales, exotic rhythms and peculiar blends, others prefer the folk traditions that they learned as children. The sounds that musicians make are a function of many things, including most notably the instrument itself as well as the surroundings in which it is played and the reactions of an audience. And, in most cases, there are many instruments to consider. A lot of the process of teaching is about the technologies tools and techniques, incredibly diverse, all of which have to work to a common purpose.

But whatever the tools, genres, blends and roles that teachers play, when it comes down to basics, teachers (that is to say, the players in the teaching gestalt) have to be skilled and creative, whatever and however they try to play. Above all, teaching (emerging from all the many contributors to that role) is a broad set of human practices, not a science, not just a set of techniques. It is, moreover, a creative, active and inventive practice that cannot be emptied of soul and programmed into a machine without losing the vitality and expression that makes it wonderful. This is not to suggest that machines cannot or should not be a big part of the process, however, any more than that an orchestra should try to play without instruments or a venue. Putting aside more blatant technologies like classrooms and LMSs, for better or worse, our educational systems are machines that, depending on your perspective and the aspect you are looking at, either enable or disable our ability to learn. Likewise, Google Search and Wikipedia (my two favourite e-learning technologies) have a very large and conspicuous machine element. And, of course, the creativity and inspiration can be distributed too. A bad teacher can be saved by a good textbook, for instance, and vice versa.

Why bother with teachers anyway?

It is tempting to say that most of the intentional learning we do is self-guided – that we teach ourselves anything from cooking to philosophy. I know it’s tempting, because I’ve been known to say it, and have read many research studies purporting to show this. However, this is nearly always massively wrong. What we actually do, in almost all cases, is to orchestrate teaching done by others. In some cases this is blatant and obvious. If we learn something by reading a Wikipedia article, or a book, or by watching a video, this is very clearly not a case of us teaching ourselves. At least, not totally. We are merely picking our teachers and exercising a bit of control over the pace, time and place that they teach us. We don’t get all the benefits of teaching that way by any means – importantly, we seldom get much in the way of feedback, for example, and any tailoring that happens is up to us. These kinds of things do not show us that they care about us. Such things are co-teachers, part of the teaching gestalt. But it is all a matter of degree: we are always our own teachers to some extent, and there are almost always others involved in teaching us, no matter how informal or formal the setting. Even when we learn by dabbling and experimenting, we are not exactly pure autodidacts. Partly this is because we often have some kind of target to aspire to because we have seen, read, heard or otherwise encountered terminal behaviours of the sort we are aiming for. For many competences, it is because the things we try to learn or learn with are typically designed by humans who have other humans in mind when they design them – this is true of learning that makes use of things like pencils, paints, cookware, computers, cars, musical instruments, exercise machines, calculators and yachts.  Learning in a vacuum is not possible, unless we are learning about the vacuum which might be, incidentally, one of those rare occasions where no other teacher is directly involved in the process.

By way of example, in recent years,  I have been ‘teaching myself’ to play a new instrument at least once a year. I know what these instruments sound like when they are played well, so I can recognize the gaps between what I can do with them and what they can do. Many teachers have taught me. I have seen other people playing them so I have a fair idea how to hold them but, on the whole, they are designed to be held and manipulated so it seldom takes too long to figure that out by trial and error. Their designers have taught me. That said, I challenge anyone to watch someone else play the flute and, based on what you get out of that, to make the flute sound the same. It’s mighty hard. You might get the odd note and you might even figure out how to shape your mouth differently to switch octaves, but simply copying is probably not quite enough. Most instruments have quirks like that and it would not normally be very wise to simply rely on trial and error. The actual process I generally follow usually involves reading a bit about fingerings, tunings, breathing, embouchure and so on, usually with instrument in hand so that I can check what it all means, then a lot of trial and error, lots of YouTube videos and a great deal of practice until I reach a plateau, after which the cycle repeats again as I learn how to do more advanced stuff like overtones, harmonics, complex chords, intonation, picking or bowing styles, etc. I am never going to become a virtuoso this way, sure, but it is loosely structured in a way that leads to a bit more than the outcome of a chopsticks culture (this refers to Alan Kay’s delightful analogy of what happens when you simply put a computer in a classroom and hope for the best). Eventually I need to play with other people who play better or differently, to get a bit of coaching, to find others who will challenge me to go beyond my comfort zone, but I generally wind up being competent to carry a tune reasonably enough before getting to that point. Part of the reason that I can do this kind of thing because I have learned to teach myself and, of course, I am building on a foundation of existing knowledge. I can read music. I’ve grappled with most families of musical instrument at some point. I know the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time, and a little bit about harmony. And I know a little about how people learn. All of this is because I have had many teachers, very few of whom were intentionally playing that role.

