Educate Together and the march of progressive education

My son’s primary school recently had a visit from the Educate Together* group, best known for their primary schools but who now are beginning to move into the second level sector. The Educate Together movement is laudable, a welcome antidote to the domination of our school system by the Christian religions, mainly Catholicism.

Unfortunately, what Educate Together laid out for us in their visit was a charter for full-on ‘progressive’ education, complete with all of the usual ‘beliefs’  like group-work, active learning, collaboration, project-based learning, a supposed emphasis on higher order thinking, creativity etc. The only thing that was missing was ‘learning styles’.

To kick off, their documentation states that “learning takes place through active collaboration and cross-curricular projects. The emphasis is on higher order learning and thinking as we move away from the traditional rote learning model, concentrating on the process as much as on the content. In doing this we move away from subject-based learning and focus on metacognitive skills, problem-solving and the development of the whole person.”

This idea that you can teach skills (or ‘process’) by putting less emphasis on acquiring knowledge is an old one and it is an argument that has been completely demolished by numerous eminent educators and cognitive scientists. This well-known paper by Daniel Willingham is an excellent analysis of why the very concept of knowledge-independent skills is problematic to say the least. This article by Carl Hendrick makes the same points in a more reader-friendly way.

In their own words, Educate Together’s teaching will be “less about activity prescribed by the teacher during whole class instruction and more about activity determined by the learners themselves working in small groups.”

This is the old ‘relevance’ argument in which we should try to tap into the current interests of the students and (presumably) use those interests as a mechanism for developing all of those cognitive skills that we would like them to have. It strikes me that this is the perfect way to suppress curiosity because it encourages the students to focus on what they’re already interested in rather than expanding their minds by exposing them to new facts, ideas and phenomena which might well turn out to be their lifelong passion. This blog by Michael Fordham says it far more eloquently than I ever could.

Educate Together go on to say that “the teacher as a facilitator and mentor emerges and the students engage in peer learning and support [and] this learning is mediated through technology with the focus being on learning with technology rather than about it.” They go on to say that “within our learning spaces, teachers become guides and facilitators, learning alongside the student.”

This is the old ‘guide-on-the-side’ rather than ‘sage-on-the-stage’ argument and while it is an idea that has some validity at third level, the evidence for this approach at primary and secondary levels is not very good at all. In PISA** 2012, for example, it was shown, unequivocally, that students’ learning of mathematics is best when the teacher takes the lead. Student-led approaches like enquiry-based learning are inferior. Likewise it was shown in PISA 2015 that even students’ learning of science is best when the learning is teacher-led.

In the Educate Together school, there will be a large emphasis on technology and all students will have Microsoft Surface devices. No textbooks will be used. This is despite the fact that a 2015 PISA study showed that the use of technology in schools is problematic to put it mildly. Very often technology is used badly and there is no evidence that learning is improved. In fact the opposite is the case.

The Educate Together School will “enable a structured, project-based approach to learning”. Furthermore, “learning is approached in a cross-curricular fashion with links highlighted between different subjects.”

The project-based approach is essentially a form of enquiry-based learning and as PISA 2012 and 2015 have shown, it is likely to lead to less learning. As for the cross-curricular approach, all I can say is that having taught on a multidisciplinary program for many years, my conclusion is that even third-level students struggle when confronted by problems that require a multi- or inter-disciplinary approach. The problem is that by studying on a multidisciplinary programme, they can sometimes lack the critical mass of knowledge (and skills) in one or more disciplines, ultimately pursuing a career in their preferred discipline. (I’ve written about this in my  paper  Reflections on interdisciplinarity and teaching chemical engineering on an interdisciplinary degree programme in biotechnology.)

Finally, Educate Together say that throughout the year there will be “phenomenon-based learning weeks where we abandon the traditional timetable to focus on a phenomenon”.

The idea of phenomenon-based learning is currently being adopted in Finland and it tends to be presumed that because Finland is doing it, so should we. But the thing about Finland it this: its performance in PISA has been declining since 2006 and even if you harbour doubts about the value of PISA, that decline should be setting off alarm bells. My own experience convinces me that phenomenon-based learning will fail for the same reason that many progressive methods fail: students might engage enthusiastically (and engagement is not the same as learning) but they won’t learn very much because learning builds on prior learning and if students spend a large amount of time on active and enquiry learning, there will be a huge opportunity cost and they will lack the basic knowledge and skills to be able to solve discipline-based problems, never mind complex phenomenon-based ones.

