I first came to DCU in 1986 as a sprightly young 23 year old with an MSc from Cornell and having seen a lot of changes over the years, it’s worth taking a bit of time out from marking to reflect. (Any excuse!)
There is no doubt that the third level sector is facing a lot of problems (not all resource-related) but it is important to recognise that many of these problems reflect wider trends in society, trends that are extremely positive, but which have a downside. Our society is fairer, more compassionate and more caring than it ever has been. Parenting is better, teaching is better, but our expectations of our pupils and students seem to be getting lower.
It’s interesting, for example, to see the reaction of everyone from students to teachers to parents when the Leaving Cert exams are held every June. It is particularly interesting to think about how people perceive the whole concept of fairness. Exams are seen to be unfair if unexpected questions are asked, if very challenging questions are asked, indeed if there is any suggestion that students have to do the very things that we claim we would like them to do, like thinking outside the box. There is a strong belief throughout our culture that for an exam to be fair, students must not be thrown any curve balls. There is also a strong belief that fairness demands that students know precisely what they need to do to achieve a high grade. Furthermore, people want a highly transparent and accountable marking system, one that enforces very strict marking schemes that must be followed rigorously by the examiners. All of these things lead inevitably to a culture of learning to the test. If we want to ‘deconstruct’ the Leaving Cert, then we, as a society, must revaluate many of our current ways of thinking about fairness, accountability and trust.
In third level we have made many changes supposedly in the interest of students but which may have caused a lot of harm. When we moved to a modularised and semesterised system, we made a conscious decision to organise and package our students’ learning into easily-digested, bite-size chunks, all with the best of intentions. (As an engineer with something of a systemising mindset, I was all in favour of modularisation.) But, in the process, we stripped our courses down, reduced the amount of contact time and ‘outsourced’ most of the work to the students themselves in the form of ‘independent learning’. We bolted on an American system which works well when students are forced to study continuously through the use of homework, quizzes, mid-terms and finals, but we tried to retain the traditional British and Irish values of students being required to drive and control their own learning. Unfortunately all of this was done at a time when students were growing up in a highly distracting internet age and it turns out that students do far less independent learning than we want them to. So, our students, whose study habits have been formed by the Leaving Cert but who no longer have the guiding hand of the secondary school teacher, use a just-in-time approach to ‘learn off’ small chunks of material, material which is often examined using final exams that are even shorter than those used in the Leaving Cert. This approach to learning, coupled with semesterisation, means that students retain very little of what they have learned from one year to the next. Anyone who has read even a smidgen of cognitive science will not be surprised by this.
It was also unfortunate that many of these changes happened to coincide with the turn of the century. The dawn of the 21st century seemed to create a sort of millennium mania in which everybody from experienced educators to education gurus like Sir Ken Robinson to companies flogging Edtech software (and now to Toy companies) began to suggest that education needed to be revolutionised. The basic notion being peddled was that because we lived in an increasingly digital world, everything had changed. The story went that the current generation was made up of digital natives who needed to learn differently and in different ways. Problem solving and creativity were re-invented as 21st century skills. The idea of actually knowing stuff was seen as a remnant of the 19th century. The idea of knowing things off by heart was singled out for particular scorn.
The result of all of these cultural and pedagogical changes was that we took our eyes off the ball. We began to accept that students studying engineering at college couldn’t do basic algebra and calculus, or that students at all levels had difficulty constructing grammatically correct sentences. We realised that students’ attention to detail was terrible but we tolerated it. We knew that students digital skills were not what they needed to be but we convinced ourselves that this generation does not need to be taught these things.
We’ve known all of this for years now and most academics I know are in a constant state of exasperation coupled with frustration. I think these feelings ultimately stem from confusion about what constitute fair and reasonable expectations of our students. But confusion about fairness is not unique to education.