The unsaid

This all leads to what will, in my talk tomorrow, be the jumping off point for the real discussion, and some questions to which I have some answers but mostly not the best ones. What do all the things that go up to make teachers actually do?  What is the value professional teachers add? How can we manage our teachers? How can we replace them? As professional teachers, how can we allow our students to manage us? What aspects of educational systems teach? What alternative ways of organizing and orchestrating learning might we discover, invent or adapt? I’m particularly interested in exploring ways to overcome some of the manifestly awful teaching that our educational systems do to our students like grading, for instance, and what to do when the tunes we want to play are not in harmony with those played by the systems we are working in. But I am also interested in exploring ways that we can enable people to be better orchestrators of their own inner and outer teachers, beyond institutional contexts, beyond xMOOCs, beyond simple tutorials. I’m hoping it will be a fun discussion. How best to characterize what I’m aiming for? A bit of jazz improvisation, perhaps.


EdTechnology Ideas – Education Technology Journal

A new open-access educational technology journal. Looks slick, CC licence, a social approach, and I know and respect a couple of the editorial team, so I think it should be reliable and interesting.

Slightly less clear about the need for yet another journal in a crowded market though I guess it’s good to have a thriving ecosystem with plenty of competing species. However, there is a balance between those benefits and the relatively small amount of attention that can be spread around. Now that there are plenty of open-access journals of this nature I see a strong place for metajournals that consolidate writings around particular themes and/or that use curational skills to identify the best of the best. To some extent this occurs in isolated pockets like blogs and curated sites like Pinterest etc, but there is scope for more concerted and formalized efforts in this field.

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Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education –

This is a report on the What Works Clearinghouse, a set of ‘evidence-based’ experimental studies of things that affect learning outcomes in US schools, measured in the traditional ‘did they do better on the tests’ manner. It’s a great series of reports.

I have a number of big concerns with this approach, however, quite apart from the simplistic measurements of learning outcomes that ignore what is arguably the most important role of education – it is about changing how you think, not just about knowing stuff or acquiring specific skills. There is not much measurement of that apart from, indirectly, through the acquisition of the metaskill of passing tests, which seems counter-productive to me. What bothers me more though is the naive analogy between education and clinical practice. The problem is an old one that Checkland expressed quite nicely when talking of soft systems:

“Thus, if a reader tells the author ‘I have used your methodology and it works’, the author will have to reply ‘How do you know that better results might not have been obtained by an ad hoc approach?’ If the assertion is: ‘The methodology does not work’ the author may reply, ungraciously but with logic, ‘How do you know the poor results were not due simply to you incompetence in using the methodology?’

Not only can good methodologies be used badly, bad methodologies can be used well. Teaching and learning are creative acts, each transaction unique and unrepeatable. The worst textbook in the world can be saved by the best teacher, the best methodology can be wrecked by an incompetent or uncaring implementation. Viewed by statistical evidence alone, lectures are rubbish, but most of us who have been educated for long enough using such methods can probably identify at least the odd occasion when our learning has been transformed by one. Equally, if we have been subjected to a poorly conducted active learning methodology, we may have been untouched or, worse, put off learning about the subject. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

