I did a little triathlon this weekend. Six weeks ago I couldn’t run for two minutes without stopping. I think we can say that’s rapid and sustained progress. But there were some problems. I swim a lot. I was confident, getting into the lake that the swim would be the easiest part. I’m used to swimming up to 2 miles at a time and this was a measly 250 metres. I set off, powering close to the front when something odd happened. My breathing was off. The effort of lifting my arms in a wet suit seemed greater than it had ever done before. I was gaspy (and in swimming, breathing is everything). I started to panic. If I struggled with the swim, what was the rest of it going to be like? The last 50 metres were a blur of panting, taking in water and worry. I got out knees trembling and realised that I had completely underestimated the impact of fear and nerves on performance. The rest of the event was fine and I finished, but it made me think.
I was ready. I was fit. But I underperformed because of anxiety. Every year, thousands of children are ready. They are fit and prepared. They walk into an exam hall and fall apart. Maybe only for part of the exam, maybe for all of it. But they crumble and the consequences stay with them for life. What are we really testing in an exam situation? I don’t think it’s knowledge – even for a confident candidate, there isn’t enough time to demonstrate a really good range of knowledge. And given the move to linearity, it’s not resilience – we’ve removed the ideal of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” and replaced it with “one chance, don’t mess it up”. So we must conclude that exams are there to weed out the anxious and to place them on a scrapheap. Why?
I can see that in competitive sport, you need to be able to hold your nerve. But in the workplace? Are there really that many high risk jobs that require people to have strong nerves under pressure? Where is the line between brave and foolhardy? Look at the risks taken in the banking industry by people who could hold their nerve while making transactions worth billions in a matter of seconds. They brought the economic world to the brink of collapse. Are these the character traits we really want in society?
When we seek to assess a child, we need to ask whether or not the assessment model is there for the convenience of the system, or to meet the needs of society as a whole. I don’t think our current system meets the needs of society or the needs of individual children. There has to be a better way. A system that offers a balance of examination, creative portfolio based assessment, work experience with character references, volunteer work…. this kinds of assessment package would allow all kinds of human traits to thrive and be recognised. It would offer us a real set of skills applicable to all kinds of future situations. It would be more humane. And so, if the swim went belly up – there would be other events to offset it. It’s worth a tri – surely?