Why changing the Leaving Cert is probably impossible

Hardly a week goes by without their being yet another article in some newspaper or other bemoaning the “rote-learning culture” of the Leaving Cert and its inability to prepare students for the 21st century. There are the usual pleas for a greater emphasis on creativity and original thinking, but rarely, if ever, are there any suggestions as to how one might achieve these things.

Why do students rote learn, i.e. ‘learn off’ essays and answers to past and predicted exam questions? Because, in an examination that has a very well-defined structure and a very well-defined marking scheme, rote learning is a good tactic if you want to do well. So if you want to rid the system of an over-reliance on rote learning, you have to deal with not only how the Leaving Cert exams are structured but also how they are marked.

If you want to encourage originality and critical thinking, and to assess these ‘skills’, you first have to design the exams so that the unexpected becomes the norm. The only way a student can demonstrate their ‘higher order skills’ is if they are confronted with a situation in which they have to use those skills.

Secondly, you would have to allow the examiners, i.e. those marking the scripts, a bit more freedom. Creativity and originality are very subjective characteristics and what is ‘creative’ in the mind of one examiner might be just plain ‘wrong’ in the eyes of another. In truth, creativity and originality cannot really be assessed in any kind of robust way. In fact, you could almost define creativity as a cognitive skill that is un-assessable.

The problem with all of this is that unpredictable exams and ‘loose’ marking schemes would be completely unacceptable to students, teachers and especially parents. Fairness has come to be synonymous with transparency and predictability.

Meanwhile, and in the background, the dominant trend in education over the last decade or so has been the idea that students should know exactly what is required of them if they are to achieve a certain grade. This is especially true at third level where ideas like ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘rubrics’ are increasingly presumed to represent good practice.

One could argue, however, that the more traditional approach to education, in which the end-point of a student’s studies was more open-ended and highly individual, was a better way to encourage original thinking. The view used to be that students would set off on a learning journey and the endpoint of every journey was different and very much dependent on the ability of the student and, more importantly, their commitment.

It seems to me that throughout the second and third level system we are trying to do the impossible. We want a highly transparent, robust and fair system but at the same time we want that system to encourage creativity and original thinking. I don’t think that’s possible.

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Is our education system effective?

The last round of PISA results suggested that we should be pretty proud of our education system here in Ireland. But a couple of recent studies suggest that maybe we’re not as “effective” as we might think.

Recent research performed in Oxford attempted to adjust PISA and TIMSS scores to account for the economic wealth of a country. A summary of their results for science are here and those for maths are here. Both sets of results suggest that our education system is performing just about average.

Food for thought.

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The problem with Stem

Anyone who reads this blog regularly probably knows that I have a bit of a problem with the term ‘Stem’. ‘Stem’ covers everything from botany to theoretical physics to mechanical engineering. ‘Stem’ is more than a harmless acronym; it represents an attempt at a unification of the various science and technology disciplines to create a sort of super-discipline, one that is increasingly defined by a set of generic skills like enquiry, problem-solving, creativity etc. But, really, does it make sense to lump electronic engineering in with molecular biology, or financial mathematics in with organic chemistry, or computer science in with microbiology?

One of the problems that science (but not engineering) has is that school-leavers and their parents have only a vague idea as to what science is, and they know very little about the careers that are available to science graduates. It’s the old “but what will I be?” problem. Of course, we know that the careers you might pursue with a science degree are many and we (i.e. academics) see this as a good thing. But in the mind of the school-leaver or their parents, this variety – and uncertainty – is a source of worry. And that is why the number of Level 8 first preferences for science and applied science has increased by only 0.8% since 2012 despite the fact that total number of Level 8 preferences has increased by over 5% in the same period. Meanwhile, the number of first preferences for engineering and technology courses has increased by a whopping 33%. The reasons for this are simple: school-leavers (and their parents) know that at the end of an engineering course, graduates have a very good chance of being employed, as an engineer, in a growing economy; science graduates don’t have that certainty.

So if we want to get more young people to study science, we need to provide them with a lot more specific information about career options. It is not good enough to talk in vague generalities about ‘Stem’; we need to distinguish between biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, ICT, mathematics and talk in very tangible terms about what careers in these separate disciplines look like.