Comparing education with medicine is a category mistake. It would be better to compare it with music or painting, for instance. ‘Experimental studies show that children make better art with pencils than with paints’ might be an interesting finding as a statistical oddity, but it would be a crass mistake to therefore no longer allow children to have access to paintbrushes. ‘On average, children playing violins make a horrible noise’ would not be a reason to stop children from learning to play the violin, though it is undoubtedly true. But it is no more ridiculous than telling us that ‘textbook X leads to better outcomes than textbook Y’, that a particular pedagogy is more effective than another, or that the effectiveness of a particular piece of educational software produces no measurable improvement over not using it. Interestingly, the latter point is made in a report from the ‘What Works Clearinghouse’ site at which, amongst other interesting observations, makes the point that the only thing that does make a statistical difference in the study is teacher/student ratios. Low ratios allow teachers to exhibit artistry, to adapt to learners’ needs, to demonstrate caring for individuals’ learning more easily. This is not about a method that works – it is about enabling multiple methods, adapted to needs. It is about allowing the teacher to be an artist, not an assembly worker implementing a fixed set of techniques.

I am not against experimental studies as long as we are very clear and critical in our interpretation of them and do not over-generalize the results. It would be very useful to know that something really does not ever work for anyone, but I’m not aware of many unequivocal examples of this. Even reward and punishment, that fails in the overwhelming majority of cases, has at least some evidence of success in some cases for some people – very few, but enough to show it is not always wrong.

Even doing nothing which, surely, must be a prime candidate for universal failure, sometimes works very well. I was once in a maths class at school taken by a teacher who, for the last few months of the two-year course, was taken ill. His replacements (for some time we had a different teacher every week, most of whom were not maths teachers and knew nothing of the syllabus) did very little more than sit at the front of the class and keep order while we studied the textbook and chatted amongst ourselves. The average class grade in the national exams sat at the end of it all was considerably higher than had ever been achieved in that school previously – over half of us got A grades where, in the past, twenty percent would have been a good showing. Of course, ‘nothing’ does not begin to describe what actually happened in the class in the absence of a teacher. The textbook itself was a teacher and, more importantly, we were one another’s teachers. Our sick teacher had probably inspired us and the very fact that we were left adrift probably pulled us closer together and made us focus differently than we would have done in the presence of a teacher. Maybe we benefited from the diversity of stand-in teachers. We were probably the kind of group that would benefit from being given more control over our own learning – we were the top set in a school that operated a streaming policy so, had it happened to a different group, the results might have been disastrous. Perhaps we were just a statistically improbably group of math genii (not so for me, certainly, so we might rule that one out!). Maybe the test was easier that year (unlikely as about half a dozen other groups didn’t show such improvement, but perhaps we just happened to have learned the right things for that particular test). I don’t know. And that is the point: the process of learning is hugely complex, multi-faceted, influenced by millions of small and large factors. Again, this is more like art than medicine. The difference between a great painting and a mediocre one is, in many cases, quantitatively small, and often a painting that disobeys the ‘rules’ may be far greater than one that keeps to them. The difference between a competent musician and a maestro is not that great, viewed objectively. In fact, many of my favourite musicians have objectively poor technique, but I would listen to them any day rather than a ‘perfect’ rendition of a midi file played by an unerring computer. The same is true of great teaching although this doesn’t necessarily mean it is necessarily the result of a single great teacher – the role may be distributed among other learners, creators of content, designers of education systems, etc.  I’m fairly sure that, on average, removing a teacher from a classroom at a critical point would not be the best way to ensure high grades in exams, but in this case it appeared to work, for reasons that are unclear but worth investigating. An experimental study might have overlooked us and, even if it did not, would tell us very little about the most important thing here: why it worked. 

We can use experimental studies as a starting point to exploring how and why things fail and how and why they succeed. They are the beginning of a design process, or steps along the way, but they are not the end. It is useful to know that low teacher/student ratios are a strong predictor of success, but only because it encourages us to investigate why that is so. It is even more interesting to investigate why it does not always appear to work. Unlike clinical studies, the answer is seldom reduceable to science and definitely not to statistics, but knowing such things can make us better teachers.

I look forward to the corollary of the What Works Clearinghouse – the Why it Works Clearinghouse.