Finally, one of the ideas that run through a lot of progressive thinking is the whole idea of working in groups. As someone who is essentially an introvert who likes to solve problems on my own, I find the idea that students should be corralled into groups because this will somehow make them learn better, completely abhorrent, and I suspect many people are like me. We are increasingly trying to impose an extrovert culture on a diverse population of children, many of whom are likely to work better on their own. We would be wise to heed the words of Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and the tech genius of the Jobs-Wozniak partnership:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”


*I don’t mean to pick a fight with Educate Together here – it’s more a case of picking a fight with a philosophy of education that I am convinced is fundamentally misguided and ultimately damaging to children.

** The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015 over half a million students, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies, took the internationally agreed two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy.

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Is the end of the textbook nigh?

I published a textbook in 2013 (called Membrane Filtration: a problem-solving approach with MATLAB, if you really want to know). I signed the publishing deal in September 2011 and I submitted what I thought was the final draft to the publisher in November of 2012. I’d say I worked on the book on more than 90% of the days in between. When writing a book, especially a highly technical one, you cannot lose momentum because if you do you will find yourself going back to it and unable to figure out what the hell you were doing when you last worked on it. Then, when you have submitted it to the publisher you have to deal with a style editor who goes through your book line-by-line. There then follows a flurry of emails until the final version is sent to the people who will actually print it. Maddeningly, even when you think the job is done, you’ll find that it’s not. In my case I got the proofs from the printers and they were not what I had expected at all. Graphs and tables and computer code were all over the place and the version they sent to me would have been incomprehensible to the reader. This led to lots of three-way conversations between me, the publishers in Cambridge and the printers in India. It was a really frustrating and stressful time.

Despite all of that, I’ve been thinking about writing another textbook – I have the table of contents done and have done a lot of thinking about the pedagogical philosophy that will guide the book. But there is a worry in the back of my mind that maybe textbooks are becoming obsolete. It’s not that they don’t have a use anymore; it’s more to do with the fact that the market for textbooks seems to be collapsing. I don’t want to spend 18 months producing a product for which there will be no demand. So maybe I need to think outside the box and that probably means going down some kind of digital route.

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Education journalism and entry to college

It won’t make me popular to say this but we have a problem with education journalism in this country. This morning there have been two articles, one in the Irish Times and one in the Examiner in which Philip Nolan, president of University of Maynooth, is given free rein to continue his campaign to make general entry the normal mode of entry to third level education. The idea that he has consistently advanced over the last number of years is that most students would be better off taking a broad range of subjects in first/second year only to specialise in later years. It’s superficially plausible but the devil is in the detail.

In making his case, Philip Nolan points out that 59% of their first year students have chosen general entry. In effect, the criterion for success is a marketing one, not an educational one. A majority of students like it, so it must be good.

I have no problem with general entry and we have a general entry science course in DCU. What I have a problem with is education evangelicalism. In this case, there remains a strong demand for denominated entry routes so it is hard to see why there is any need to radically overhaul a system that currently meets the needs of two groups of students: those that are quite definite about what they want to study and those that are less sure.

But if I were an education journalist I would have asked Philip Nolan some simple questions such as:

  • How are places allocated to specialised streams/courses at the end of first year, or second year, depending on the institution? Is it a competitive process and, if so, what impact will that competition have on student wellbeing?
  • To what extent is the student’s choice limited by logistical factors, i.e., timetabling etc.?
  • How will the issue of pre-requisites be handled?
  • If students spend the first one or even two years pursuing a broad education, what impact does that have on the depth of knowledge they acquire in their final specialisation? Is the five-year degree the future?
  • Is there any relationship between general entry / denominated entry and non-progression?

These are all the sorts of questions that need to be asked before people jump on the bandwagon. As for the critical skills module that Maynooth boast about, I think readers should read this by Daniel Willingham.

