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What exams do and don't do

This article originally appeared in The Straits Times on Saturday, Oct 6.

Published on Oct 14, 2012 6:00 AM

THE recent debate over the PSLE, which all 12-year-olds in national schools sit, seems to have divided people into one group that believes the Primary School Leaving Examination is a fair and impartial way to sort children according to merit; and another that thinks the exam imposes an unacceptable amount of stress on children and should have been consigned to the scrap heap long ago.

There is a third group that walks a middle path, and it is to this group that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seems to belong, having said in a recent interview that the PSLE will be relooked, but not removed.

Exams are a quick way to sort large numbers of students by ability in specific areas, but they have their limitations.

Chief among these is that conventional exams just cannot measure a whole range of qualities, strengths and capacities that matter in life, as highlighted by then Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in 2006.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine, he said of the United States: "Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition."

Is Singapore an exam meritocracy because too much is being decided too early based on exam scores?

Many parents seem to think so. Some take up to a year off work to help their child prepare for the PSLE as they believe its scores determine the secondary school, and therefore the university, their child can access, which in turn determines his eventual job prospects and career path.

Even if the system here is not as deterministic as these parents believe it to be, an exam merito-cracy may be hard on late bloomers. Most exams take place in the first 20-odd years of people's lives. But some may take longer to find their niche. Are there opportunities for them to also excel, based on skills and knowledge acquired later in life?

Another shortcoming of an exam meritocracy is that the bulk of rewards goes to those who excel in a rather narrow range of skills - namely those that can be captured and measured in exams.

For a society to set so much store by exam results suggests a view of intelligence as fixed and unchanging. There is no consensus that it is indeed so.

In fact, research by social psychologist Carol Dweck shows that such a fixed mindset about intelligence can be a serious drawback when one comes up against difficulties and failure while learning something new.

She lays out two mindsets concerning intelligence. Those with a fixed mindset think their intelligence is like height.

Those with a growth mindset think their intelligence is like strength, which they can build up through effort.

In one of her books, Professor Dweck recounts the following conversation between two undergraduates.

She does so because as someone who has spent more than three decades doing research on people's theories about intelligence and how these affect learning and success, she found the conversation revealing.

The two undergraduates were discussing a challenging computer science course - one designed to weed out the faint-hearted.

Charles had taken it twice, receiving a D the first time and a B+ the second. Bob was currently taking the course, and expected at best a C. He was thinking of repeating it.

They then went on to talk about whether they would major in computer science. Never once did either consider that they might not be good in the subject, Prof Dweck writes.

They simply saw computer science as a subject in which you had to work really hard and maybe retake some of the most challenging courses. Their decision on whether to major in it, they decided, would rest on how interested they were in it and how hard they were willing to work.

Charles and Bob exemplify what Prof Dweck calls a "mastery-oriented" approach to learning. She contrasts that with a "helpless" response, where individuals respond to difficulty or failure by denigrating their abilities and blaming their intelligence.

While a D grade strikes those who believe in fixed intelligence as a personal blow, it spurs those who believe intelligence is malleable to try harder.

Prof Dweck's conclusions are based on carefully designed experiments carried out over decades on children and young people.

Such experiments are how social psychologists go about trying to understand what motivates people and helps them develop.

What lessons might they hold for Singapore?

Let me suggest two.

The first is to be clear about what exams do and what they do not do. An exam measures how well a student has grasped facts, knowledge or skills in a specific area at a specific point in time. It reveals very little else, including a student's eagerness to learn.

The second lesson is that there are benefits to nudging students, parents and teachers towards a view of intelligence as dynamic and malleable - something that can be cultivated through effort.

There is a growing body of evidence that bears this out.

A quick glance through recent bestsellers throws up myriad examples of sports, music and software prodigies - from Tiger Woods to Mozart and Bill Gates - who excelled only after thousands of hours of dedicated study and practice which built on their skills and interests.

There is also evidence to show that practice actually leads to a rewiring of human brains, which in turn paves the way for better performance.

Another key factor in fostering a growth mindset for intelligence is to praise not talent, but effort.

According to Prof Dweck, one of the big drawbacks of a fixed mindset is that it causes a person to focus on wanting to appear smart to others and to choose tasks that enable him to do so.

Whereas those with a growth mindset are eager to take on challenging tasks so as to learn more, even if by doing so, they risk a period of struggle and confusion.

So shifting the balance in favour of those with a growth mindset could well spell the difference between a society preoccupied with looking smart and one focused on getting smarter.