Axl Rose and Progressive Education

Reading this article in Guardian about the worrying decline in the performance of the Scottish Education system, I couldn’t help but think about the words of that great philosopher, Axl Rose. Actually they’re not really his words – they’re from the movie Cool Hand Luke but he says them at the start of the song, Civil War, from the album Use Your Illusion II.

The famous words are the following: “Some men you just can’t reach”. And when it comes to education, I suspect we will never reach those who believe in progressive education, and ‘believe’ is the appropriate word. What is progressive education? Well, it’s a sort of mish-mash of a number of ideas but the following are some of beliefs of the progressive educator:

  • A tendency to claim that the progressive or constructivist approach is more ‘student-centred’ than more traditional, teacher-led education
  • A tendency to emphasise and assume the superiority of all forms of active learning especially methods than could be classified as inquiry-based or discovery-based
  • A tendency to characterise memorisation as little more than ‘rote learning’
  • A tendency to characterise teacher-led education as conforming to a 19th century ‘factory model’ that is unsuitable (in some unspecified way) for the 21st century
  • A tendency to believe that advances in digital technology have changed everything and that the consequence of these advance is to make the world much more complex, requiring new ways of thinking
  • A strong tendency to view education in very utilitarian terms as evidenced by the repeated use of phrases like “authentic real world problems” and “relevant to learners’ lives”
  • A strong preference for the word ‘learner’ rather than ‘student’ or ‘pupil’
  • A tendency to believe that ‘understanding’ is more important than an ability to ‘do’ and a tendency to see ‘understanding’ and ‘remembering’ as fundamentally different cognitive processes
  • A belief that the way we learn should mimic how we live and work in the ‘real world’ – a bit like saying that rugby teams should prepare only by playing 15-a-side, full-contact practice matches.
  • A tendency to equate ‘engaging’ with learning and a tendency to use the word ‘engage’ a lot
  • A tendency to believe that supposedly generic skills like problem-solving and creativity can be taught in one domain and that these ‘skills’ will automatically transfer to other domains
  • An almost obsessive belief that learning should be a collaborative process
  • A tendency to believe that teaching within the framework of well-defined disciplines is inferior to more interdisciplinary, topic-based forms of teaching – especially given the ‘complexities’ of the 21st

Ideas and beliefs like those listed above are proving very hard to shift despite the fact that both PISA 2012 (maths) and PISA 2015 (science) cast very serious doubts on them, and despite the fact that countries that have embraced these ideas (Scotland, some Canadian states, Australia) are going backwards in the PISA rankings. We should also mention the fact that here in Ireland, the Project Maths initiative is associated with a decline in basic mathematical skills in higher education (Treacy, Faulkner, Prendergast; Irish Educ. Studies, 35, 381-401, 2016.)

The usual counter-arguments from progressive educators (who, by the way, need not buy in to the full list of beliefs above) are the following: PISA and standardised tests generally are very limited in scope and there is more to education than tests, especially in the 21st century (that word again!); or it takes time to bed-in new ideas and we need to be patient; or teachers aren’t implementing these ‘new’ ideas  properly and need further training etc. etc.

It is interesting to watch someone like Andreas Schleicher, head of OECD Education, who is clearly a ‘progressive’, respond when his own research (PISA) doesn’t support the progressive philosophy. When PISA showed that use of computers in the classroom correlated negatively with computer literacy, or when PISA showed that inquiry based methods were inferior to teacher-led methods in both maths and science, his cognitive dissonance was palpable. Now he seems to be really digging in his heels and simply repeating the same old slogans as if his hands were placed tightly over his ears. (See this wonderful debate between Schleicher and Daisy Christodoulou and Nick Gibb*. There was also an Argentinian guy who didn’t say much.)

So, getting back to Axl Rose and his quote, I think we have a fundamental problem in that education is not really an academic discipline – yet. (Did I say that out loud?) It’s too riddled with deeply-held ideologies and beliefs and no matter how many graphs that people like me churn out, others will hold on tight to their beliefs and plough on regardless. Our thoughts about education are very much intertwined with our ideas about motivation, fairness, equity, child-rearing and compassion, and also very much influenced by our own personal experiences of education.

But it’s not hopeless and some real debate can be started when we elect politicians who have a good grasp of the issues, like Nick Gibb in the UK who whatever faults he might have in other areas, is at least aware of the tradition versus progressive debate. This is in contrast to Irish politicians who, despite the fact that so many of them are ex-teachers, seem to have a very unquestioning mindset when it comes to education policy.