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Progressive teaching of maths: the cause of all our troubles?

Whenever I chat to colleagues from physics or maths we tend to end up sharing our experiences and frustrations about teaching quantitative subjects to college students. Everyone, in all third level institutions, is exasperated. The same old worries surface: students struggling with basic algebraic manipulations; students having difficulty calculating numerical answers to problems, especially when scientific notation is involved; students unable to do unit conversions; students not having automatic recall of basic facts that free-up working memory and make problem-solving possible. The general consensus among colleagues is that third level students’ weakness at problem solving ultimately stems from their having a poor grasp of the basic language of mathematics; it’s not due to a lack of some ill-defined ‘problem-solving skills’.

It’s hard to know when all of these difficulties begin but I suspect it goes back to primary school. The primary school maths curriculum is undergoing a review but the current one (dating from 1999) is available here. In the review document, the 1999 curriculum is characterised as follows:

The 1999 mathematics curriculum has many strengths. With firm theoretical roots in Piagetian and radical constructivism, the curriculum promotes the development of children’s meaning making, mathematical language, skills and concepts as well as fostering positive attitudes to maths. There remains, however, scope for improvement. Contemporary thinking and research offers fresh insights into ‘how children learn’ and ‘why they learn in particular circumstances’. This thinking, which has strong Vygotskian influences promotes learning as a  social and collaborative process where children’s learning is enhanced through active participation, engaging in ‘mathematization’, working collaboratively with others as well as children building positive identities of themselves as mathematicians. This shift in theoretical perspective demonstrates the need for revisiting the aims of the PMSC and identifying where improvements can be made building on the many strengths of the current curriculum.

While the current mathematics curriculum clearly demands a ‘progressive’ approach to the teaching of mathematics, it would seem that the view of the new curriculum designers is that the 1999 curriculum is not progressive enough. Worryingly, though, the review document contains not a single reference to the work of Daniel Willingham, Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and many others who have made substantial contributions to our understanding of how people learn, especially the roles that prior knowledge, cognitive load, long-term memory and working memory play in learning. Our education system is being driven by philosophy and ideology, not cognitive science.

To get a sense of what all of this ‘progressivism’ means, it is worth having a look at a few statements from the 1999 curriculum. These include:

The importance of providing the child with structured opportunities to engage in exploratory activity in the context of mathematics cannot be overemphasised. The teacher has a crucial role to play in guiding the child to construct meaning, to develop mathematical strategies for solving problems, and to develop self-motivation in mathematical activities.

In view of the complexity of mathematical symbols, it is recommended that children should not be required to record mathematical ideas prematurely. Concepts should be adequately developed before finding expression in written recording. The use of symbols and mathematical expressions should follow extended periods of oral reporting and discussion.

The child’s mathematical development requires a substantial amount of practical experience to establish and to reinforce concepts and to develop a facility for their everyday use. He/she develops a system of mathematics based on experiences and interactions with the environment. The experience of manipulating and using objects and equipment constructively is an essential component in the development of both mathematical concepts and constructive thought throughout the strands of the mathematics programme

The development of arithmetical skills, i.e. those concerned with numerical calculations and their application, is an important part of the child’s mathematical education. This mathematics curriculum places less emphasis than heretofore on long, complex pen-and-paper calculations and a greater emphasis on mental calculations, estimation, and problem-solving skills. Rapid advances in information technology and the ready availability of calculators have not lessened the need for basic skills.

For children to really understand mathematics they must see it in context, and this can be done through drawing attention to the various ways in which we use mathematics within other subjects in the curriculum

It is important that children come to see mathematics as practical and relevant. Opportunities should be provided for them to construct and apply their mathematical understanding and skills in contexts drawn from their own experiences and environments.

I’d love to know where the evidence is for any of these ideas becasue some of them sound truly bizarre to me, especially the idea that a child should develop a system of mathematics based on experiences and interactions with the environmentSeriously?

All of this reminds me of the classic pilot error, the one where the panic-stricken pilot, on finding that his aircraft is about to stall, pulls back even harder on the controls , ultimately ending with the plane plummeting nose first into the ground.

