Einstein on SATs

Einstein captured the issue in a single sentence.  “Sometimes what counts can’t be counted, and what can be counted doesn’t count.”  With Maths in particular it’s possible to get very good marks in standardised tests just by applying various methods without the need to engage in any deeper thinking/learning such as why does this work.  For other subjects, substitute mathematical methods for historical facts or a tick list of grammatical idioms the examiner will be looking for.  Being able to churn out a drop in clause, just for the sake of it, doesn’t make me a good writer.

Our current education system was designed by the Victorians to produce convergent thinking production line workers in the days when a ‘computer’ was a job description and there was a real need for a consistent thinking workforce.  The SATs tests themselves are inherently OK.  The problems arise from the current political obsession for ‘raising standards‘ by blindly applying the McKinsey Maxim: “What you can measure you can manage.” without pausing to consider what standardisation actually means.

Michael Armstrong (1999) explained, “a standard is a measure… but the most dynamic characteristic of learning, which for want of a better term I will call its creative aspect, cannot be measured…  Moreover, a standard is a measure of conformity whereas education is as much, if not more, concerned with non-conformity: with exception rather than rule; with the novel, the unexpected, the re-described and re-constructed; with the revival of learning no less than its transmission, and with innovation as well as tradition.


A very standard looking workforce

This focus on standards worked well in the C19th producing a consistent workforce needed for the industrialised production lines but for the C21st we need innovation and creativity in order to prosper as a nation.

Einstein or McKinsey? Who should guide education policy?  One of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known or a bunch of accountants?



Armstrong, M. (1999) ‘The Quality of Learning’, in O’Hagan, B. (ed) Modern Educational Myths: the future of democratic comprehensive education.  London: Kogan Page Limited, pp.109-120

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