Analysis & Comment

Chris Morash: 'School exam system must change or it will leave children redundant in a 'robot world'

South Korea was a lot like Ireland in the 1960s. The country had just come out of a gruelling civil war; the economy was largely agricultural, there were high rates of emigration, and only a small percentage of the population attended university.

Today, it’s among the most technologically advanced countries in the world, has the world’s highest rate of third-level attainment (70pc, according to OECD figures) and is home to massive companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo.

Today, South Koreans are concerned. Not just about the ordinary ups and downs of the economy, although we know well enough in this country that they are worth worrying about.

South Koreans are worried about the future of work in what we are now calling the fourth industrial revolution.

Here in Ireland we should be even more concerned about this revolution, which will be unlike anything humankind has experienced. We’re not talking about robots on assembly lines, or the use of computers; that has been going on for the past 60 years. In this fourth machine age we are grappling with machines that learn and make decisions, ubiquitous sensors, autonomous vehicles and autonomous robots. This is not science fiction. These technologies exist and are already changing the world of work.

There are already robot pharmacists who don’t take breaks or need pensions. Computers crunching algorithms trade shares faster than financial analysts or brokers, and much marketing research is already being done by computers. Legal searches, once done by junior lawyers, can increasingly be done better by machines, as can audits, many accounting functions and increasing amounts of industrial design. In short, many desirable jobs, or elements of those jobs, will soon vanish.

Among educational thought leaders, the emerging consensus is that we need to find ways to make our students “robot-proof”. An OECD report published earlier this year said we must prepare our students for jobs that have not yet been created, for technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated.

Certainly, students will need enhanced digital literacy, they will need to master specific disciplines, and they will also need “data literacy”. But they will also need something more: a passion for new ideas, curiosity, creativity and entrepreneurship, understood in its fullest sense – all of those things that machines can never do better than humans.

So how is Irish education responding to this paradigm shift? In the universities, despite substantially less funding than we had a decade ago, teaching is responding to this new world.

In Trinity College Dublin, where I teach, we have redesigned our undergraduate curriculum around four “graduate attributes”. We expect that when our students graduate, they will have learned “to think independently, to communicate effectively, to develop continuously and to act responsibly” – all things that are distinctly human. Other Irish universities are rethinking teaching and learning in similarly inventive ways.

Then there is the Leaving Certificate and its little sibling, the Junior Certificate.

We urgently need to ask ourselves if we are likely to foster creativity, curiosity, adaptability and a passion for new ideas in a system that continues, in spite of some modest reforms, to revolve largely around the gravitational fields of two exams.

One way to answer that question is to take some examples of what are emerging as “robot-proof” graduate attributes and to test them against our exam-centred school system.

Does an examination in which students prepare answers to conform to a standardised marking scheme (made available in advance in the interests of a much-vaunted “transparency”) encourage creativity? Does such an exam reward the student (or, indeed, the teacher) with a passion or curiosity that pushes them beyond the standard curriculum?

The answer is, sadly, it does not. Indeed, on most papers, the eager student who strays beyond the prescribed material is penalised for introducing matter that is “not relevant”.

In the case of the Leaving Certificate English papers, for instance, there are, in fact, relatively few marks given for the actual literary content in comparison to those awarded for conforming to a standardised answer format. So much for rewarding creative thinking.

As for adaptability, these are exams that are publicly judged every year by students, teachers and pundits on predictability: a “good paper” is a predictable paper, in which the “right questions come up”.

In short, it is hard to see how an exam that rewards the things robots do well – predictable tasks carried out to a template – helps make Irish students robot-proof.

It is time that we conducted a simple thought experiment. Imagine that we could weigh up all of the massive resources that go into the Junior and Leaving Certificates, including the thousands of hours students and teachers spend poring over past papers, as well as the factory-like preparation, distribution and marking of papers carried out by the State Examinations Commission.

Then imagine that we had all that time and money free to do something entirely new, something that would allow our students to develop their creativity, their curiosity about the world, and to find the things about which they are passionate.

What could we do then? Discuss.

Chris Morash is the vice-provost and chief academic officer at Trinity College Dublin

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