Turning exams on their head

I’ve had an idea buzzing around my head, and I need your help.

I was fortunate enough to attend Be Bettr last Friday, a conference which brought together all sorts of thinkers about technology, education, and learning. The first two speakers were Paul Miller, CEO of School of Everything, and David Jennings speaking about Agile Learning. Interesting ideas, particularly for a teacher, like me, brought up and entirely used to teaching in institutions, and having the whole thing dictated by exams.

Both of these interesting gents brought up the same issues – that informal learning can only go so far, but eventually people are forced to do something formal in order to get accreditation. So I started daydreaming and doodling, and wondering why do we even need that?

So I think there are two reasons:

  1. To show that you have a certain level of competency or skill.
  2. To demonstrate that you are ready to progress to the next level.

Ok, so everyone knows you get your exams and your degrees and your first employer looks at them very carefully, then the second employer doesn’t care so much, and by the time you’ve reached the third employer they take very little notice. Why?

Because we trust their judgements. Essentially, by hiring you, they have vouched for your skills. In fact, we get references from them, and from colleagues, to vouch for our skill levels and more. We get people to vouch for our work ethic, our personality, our skill, and our ability to learn.

The massive problem with exams is that, in the end, you only do well at them if you’re good at doing exams. In fact, in the UK, the strongest predictor of success in any A-Level exam is the average of how you did in all the exams at GCSE, no matter what subject. Damning indictment – no wonder schools become exam factories!

So here’s my idea. Please don’t steal it, but tell me how I can improve it.

I’ve just registered the name vouch4.me. I want to build a website where I state my skills and qualities, and provide a portfolio of evidence for my work and my abilities. I then have various people who are vouching for some or all of those qualities or pieces of work. These people, in turn, have their own portfolios, and have many other people vouching for their skills and judgements, and so on.

So I have a list of people directly vouching for me, I have the number of people directly vouching for me, and I also have the number indirectly vouching for me (i.e. vouching for the people vouching for me). A little wizardry would weed out closed groups of people all vouching for each other, but in essence that’s it.

As an employer I get to see evidence of skills, I see references from people (much like “recommendations” on LinkedIn I suppose), and I can also get a feel for how well-regarded each of the ‘recommenders’ actually are.

As a school, I stop forcing my kids to do exams, and start building their portfolios, though these can still match the prescribed syllabus. Each teacher is vouched for by colleagues, by the school, and by the training courses they go on, giving them weight to vouch for their students.

As a lifelong learner I can now go an acquire skills from anywhere, and build my portfolio. I can sit exams if I wish (and get vouched for by the exam boards who will have had hundreds of people vouch for them), or I can learn entirely informally, and make sure I have impressed people who will vouch for me.

I’ve spent a few hours wrapped in a duvet on my sofa suffering from a cold, googling around this idea. Is this mad or is it revolutionary? Maybe I haven’t explained it well? I hope my sick-day has achieved something!

Your thoughts extremely welcome.


@exam_writer said “Collusion between the student and their vouchee could be a problem” though “As self-employed most jobs got on experience/recommendations & not exams”

@CreativeEdu said “I like the concept a lot but am slightly concerned that instead of measuring exam performance it measures a different subset of skills namely ability to social network and sell oneself. We have all written our own references to be signed off by an employer at some point..That said, it’s an interesting idea and I agree that a skills\vocational approach would be refreshing. Good luck!”
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