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The skills shortage paradox

This is the era of STEM. Youngsters are constantly exhorted to forge careers in STEM because, apparently, STEM is where the jobs are. This is the 21st century after all.

The STEM campaign has been broadly ‘successful’ and the number of CAO first preferences for STEM subjects has risen from around 18.7% in 2008 to 23.7%. At the same time there has been a drift away from the arts and humanities; 25.6% in 2008 to 22.0% in 2017. This is seen as a good thing.

But it does strike me that there is something wrong with the whole STEM narrative. According to the HEA, the following were the employment rates in Ireland (nine months post-graduation) for 2015 graduates for the following disciplines:

Science/Maths:                                   42% (7% abroad)

Engineering/Construction:            60% (10% abroad)

ICT:                                                        70% (6% abroad)

These numbers are …disappointing, and not what you would expect to see in a country struggling to cope as a result of skills shortages in STEM. I am amazed these numbers have received so little attention in the media and elsewhere. So what’s going on?

There are a number of possibilities:

  • When we promote the STEM concept we are being too vague and the consequence is that we might be producing too many graduates in areas for which there are, in fact, no skills shortages at all. An over-supply of graduates is likely, at least in some disciplines. For example, the job opportunities for biology graduates are probably quite different from those of physicists or mathematicians. Likewise the opportunities for chemical engineers are probably different from those of civil or electrical engineers.
  • The quality (or the skillset) of our graduates may not be what it should be and employers are recruiting internationally rather than recruiting here in Ireland. Given the number of non-Irish, EU citizens working in our tech industries, this seems a reasonable possibility.
  • The real skills shortage does not occur at entry-level but exists for graduates with 3+ years’ experience.  If this is the case, then perhaps we need to focus less on recruiting young people into STEM and more on the career paths of typical STEM graduates. Are graduates being lost somewhere along the line? Or perhaps we are in a chicken and egg situation where employers want a plentiful supply of experienced scientists and engineers but aren’t willing to make the initial investment by recruiting and training more raw graduates?
  • Graduates are choosing to get the masters degree ‘out of the way’, believing that career advancement will require a masters at some stage; so why not now?

Whatever is going on we need to be a lot more careful in our use of STEM rhetoric. We have an obligation to be straight-up with our students and that means being much more focused in our career advice. We also need employers to be much more precise and focused with their claims of skills shortages. STEM, after all, is not a thing. It’s a whole bunch of things, and quite different things at that.

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The missing NOT

Last post should be titled

No, Joe, Universities are NOT businesses!

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No, Joe, universities are not businesses

Now, Joe O’Toole is at it. In his rambling article in today’s Irish Times, he perpetuates the idea that third level institutions are slaves to business, churning out graduates who, while qualified and market-ready, are somehow “uneducated”. According to Joe, “education is plummeting down the priority list, overtaken by business creep”.

Actually, the idea that education is being devalued in the modern ‘neoliberal’ university is totally at odds with the evidence. Twenty years ago, no one spoke about ‘teaching and learning’. In fact, nobody used the word ‘teaching’ in a third level context. Twenty years ago we didn’t have student surveys of teaching, national surveys of student engagement, annual programme reviews, periodic programme reviews, and quality reviews of all kinds.

We didn’t have teaching enhancement units; we didn’t have national forums for the enhancement of teaching and learning; we didn’t have academics pursuing postgraduate qualifications in education and cognitive science. We didn’t have chemists and physicists and many others re-training and forging research careers in the broad area of pedagogy.

In fact, despite what many say, we have become almost obsessed with teaching and learning. The reasons for this are many but for me the two key ones are: (i) there is a huge amount of goodwill in the system and many academics are consistently going the extra mile to improve their teaching to improve the student experience;  (ii) it’s a lot more difficult to reach students these days and we simply have to try harder. Our classes are far more diverse in terms of academic ability (or so it seems to me), the world is far more distracting, and many students seem to be in college because they feel they have to be, not because they want to be. In short, it is a lot harder to engage students these days and while engagement is not a good proxy for learning, it’s a start.

So, the reality is that the modern university is operating under the burden of unrealistic expectations. It is expected to educate in the traditional sense, to be nimble enough to meet the needs of industry and business, to be a place where knowledge is created via basic research, to be a vehicle for job creation, to be an active participant in communities, to be a driver of societal change. This is a lot to ask but the idea that our education brief is being neglected is simply not true.  Mind you, our science and engineering laboratories are crying out for investment.



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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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