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LinkedIn launches LinkedIn for Education

This is about connecting people you at colleges or who you went to college with, rather than being a service for academics like or others of that ilk, and it’s an incremental change from the existing ways LinkedIn already does pull people who claim the same institutional background together, but an interesting development none the less.


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MOOPhD accreditation

A recent post at reminded me that the half-formed plan that Torsten Reiners, Lincoln Wood and I dreamt up needs a bit of work.

So, to add a little kindling to get this fire burning…

Our initial ideas centred around supporting the process of doing research and writing papers for a PhD by publication. This makes sense and, we have learned, PhDs by publication are actually the norm in many countries, including Sweden, Malaysia and elsewhere, so it is, in principle, do-able and does not require us to think more than incidentally about the process of accreditation. However, there are often invisible or visible obstacles that institutions put in place to limit the flow of PhDs by publication: residency requirements, only allowing them for existing staff, high costs, and so on.

So why stop there?

Cranking the levers of this idea pump a little further, a mischievous thought occurs to me. Why not get a PhD on reputation alone? That is, after all, exactly how any doctorate is awarded, when it comes down to it: it is basically a means of using transferable reputation (think of this as more like a disease than a gift – reputations are non-rival goods), passing it on from an institution to an awardee, with a mutational process built in whereby the institution itself gets its own research reputation enhanced by a similar pass-it-on process. This system honours the institution at least as much as the awardee, so there’s a rich interchange of honour going on here. Universities are granted the right to award PhDs, typically through a government mandate, but they sustain their reputation and capacity to do so through ongoing scholarship, publication and related activities, and through the activities of those that it honours. A university that awarded PhDs without itself being a significant producer of research, or that produced doctors who never achieved any further research of any note, would not get very far. So, a PhD is only a signal of the research competence in its holder because an awarding body with a high reputation believes the holder to be competent, and it sustains its own reputation through the activities of its members and alumni. That reputation occurs because of the existence of a network of peers, and the network has, till now, mostly been linked through journals, conferences and funding bodies. In other words, though someone goes to the trouble of aggregating the data, the actual vector of reputation transmission is through individuals and teams that are linked via a publication process. 

So why not skip the middle man? What if you could get a PhD based on the direct measures of reputation that are currently aggregated at an institutional level rather than those that have been intentionally formalized and aggregated using conventional methods?

Unpicking this a little further, the fact that someone has had papers published in journals implies that they have undergone the ordeal by fire of peer review, which should mean they are of doctoral quality. But that doesn’t mean they are any good. Journals are far from equal in their acceptance rates, the quality of their reviewers – there are those with good reputations, those with bad ones, and a lot in between. Citations by others help to assure us that they may have something of value in them, but citations often come as a result of criticism, and do not imply approval of the source. We need a means to gauge quality more accurately. That’s why h-index was invented. There are lots of reasons to be critical of this and similar measures: they fail to value great contributions (Einstein would have had a very low h-index had he only published his most important contributions), they embody the Matthew Effect in ways that make their real value questionable,  they poorly distinguish large and small contributions to collaborative papers, and the way they rank importance of journals etc is positively mediaeval. It is remarkable to me to surf through Google Scholar’s rankings and find that people who are among the most respected in my field having relatively low indexes while those that just plug away at good but mundane research having higher ones. Such indexes do none-the-less imply the positive judgements of many peers with more rigour and fairness than would normally be found in a doctoral committees, and they give a usable number to grade contributions. So, a high h-index or i10-index (Google’s measure of papers with more than 10 citations) would satisfy at least part of the need for validation of quality of research output. But, by definition, they undervalue the work of new researchers so they would be poor discriminators if they were the only means to evaluate most doctorates. On the other hand, funding councils have already developed fairly mature processes for evaluating early-career researchers, so perhaps some use could be made of those. Indeed, the fact that someone has successfully gained funding from such a council might be used as partial evidence towards accreditation.

