Ask why, not what

15 Jan

Allow me a moment of professional pride.

Yesterday, my first year public relations students sat an exam. For one thing, they were all there (bar one who was taken ill overnight). For another, they all stayed for the full two hours.

During this time they wrote answers to just three questions. I’ve not yet graded the scripts but I don’t expect to be disappointed.

Now, there should be nothing surprising in students prioritising exams. But the educational establishment disapproves of open questions at this level. Instead, the expectation is that I should be assessing knowledge through a series of closed, multiple-choice questions. How does that even work in public relations? What preparation would it be for the future?

What’s the value in knowledge when so much is just a Google search or Siri enquiry away? Certainly, it doesn’t justify years of study and thousands of pounds in tuition fees.

Besides, as a new book by Daniel Susskind argues, in a world of automation we should encourage our young people to opt for non-routine jobs that require subjective judgements (that sounds just like public relations, to me). To ask ‘why?’ questions, which AI is bad at, rather than ‘what?’ questions which machines are better and cheaper at answering than us.

It’s a deeply frustrating paradox that as education has become more expensive, we have been discouraged from challenging young people. Just imagine what difficulty might mean for ‘student satisfaction’!

Now, my students are not customers who need to be kept constantly satisfied. Nor were they visibly dissatisfied with their exertions yesterday. The end game of education is something much more important than a customer satisfaction survey.

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