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Whiskey, Google and knowledge

“The former objectives of education, which emphasised a knowledge of facts, are no longer as valuable in a society where information is available at your fingertips.”

This was a statement made recently in a column in the Irish Times and it is pretty par for the course. Lots of people have been making this claim for quite a few years now. It’s nothing new. Indeed, the very day I read this article I was attending a T&L conference in which one of the speakers made essentially the same point. It’s become a bit of a mantra.

So let’s imagine we want to find out some stuff about whiskey but have very little basic knowledge of biology and chemistry. In particular we want to learn about how whiskey is made.

So let’s Google the word ‘whiskey’. In Ireland the first hits will be for distilleries and pubs and the first source of real content will be – you guessed it – Wikipedia. So let’s go there because that’s what ‘learners’ tend to do.

The first sentence is this:

Whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat.

Straightaway we have two words (fermented and malted) that unless we have studied biology we are unlikely to understand.

So let’s follow the fermented link. When we do so we are confronted with this:

Fermentation in food processing is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganisms—yeasts or bacteria—under anaerobic conditions.

Unless we have studied biology we are unlikely to have any understanding of the difference between a yeast and bacterium but, suppose for now that we do. That means we only have to worry about carbohydrates, organic acids and anaerobic. We’ll probably recognise the term ‘carbohydrate’ and associate it with things like low-carb diets, potatoes, bread and pasta. Organic acids is likely to throw us because we tend to associate the word ‘acid’ with pungent, corrosive liquids and we might have some memory of the term ‘battery acid’. But the word organic will conjure up images of the organic veg section of Tesco.

Now let’s follow the malted link. If we did, we’d find out that

Malt is germinated cereal grains that have been dried in a process known as malting. Malting grains develops the enzymes required for modifying the grain’s starches into various types of sugar, including the monosaccharide glucose, the disaccharide maltose, the trisaccharide maltotriose, and higher sugars called maltodextrins.

Now we’re really up against it. There’s no link for germinated so we’ll have to open a new window, do a search, and and make sure we know what germination means. When we return to our malting page we are confronted by enzymes. We might have some vague idea that biological washing powders have enzymes in them, or that our body produces enzymes to digest food, but we won’t really know what enzymes actually are unless we have studied some biochemistry. So we click on the enzyme link. When we get to the enzymes page we are confronted with this:

Enzymes are macromolecular biological catalysts. Enzymes accelerate, or catalyze, chemical reactions.

We will probably guess that macromolecular means that enzymes are ‘big’ molecules, although we won’t really have any sense as to what ‘big’ means in this context.

It’s likely that at this point we’ll go back to malt page and continue reading about what malting is. We’ll probably ignore all the biochemical stuff and be happy to accept that the purpose of malting is to in some way ‘develop the enzymes’ so that they can convert starch into sugars even if we won’t know quite what starch is, or what sugar is.

When we get back to the fermented pages, we click on the anaerobic link just to make sure we know precisely what that term means in this context.  Finally we go back to the original Whiskey page and realise that we have read one sentence. We’ll know that we’re in for a long day but if we persevere we might get to a point where we have some ‘understanding’ of how whiskey is made but it’s likely that our understating will be superficial at best.

Wouldn’t the whole experience be far more rewarding if we had learned (and remembered) some basic science facts before throwing ourselves at the mercy of Google?

And haven’t an awful lot of people got things backwards. Isn’t the fact that so much information is so readily available precisely the reason why our time in formal education should be the very time when we acquire the key knowledge that will enable us to navigate the digital world in a meaningful way?

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Risk factors for non-progression at third level

The main risk factors for non-progression at third level are the following*:

  1. Low prior educational achievement, i.e., low CAO points.
  2. Being male
  3. Being from a lower socioeconomic group
  4. Studying on a course in construction or ICT

When all of the above arise together, you have the perfect storm and high non-progression rates are almost inevitable. So if we want to tackle high non-progression rates, we need to target those students about whom some or all of the above statements can be made. The entire system doesn’t need to be radically overhauled.


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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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