“But jobs that require ideation, ‘large-frame pattern recognition’ (recognising patterns outside what a computer may be programmed for) and complex communication skills such as being a teacher, home health aide or a highly skilled repairman are going to be ‘human jobs for a long time to come’, he says” (Prepare for the Second Coming of Technology, Miss Melissa Sim).
Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee reckon that pure information work – jobs that can be done comfortably from a desk – is going out of fashion (ST, Mar. 2), and if Singapore is to remain competitive in a highly advanced digital age then changes to its education system, especially how students are commonly tested, are necessary. While new pathways have opened to provide students with non-academic alternatives and schools have experimented with diverse assessment methods, most national examinations are still premised upon the antiquated techniques of rote memorisation and regurgitation.
And in an environment where information and knowledge are readily accessible, and where collaboration is effective, one wonders about the value of these pen-and-paper examinations.
Most would agree that these assessments ascertain proficiency, and establishing the fundamentals is important. Yet the reliance on written tests per se is less than constructive, especially when the languages are concerned. Even the evaluation of basics can be made more meaningful. For instance candidates can be allowed to scribble scientific formulas to be brought into the venue, and to bring in reference materials or dictionaries. At the higher levels, why are individuals still tested on factual recalls and rehashes of mere facts?
This also means that questions must be more rigorous and less straightforward.
There are more ways to ease the needless anxiety associated with these high-stakes examinations too. In Finland at the Aalto School of Business there are two or three examination sittings each semester, and if the student does make these two or three attempts the better grade would be registered. If at the first attempt the student is not confident a written “Do Not Grade” on the cover page would be duly acknowledged. Moreover papers are usually four hours long. Candidates do not realistically require that length of time, but the absence of that time factor means they are not rushing to churn out content as fast as possible or crafting “time management” strategies, and actually focusing on the questions.
For some the alarm bells are ringing, because what has worked for Singapore in the past – crafting young minds into cogs to fit into the country’s economic machinery – is no guarantee of future success, when the status quo is perpetually challenged by revolutionary technological breakthroughs. The jobs of the future cannot be predicted with veracity, though changing the way we test will be a good start to get the “right education”, with a test system that is fair, reasonable, and one that progressively emphasises the honing of varied skills over the pedantic acquisition of knowledge alone.
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A version of this article was also published in The Straits Times.