Finally, an anecdote. Two years ago I developed a first year module that I call Introduction to Bioprocessing. I deliver it to the BSc in Biotechnology class. There are usually about 20-25 students in the class and they have entered DCU via the denominated entry route. In this module, I get them to work in groups, give a presentation or two, do a bit of independent research and finally a bit of data analysis with Excel. The real purpose of the module though is to get the students together, to help them to form friendships and to create a sense of togetherness, a sense that they are on a shared journey, a journey that, all going well, will last four years. And sure enough, I see friendships forming in front of my eyes, friendships that will probably last for decades and will prove to be an invaluable resource for students making the difficult transition from secondary school to third level. So I have absolutely no doubt that denominated entry and the possibility of learning in small groups, with your friends, is not something we should dismiss

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The independent learning crisis

Today I allowed myself the luxury of working from the Lexicon library in my hometown of Dun Laoghaire. The library doesn’t look great from the outside but it’s pretty nice inside with a fine view of the coastline. I had some second year term papers to mark and a draft of a research paper to work on and as I’m happy to work without hardcopies I had my laptop. So, I looked at my emails occasionally and between papers I had a quick look at Twitter. I think that’s typical of the way that many of us work these days especially when we’re doing the more mundane chores of academia.

I like to spend time in libraries not so much for the books but because it gives me a chance to look around and observe what students are actually doing during their study time. The thing is, we expend so much energy worrying about ‘teaching’ in higher education that we often forget that the dominant mode of learning at this level is supposed to be ‘independent learning’. That’s almost the definition of higher education. So we should be concerned about what students are doing.

And, if you spend any amount of time in a library surrounded by students (second and third level), you’ll see pretty quickly that many have huge difficulty concentrating for any length of time. I’m not talking about a quick and occasional glance at emails or whatever, but frequent and long-lasting visits to their phones, tablets and laptops. It’s an epidemic. But it’s not just the technology; there’s a general lack of ‘intensity’, a half-hardheartedness that in some cases manifests as the student staring in to space for long periods. Even the students who are focusing seem to me to be studying in a very ineffective way. Reading and highlighting, a notoriously poor way of learning, is very common.

The independent learning problem is, for me, the major challenge facing higher education in the 21st century. All the teaching innovation in the world will be worthless if students continue to struggle to concentrate and focus when studying independently. We can obsess all we like about ‘engaging’ students in the classroom or laboratory but if the same students don’t consolidate what they learn in class by studying effectively, then all we’re doing is creating the illusion of learning.


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The Neoliberal University

These days, the word ‘neoliberal’ is usually used as a term of abuse. It is code for ‘right wing’, i.e. a belief in a lightly-regulated, laissez-faire approach to not only business and the economy but also to education. ‘Right wing’ is seen as inherently bad; selfish and focused on the individual, while ‘left wing’ is seen as caring and considerate and focused on the greater good. ( Jonathan Haidt is excellent on all of this.)

In the context of education, a neoliberal institution is one that is said to behave like a business, driven by the profit motive. It is one that sees students as customers, no more than a stream of revenue. And in the neoliberal world, the institution must meet the customers’ needs and desires because the customer is always right.

Given that in the neoliberal world, educational institutions must model themselves as a business, then they must be run like a business. Targets are needed, not only for the institutions themselves but also for departments and schools, and, crucially, for individual academics. Their performance must be monitored and evaluated and the most productive should be rewarded. And academic output should be almost like a cash flow – it should be constant and it should have impact. None of this long term investment stuff.

The claim of many is that Irish universities are in the grip of neoliberalism.

But let’s stand back from all of this and see things from the point of view of the people who really matter, i.e., the students. So what is 2016 like in comparison with the early 1980s when I went to university? The main change in my view is that universities have become highly regulated and almost obsessively student-centred. ‘Lecturing’ has become ‘teaching’ and ‘students’ have become ‘learners’. The laissez-faire approach of the 1980s is long gone. The days when you, even as a young lecturer, were given a course title and expected to run with it, with little or no oversight, are but a distant memory. Now we have module descriptors, annual programme reviews, periodic programme reviews, professional reviews, quality reviews, student surveys of teaching and national surveys of student engagement. Third level education has become highly controlled and monitored, the antithesis of laissez-faire neoliberalism. Much of this has been driven not by bureaucrats or by any ideology (‘managerialism’) but by academics themselves because higher education has, through a process driven mainly by academics, become more and more student-centred. For example, many if not most academics buy in to the ‘learning outcomes’ philosophy even though it places a significant administrative burden on academics themselves.

At the same time as the shift towards student-centred education has been occurring, participation rates in third level education have rocketed and governments throughout much of the West have taken the view that they cannot keep increasing funding to cope with the increased demand. This may reflect a neoliberal philosophy but it is more likely a result of pragmatism. Funding higher education is not a vote-grabber. The result is that institutions have had to take a much more pragmatic approach to funding. They can’t afford to take to the (apparently) high moral ground because the people who would suffer as a result would be the students. They have to ‘market’ themselves to attract students and they have to constantly increase their student intake. This creates challenges but does it pose any moral dilemmas? Perhaps it does if students are admitted who have a high probability of dropping out. But that’s largely an issue for the IoTs.

