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!”
[ad#Google Adsense – banner]

7 Replies to “Turning exams on their head”

  1. Hi David,

    Nice idea. A couple of comments.

    Isn’t your reason (2) actually a subset of reason (1). i.e. if you can “show that you have a certain level of competency or skill”, then surely that is all that is needed to “demonstrate that you are ready to progress to the next level”? Just trying to keep things simple.

    Back in the mists of time (1986, to be precise), the Thatcher government actually tried to move to a competence-based model of accreditation – that was what NVQs were conceived as being. And the people implementing this actually cited Ivan Illich as an influence (my first job was at the Manpower Services Commission in 1987, and I worked on the near margins of this initiative). Over time the main thrust of this got lost in realpolitik – especially since the government wasn’t prepared to take on the professional bodies. Unions who vote labour are one thing, but unions who vote Tory are another – and that’s the role the professional bodies played (and still do in many respects).

    Your approach has the advantage that it’s a lot simpler than the one 25 years ago, but the risk that immediately springs to mind is that your vouching system would be the one you’ve anticipated, that it would be open to croneyism. I suspect Google would tell you it takes more than “a little wizardry” to guard against that.

    Of course, a radical might argue that the current infrastructure and institutions just serve to perpetuate croneyism at the same time as cloaking it in the appearance of rigour and propriety. That might be right, too, but my dinner’s on the table, so I’ll have to leave it there…

  2. Hi David,
    Was great to meet you at Be Bettr. Quite inspiring, wasn’t it?

    I like the idea of moving the focus onto building portfolios a bit – it would reward the more proactive and proactivity is under-measured in formal and informal settings.

    I’m not sure pitching this idea against exams is necessary though. Both could co-exist.

    You might want to take a look at http://www.trustmaps.com/ which implements a subset of your idea but without the portfolio. It was started in London by a friend of mine, @tav, so if it’s of interest, you can connect to them. I think they have an API too.

  3. Hi Dave,

    I only had a chance to scan this because I caught it just as I’m heading out but it is an interesting idea. Lets chat some more about it because I had had some thoughts in this space.

    There are a couple of sites that it would be worth you checking out who are playing in this space and they are: http://www.honestly.com/ and http://www.mixtent.com. I’m not sure either of them are doing exactly what you’re referring to but they are worth checking out nonetheless.

    However I have felt there is something far over and above this that can be done so let’s get that coffee 🙂

  4. Sorry David – this is a bit late, but I have been thinking about this idea.

    Knowledge vs Competency. Facts vs Intelligence. IQ vs EI.

    On exams: basically it comes back to evidence. Vouching/ testifying/ providing references is all very well, but where’s the actual relevant evidence? (which would cut through cronyism arguments)

    Thing is (as we all know): different people (and here we are talking specifically about young people who will develop differently, partly dependent upon how our school system tries to “develop” them) learn in different ways and contribute in different ways. How can we come up with an assessment/ evidence framework that caters for, and gives due credence to, their different styles?

    A forum that allows links to relevant evidence (whatever format that might take) might be the way to go?

    Having put this in writing it all sound incredibly lame now. Please do keep me in mind if/when you pursue this …


  5. A comment from Charles Weston:

    I had a read, and I have to say that I didn’t particularly agree. I fully appreciate that some people are better at exams than others, but I don’t know how you would get over the difficulty of standardisation. I agree with one of your other commentators that it would also favour the social networkers – again an important trait, but not necessarily more important than exam taking. Exam taking can go further than just a-levels. Could they be done away with at uni without claims of dumbing down? Could you compare candidates from other countries? How would professional qualifications work (chartered engineer / analyst…)

    If you could change all of these at the same time, then it could work, but practically you can’t, so the mix of old and new would be a challenge to say the least.

    I’m revsiting this email this morning (wrote it a couple of days ago) and I can see how there could well be a use for this kind of system, if, as you say, the exams can still have a great weight.

Leave a Reply