A PhD, even one by publication, is more than just an assortment of papers. It is supposed to show a sustained research program and an original contribution to knowledge. I hope that there are few institutions that would award a PhD to someone who had simply had a few unrelated papers published over a period of years, or to someone who had done a lot of mundane but widely cited reports with no particular research merit. So, we need a bit more than citation indexes or other evidence of being a world-class researcher to offer a credible PhD-standard alternative form of certification.

One way to do this would be to broadly mirror the PhD by publication process within the MOOC. We could require peer ‘marking’, by a suitable panel, of a paper linking a range of others into a coherent bit of doctoral research and perhaps defended in a public webmeeting. This would be a little like common European defence processes, in which theses are defended not just in front of professors but also any member of the public (typically colleagues, friends and families) who would want to come along. We could increase the rigour a little by making it a requirement that those participating in such a panel should have to have a sufficiently high h-index or i-index of their own in a similar subject area, and/or have a relevant doctorate. Eventually the system could become self-supporting, once a few graduates had emerged. In time, being part of such a panel would become a mark of prestige in itself. Perhaps, for pedagogic and systemic reasons, engagement in such a panel would be a prerequisite for making your own ‘doctoral’ defence. Your rating might carry a weighting that accorded with your own reputational index, with those starting out weighted quite low and those with doctorates, ‘real’ doctoral students etc having higher indexes. The candidates themselves and other more experienced examiners might rate these novice examiners, so a great review from an early-career candidate might increase their own ranking.  It might be possible to make use of OpenBadges for this, with badges carrying different weights according to who awarded them and for what they were awarded.

Apart from issues of motivation, the big problem with the peer-based approach is that it could be seen as one of the blind leading the blind, as well as potentially raising ethical issues in terms of bias and lack of accountability. A ‘real’ PhD committee/panel/etc is made up of carefully chosen gurus with an established reputation or, at least, it should be. In North America these are normally the people that supervise the student, which is dodgy, but which normally works OK due to accountability and professional ethics. Elsewhere examiners are external and deliberately unconnected with the candidate, or consist of a mix of supervisors and externals. Whatever the details, the main point here is that the examiners are fully accredited experts, chosen and vetted by the institutional processes that make universities reliable judges in the first place. So, to make it more accountable, more use needs to be made of that reputational network that sustains traditional institutions, at least at the start. To make this work, we would need to get a lot of existing academics with the relevant skills on board. Once it had been rolling for a few years, it ought to become self-sustaining.

This is just the germ of an idea – there’s lots of ways we could build a very cheap system that would have at least as much validity as the accreditation procedures used by most universities. If I were an employer, I’d be a lot more impressed by someone with such a qualification than I would by someone with a PhD from most universities. But I’m just playing with ideas here. My intent is not to create an alternative to the educational system, though that would be very interesting and I don’t object to the idea at all, but to highlight the often weird assumptions on which our educational systems are based and ask some hard questions about them. Why and on what grounds do we set ourselves up as arbiters of competence? What value do we actually add to the process? How, given propensities of new technologies and techniques, could we do it better? 

Our educational systems are not broken at all: they are actually designed not to work. Well, ‘design’ is too strong a word as it suggests a central decision-making process has led to them, whereas they are mainly the result of many interconnected decisions (most of which made sense at the time but, in aggregate, result in strange outcomes) that stretch back to mediaeval times. Things like MOOCs (and related learning tools like Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, StackOverflow, etc) provide a good opportunity to think more clearly and concretely about how we can do it better and why we do it the way we do in the first place.

The Psychology of Hiring: Why Brainteasers Don't Belong in Job Interviews : The New Yorker

An interesting article that makes a very strightforward and obvious point, with some evidence, that brainteasers in job interviews do little more than demonstrate the candidate’s ability to do brainteasers in job interviews. They do not predict success in the jobs they are filtering for. The parallel implications relating to typical exam processes and practices in educational systems are clear. 

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Students riot after teachers try to stop them from cheating on exams

If someone had made this up I might have thought they had gone a little too far down the satirical path to be entirely believable. And yet…

‘Outside, more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent their rage, smashing cars and chanting: “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” The protesters claim cheating is endemic in China and that sitting the exams without help puts their children at a disadvantage.’

