Pupils need to remember fewer facts and figures to pass modern exams than their contemporaries did 20 years ago, according to the head of Britain's biggest exam board.
Pupils need to remember fewer facts and figures to pass modern exams than their counterparts did 20 years ago, according to the head of Britain's biggest exam board.
Mike Cresswell, the chief executive of AQA, said that GCSE exams were increasingly designed to test children's problem-solving abilities rather than their memories.
Modular exams, where children sit exams every few months during the two-year course, and the use of questions that require shorter answers, had reduced the amount of knowledge pupils need to commit to memory.
Mr Cresswell's comments will give ammunition to those who believe GCSEs are being dumbed down. One critic said it was "tosh" to believe that thinking skills could be developed without knowledge.
GCSE results published this week are expected to see a further rise in the proportion of entries gaining grades A* to C from last year's 63.3 per cent. It is estimated that the proportion of entries awarded A* and A grades will be one in five.
Mr Cresswell said modern qualifications were less dependent on a pupil's capacity to remember.
"It is undoubtedly the case these days that to be an effective citizen and employee, when there is so much information that is fairly rapidly accessible and well catalogued, a good memory is less important than it was years ago," he said.
"There is no question that terminal examinations (taken at the end of a two-year course) place a particularly heavy emphasis upon memory.
"It is important that people do learn key facts. But there has been a shift in the balance in the amount of memory involved in modern exams compared to the past. It is what you do with the information, how to process it and arrive at solutions to problems, that are the more important skills and that is what employers want." But Prof Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said the idea that "thinking skills" could be developed in isolation from a body of knowledge was "tosh".
"It is missing the point of studying these subjects," he said. "There are acknowledged ways of understanding the world and unless you can recall these bodies of knowledge, you will not know the interesting questions that need to be asked or be able to judge, when you Google a subject, what is relevant and sensible and what is not."
Pupils sitting GCSEs, which replaced O-levels in 1988, no longer have to rote-learn text, such as poems, or maths and science formulas as these are supplied in exam papers.
In many GCSE history papers, dates are often provided. One question in a 2007 Edexcel history paper on the growing demands for Indian independence in the 1930s, supplies candidates with key dates and events: the 1930 to 1933 Round Table Conferences, the 1935 Government of India Act, "the role of Gandhi" and the "growth of the Muslim League".
Critics also point to an increased incidence of multiple-choice and "common sense" questions, which most people can answer without having studied the subject, and "retrieval" questions, which simply require candidates to read graphs and bar charts. (By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent )
GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education. It's highly valued by schools, colleges and employers, so will be useful whatever you are planning to do afterwards.
The qualification mainly involves studying the theory of a subject, combined with some investigative work. Some subjects also involve practical work. GCSEs are usually studied full-time at school or college, taking five terms to complete.
GCSEs are at levels 1 and 2 on the National Qualifications Framework, depending on the grade you get. To achieve high grades, you'll usually be expected to show good levels of attainment in reading and writing.
grades D-G are at level 1
grades A*-C are at level 2
The framework shows how different types of qualifications compare, in terms of the demands they place on learners.
Getting a GCSE can lead to a number of routes: for example, work, further study or an Apprenticeship.
If you complete GCSEs at level 1, you could move on to other courses or work-based training at levels 1 or 2.
Completing GCSEs at level 2 can lead to other level 2 courses and level 3 courses of all types. However, sometimes if you want to take a level 3 course (such as an A level), you'll be expected to have a GCSE in the same subject.
If you're thinking about higher education, you may need GCSEs in certain subjects. Most universities and colleges will ask for five GCSEs grades A*-C, including English and maths (as well as A levels or equivalent qualifications).