From education to employment

Reporter Daniel Wallis

Skills versus knowledge.

A man clings desperately onto the edge of a cliff-face, certain death and crocodiles below, a daunting 80ft climb above. Will skills save him, or will his knowledge rescue him? The knowledge of geological mountain formation and the effect of gravity on the human body over large heights comes as little consolation now, but it is the skill of climbing that can allow him to make it back to the chalet in time for fondue.

But then, this is the 21st century, and he has his trusty mobile phone next to him. Carefully keeping his balance, he quickly dials the number of the local mountain rescue unit, but alas, this is France, and several “merci beaucoups” and “s”il-vous-plaits” later he realizes that he lacks the knowledge to converse freely. Too bad, as this would have got him rescued and back in the chalet in time for the pre-fondue sauna.

Back on Terra Firma

Now, whereas some would argue that negotiating with a Frenchman requires more skill than knowledge, the fact remains that, at least in education, the arm-wrestle between skills and knowledge is a close one. A report was published this week that complains that, in maths classes in particular, too much emphasis is placed on “learning for the test” than actually learning maths. Any pupil from the last ten years could have told you this, but then they didn”t, as it soon becomes obvious in a classroom that just learning the exam question styles by rote is far easier than looking into the abyss that is mathematics.

In school, I was once plagued by a deeply troubling mathematical question about infinity (you mean, it just keeps on going?) only to be told gruffly by Teacher, “You don”t have to worry about that, it’s not on the test.” Students, like electrical current, will look for the path of least resistance in passing exams. Discovering that the questions on exam papers hardly differ from year to year is like discovering the back door to a bank. “Do they know about this? Quick, grab as many answers before they find out.” In many cases, teachers and lecturers have given up trying to impress the finer points of wave-particle duality on their denser students and instead just shown them the “airfix instructions” way of answering, including how to put in lines of “working” that gives the impression that you somehow worked this out yourself, using your own brain and the trusty rules of maths.

Clueless Achievement?

As a result of this method of “learning”, I have seen fellow students get outstanding results on exam papers without actually having a clue what it is they”ve written, and then cheerfully watched them pass me over in grades whilst still being beatifically oblivious to what is going on. There is an inverse principal at work here; he who does the least work shall get the best result, while those poring over many a book of forgotten lore find themselves sitting in the bottom of the class; like a Chinese finger-trap, the more you struggle, the harder it is to get anywhere.

It seems that skills win here: passing exams by rote is a combination of basic skills that include, copying, memorizing and regurgitating, whilst knowledge sits in the corner talking to itself. The problem here is that education defeats its own purpose; students graduate without actually knowing anything, and the sly skills used in passing exams are useless once you enter the “real” world”” no job advertises for “graduate, good at feigning knowledge, playing the system”, (with the possible exception of government ministers).

The key skill being taught today is in evading actual education. Psychologists talk about “cognitive expense”, that is, the amount of conscious thought it takes to do something, and the brain naturally looks for the easiest option. Learning for the exam, however, goes beyond that, and could even be interpreted as a form of plagiarism, not of the learned words of the textbook, but of the poor kid who took the test the year before, the theft of exam methods rather than actual information.


There are many reasons for this, not least of which is today’s obsession with qualifications rather than actual skills and potential. The student of today has no wish to actually understand maths or science, only to appear that he or she does. The employer’s first question will not be, “solve this equation for me”, but more likely “what were your last three grades? Does that course come with a certificate? Do you have any letters after your name? If so, we”re looking for people with Z’s…” The student can be forgiven then, for seeing education as a means of collecting certificates.

A large finger of blame must also point to education institutions themselves, who are under increasing pressure to earn their keep with ever increasing numbers and success, the sword of Damocles ever hanging over their heads ready to cut funding. Students are now a financial risk; if they fail, so do you. Solution: get them through the exams as quickly and easily as possible, like lambs through a sheep-dip; institutions are being put in the position of having to prioritise their own survival ahead of students” education.

Ironically, getting students to learn for the exam is also a method that institutions use to learn for their own exams. With a profusion of constant inspections, reports, tests and performance evaluations, institutions have taken a lesson from their students and are doing what is necessary to appear smart, and avoid the eye of government, which in turn measures its own results in education through the number of “passed” schools it has; if everybody learns for the exams, the government, like the lazy student to begin with, appears smarter than it really is, securely acknowledging that it is only the representation of knowledge, not knowledge itself, that is necessary to bluff through life.

Daniel Wallis

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