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Dubai Abulhoul: What do those who failed their final exams have in common with Albert Einstein?
June 21, 2016
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The future of public education lies in fostering innovation as opposed to conformity, and curiosity as opposed to memorisation, through a more holistic approach to the measurement of student intelligence, potential and success.
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It’s that time of year again, when school students, of all levels, are either anxiously waiting for the results of their final examinations, or have just received them. Some have passed with flying colours, and others have not. Alexander Den Heijer once said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” I think the same holds true for students as well.

When a student fails an exam, the emphasis should not be placed on changing the student as much as it should be placed on changing the learning environment itself. It is then an appropriate time to look at what those grades are measuring exactly, how they are being measured, and how they affect a student’s life. We also need to take a moment to think about the psychological impact the word “Fail” has on a student, particularly on a student at a younger stage in his or her education. What happens when a student receives a “Failure” as a grade on his or her final exam, term after term, and year after year? At best, the student becomes indifferent, but at worst? The student starts to believe it.

Grades, generally speaking, can be seen as a measure of qualities like diligence, persistence, commitment and hard work. Students who, year after year, excel academically are great role models for their peers, and exhibit qualities that are worthy of recognition, but are school grades the only way to measure a student’s intelligence, potential and success?

Looking at Finland as a case study of student measurement and standardised testing will be helpful in addressing this question. Finland’s educational system seems paradoxical at first glance, given its unorthodox approach to teaching and learning, but it has been proven to be one of the most successful systems around the world. For the first six years of school, students are not graded at all, as educators believe that those early years are not about measuring academic success, but for getting students ready to find what they are passionate about. There are no mandatory standardised tests in Finland, except for one national exam that students take when they are sixteen years old, as they understand that a student’s potential and intelligence cannot be standardised. Homework is also discouraged across all educational levels, and if it is given, teachers make sure that it won’t take up more than 20 minutes of a student’s time every day.

However, Finnish students have still managed to be among the highest scoring students across the world in the past decade when it comes to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Finland’s continuous success of its educational system lies in understanding that today’s students, in our rapidly changing world, can no longer thrive in a learning environment that is dependent on test-based accountability and standardisation.

There is more than one lesson we can conclude from Finland’s approach to education. It is clear that the future of public education lies in placing more emphasis on teaching, rather than on testing. While examinations do have their place in education, they shouldn’t be placed in the very centre of it. The future of public education also lies in fostering innovation as opposed to conformity, and curiosity as opposed to memorisation, through a more holistic approach to the measurement of student intelligence, potential and success.

History tells us the famous story of a young boy who struggled academically as a child. He was late in developing reading and speaking skills, and was thought of as being mentally disabled by some of his elementary school teachers. He was, however, exceptionally good at the subjects he was most passionate about. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 when his teacher told him that he “would never amount to anything”, and failed the first standardised entrance exam he took at the age of 16. The young boy grew up to have his name become almost synonymous to the word “genius”, and won a Nobel Prize for his work and achievements. His name was Albert Einstein.

So what do those who failed their final exams this year have in common with Albert Einstein? Much more than we think. We just need to develop a more holistic approach to student measurement, and refraining ourselves from using the word ‘failure’ when assessing a student’s potential and work might be a good place to start.
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The author is an Emirati novelist-writer

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