Universities and IoTs also have to work with profit-making companies – horror of horrors. But what is objectively ‘wrong’ with an institution collaborating with industrial or other business partners? Many academic disciplines exist precisely because they serve a function within certain types of businesses and industries. Chemical engineering is a ‘thing’ only because chemical engineers are needed to make all sorts of chemical and biochemical products on a large scale – for the good of society. It makes perfect sense for a university to encourage collaboration between its chemical engineering department and chemical or biopharma companies. If the institution can make some money out of the collaboration, that’s even better.

But isn’t all of the ‘monitoring and control’ of academics a bad thing? Personally, I haven’t witnessed any of this sinister-sounding stuff, but there is no doubt that the academic career has changed over the years. In an age when you can check someone’s Google Scholar citations in an instant, we all feel, and are, a lot more accountable and open to scrutiny. Expectations are a lot higher now and surely that is how it should be. We’re all highly qualified and those of us with permanent contracts still enjoy a degree of flexibility and freedom that would be the envy of private sector employees – so we should expect to be accountable. But, if we want equity in our system, then we have to know, pretty accurately, how everyone is spending their time, and what they are producing. We especially need some sort of workload model. That doesn’t seem like neoliberalism to me and I don’t know how anyone can argue with the idea that we all need to be open and transparent about what it is that we do with our non-teaching time. Sure, we can take offense and claim that this reflects a lack of trust on the part of ‘management’, but really, isn’t it time to get a grip and realise what a fantastic job this is even if it gets a bit stressful at times. Of course, if you work in an institution in which ‘management’ somehow infringes on your ability to teach to your best ability, then that’s another matter and it would be a worrying one. Likewise, if ‘management’ makes judgements about the value of your research, then that’s probably something that you just have to live with because making judgements about your research is not entirely unreasonable.

Most of the criticisms of modern university culture come from the arts and humanities. This is not surprising because the humanities are where you find academia in its ‘purest’ form. The arts and humanities is a place where, in general, scholarship dominates over research. And scholarship is something that doesn’t fit all that well with the modern emphasis on research impact. I have some sympathy for colleagues in the humanities but their demonising of those who hold different views as ‘neoliberals’ is not going to get them anywhere. Times have changed and university education has to be both transformational in the traditional sense but also vocational. With so many school-leavers pursuing higher education, the job of university teaching has become harder than ever. It has to inspire but it also has to give youngsters the best possible start in a world where higher education is taken for granted. And as I’ve said before, one of the best predictors of poor mental health is unemployment and if your programme is producing graduates who are struggling to find employment, then that should bother you.

We need to ditch the labels.

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More drift in Ireland’s Education System

Carl O’Brien’s article in the Irish Times today signals a further shift in our educational system towards what one might call ‘progressive’ methods. It seems that we’re going to do away with subjects and focus on learning by playing at least up until the age of 10. This is what Finland does. And Finland, as we all ‘know’, is the Nirvana of education. Mind you, the fact that Finland’s performance in PISA has been steadily declining tends to be ignored.

According to the article “Research indicates there is little evidence that teacher-led early learning improves long-term achievement.” Presumably, therefore, the theory is that early learning should focus on play, inquiry, creativity, problem-solving etc. I would really love to see the research that Carl is quoting here. Honestly, I would be surprised if anyone, anywhere, has done the long term studies needed to establish a link between early teacher-led instruction (or otherwise) on long term academic achievement.

The proposed changes to primary education follow hot on the heels of the new Junior Cycle Framework which marks a fundamental shift away from a knowledge-based curriculum to one that seems to be obsessed with ‘skills’. By all accounts the new Junior Cycle aims to strike a “balance between skills and knowledge” but given that knowledge and skills are so inextricably linked, it is hard to know what is meant here by ‘balance’. In my view, the new Junior Cert is an experimental drug for an undiagnosed illness and my prediction is that it will make the patient worse. Time will tell, though.

It’s hard to know where all of this ‘progressivism’ is coming from because by international standards our education system is performing very well – and we should be proud of it. So what precise problems are we trying to fix when we make such major changes to how we educate our youngsters? Of course, we should always try to improve what we are doing, but why make such radical changes? Given the stakes, why not be a little bit more incremental?