One parent assaulted an invigilator who had refused a bribe having confiscated a cellphone hidden in a student’s underwear. The invigilators were holed up in the examination halls and had to send calls for help over the Internet. Radio transmitters and receivers were confiscated (some hidden inventively in erasers), and at least two groups trying to communicate with examinees were found in a nearby hotel. I don’t know whether they found all of them. Probably not, if they were anything like those discussed at which reports on things like earpieces that had to be surgically removed when they got stuck or, most awe-inspiring of all, an ‘interphone’ that exploded inside a student’s abdomen.

A study at suggests that 58% of Canadian students cheated in high school exams, though the numbers fall as level of study increases, with ‘only’ 9% of graduate students admitting to cheating in exams. The level of cheating in coursework is significantly higher across the board. These are sobering figures, given that the results are self-reported and may thus give an optimistic picture.

From ingenious uses of high tech cameras and transmitters, watches that display books’ worth of notes, and hidden earpieces, to bottles of water with crib sheets printed on the inside of the label or engraved notes on fingernails, cheating technologies are big business.  There are some amazingly smart tools and methods available online such as those at, and (which, for any students thinking this might be a good idea, invigilators know about too Smile). However, with embeddable technologies, tattooed circuits, and increasingly tiny smart devices the possibilities are growing fast.

This is an arms race that no one can win. Cheats get smarter at least as fast as institutions get wiser but some will always be caught and all will live in fear of being caught. However, the value of a qualification is directly proportional to its validity so, if that is called into question, everyone loses – cheats, institutions, non-cheats and society as a whole. It is more than a bit worrying that there are medical professionals, safety inspectors and architects who cheated in their exams, especially as the evidence suggests this attitude persists throughout cheats’ careers. Endemic cheating is a tragedy of the commons. If you cannot trust a qualification then there is no point in having one and all become valueless.

Can we do something about it? Yes, but it requires a concerted effort, and better detection technologies are only a small part of the answer. It is perfectly possible to design assignments that are engaging, personal, relevant and largely cheat-proof. I’ve yet to find a foolproof method that cannot be foiled by a determined cheat who employs someone else to impersonate them take a whole course on their behalf. However, we can stop or render harmless simpler contract cheating, plagiarism, collusion, bribes and other common methods of cheating through simple process design. Courses where no student ever does the same thing, where learning is linked to personal interests and aspirations, where each part is interconnected with every other and the output of one part is the input of the next are both more engaging and more cheat-proof. Amazingly, I have had students who attempt to cheat even then but, because of the built-in checks of the design, they fail anyway. Multiple examiners and public displays of work are a good idea too – non-cheating students can usually be relied upon to point out examples of cheating even if the examiners miss it. We can get rid of the traditional regurgitation format of exams, or make use of alternative and less spoofable variations like oral exams, especially those that require students to draw on unique coursework experience rather than uniform replication of process and content. We can help educate students how not to cheat and make a point of reminding them that it is a bad thing to do. And we can get to know our students better, both to reduce the likelihood of cheating and to discover it more easily should it occur. Most of these methods cost time, effort, and money when compared with the common industrial one-size-fits-all models they are up against. But they all lead to better learning, provide more reliable discrimination of competence, greater immunity to cheating, and are fairer to everyone. If we stack that up against the staggeringly high costs of endemic cheating, they begin to look like much more efficient alternatives.

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The Roots of Grades-and-Tests

Excellent dismissal by Alfie Kohn of the massive systematic idiocy of grading and testing. Some great arguments made, but I think the main one is summarized most succinctly thus: 

“Extrinsic inducements, of which G&T is the classic example in a school setting, are devices whereby those with more power induce those with less to do something.  G&T isn’t needed for assessment, but it is very nearly indispensable for compelling students to do what they (understandably) may have very little interest in doing. “

We have to work out better ways of teaching than this. It is not right for an educational institution to continue do something so antagonistic to learning.

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