I think it’s partly to do with the seductive nature of change. Since the first election of Bill Clinton (or even JFK), the idea of ‘change’ has had huge appeal. It is probably part of the reason why Donald Trump was elected. Change is always seen as good and within the university sector, change in the form of innovation has become a belief system all of its own. These days, teaching ability is valued in the university system (at least in my institution) but it is hard to demonstrate your teaching excellence, at least on a CV. So teaching innovation often becomes a proxy for teaching excellence and the result is that there are an awful lot of people dabbling in education research within our universities. I’ve done it myself but gave it up because I realised that I don’t have the knowledge (of cognitive science, statistics, psychology etc.) to do rigorous research in education. I didn’t want to spend my time doing Mickey Mouse studies on whatever was flavour of the month. But a serious consequence of all this dabbling is that there is an awful lot ‘cheerleading’ for methods like problem-based learning or inquiry-based methods generally. And if enough people say something often enough, soon everyone begins to believe it.

While the innovation culture was taking hold, third level participation rates increased enormously meaning that class cohorts have become a lot more diverse these days, both in terms of students’ academic ability and in terms of their attitude and work ethic. Now, lecturers are constantly chasing their tails, innovating desperately to get students to learn better. It’s all quite admirable really. In this kind of environment, teaching methods that are seen as more ‘engaging’ are quite seductive. Anything is better than a sea of blank faces.

Meanwhile, and in the background, university lecturers have been griping constantly, and in public, about the ‘fact’ that incoming students lack critical thinking skills, and they blame this on the rote learning culture of the Leaving Cert. These criticisms have become something of an article of faith. But the fundamental flaw in this ‘reasoning’ is that it fails to recognise that incoming students are novices. They are usually coming to subjects for the first time and they lack the deep knowledge that they actually need to be able to think critically about those subjects. Many Arts students, for example, flock to courses in philosophy, a subject that they will never have studied before. Yet the expectation is that as soon as they arrive on campus they should morph into students who can think and write originally and critically about challenging philosophical ideas and principles. And when we realise they can’t, we choose to blame the second level system. In the process we relieve ourselves of the responsibility to put in place a proper plan for nurturing our students and encouraging them to eventually think for themselves. Instead we take the easy route and perpetuate the culture of second level.

But the idea that university students lack critical thinking skills and that this lack is the fault of our primary and secondary education systems is a powerful one. Furthermore, when you throw into the mix the notion that the ability to think critically is a uniquely 21st century attribute, then you have an almost unstoppable force.

Finally when you then think of our history as a country; the brutality of our schools, the often toxic role of the church and religious orders etc., you being to understand why there might be tendency to ‘overshoot’ when it comes to education reform.

And so we will overshoot and we will make the same mistakes that other countries have made. It kind of sums us up as a country really.

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Some quick thoughts on the Irish Survey of Student Engagement

I always read the Irish Survey of Student Engagement and it is generally a good read. It has evolved over the years from being a sort of customer satisfaction survey to a survey that, while still having a student-as-customer feel to it, tries to measure the extent to which our third level education system is consistent with a certain philosophy of education. If I say that the survey asks questions related to “solving complex real world problems” and “being an informed and active citizen” I think you’ll know what I mean.  I don’t think there is a single question, for example, that really asks anything about the discipline-specific knowledge that the students have acquired and how it may or may not have transformed their lives in any way. Ultimately, the survey has a utilitarian feel to it and seems to reflect a view of education as a process of acquiring skills. In a way, it reminds me of the new Junior Cycle framework document.

But there are some good questions in there on feedback, staff-student interactions, general support provided by institutions and (to a small extent) the degree to which students are committing to their studies. All in all, though, I think it’s a missed opportunity because it doesn’t really drill down and discover what the real barriers are to student engagement. Some of the things I would like to have learned from this survey are:

How does students’ actual independent learning time compare with what is written in the module descriptors?

How does commuting or part-time work affect students’ capacity to learn and study?

How are students studying, i.e., are they using evidence-based methods? (See

How is the physical environment and facilities within their institution affecting students’ ability to learn and study?

Does sub-optimal timetabling impact on student’s’ learning?

What impact has the provision of online lecture notes had on study and learning patterns?

How well are students managing their time?

In other words, I wish the survey asked more questions that would help us identify how we, in partnership with our students, could improve the whole learning experience..

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