Unconscious bias in education

No, this is not about gender; it’s about something else entirely. It’s lunchtime and after two lectures in a row, I’m tired. I don’t always lecture in the conventional sense. Very often my ‘lectures’ are problem-solving sessions in which the students do the work and I float around helping them out, individually and as a class. I ‘teach’ this way because I’m not entirely confident that left to their own devices students will do the regular practice that is essential if you want to get on top of a subject like chemical engineering. The downside of this approach is that I get through far less content than I used to and that worries me. Dilution of content is an ongoing phenomenon in higher education but nobody seems all that worried about it.

The thing about the problem-solving sessions, though, is that they are pretty enjoyable. There is a bit of banter with the students and you get a real opportunity to get to know your students as people. It’s all very nice.

On the other hand, giving lectures in which you chart a course through a subject, explaining key techniques and concepts as you go along, is far more demanding. Lecturing well is hard and you have to adopt a persona that gets you through the days when you’re just not up for it. Even then, there are times when you know the students are not switched on (for all sorts of reasons), and on those days lecturing can be almost soul-destroying.

So my point is this: do we have an unconscious bias towards ‘innovative’ methods of teaching, methods where students ‘engage’ even if they are not necessarily learning a whole lot; methods where we are not  striving to keep those faces from going blank; methods where we don’t emerge from the lecture like we’ve been through the wringer?

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The changing language of education


 Term What it means today What it used to mean
Coding Computer programming Something a spy might have done
Learner Student/Pupil A person learning to drive a car
Engaged Could mean anything What you became before you got married
Formative A kind of assessment What happened when you were young as in ‘formative years’
Summative A kind of assessment Sounds a bit ‘made-up’ doesn’t it?
Inquiry An approach to learning A kind of investigation usually of a legal nature
Discovery An approach to learning A TV channel
Grit Perseverance and some other ill-defined stuff Part of the title of a John Wayne movie
Growth Self-improvement Something that happened to plants and crops
Teaching Educating at all levels Educating at a level below third level
Self-regulation Independently planning, monitoring and assessing your own learning – or something Something that lawyers and doctors did
Rote learning Remembering Learning stuff off by heart – could be good or bad
Intelligence Anything you’re good at Usually an attribute associated with academic success
Skills Things employers say they want Something Diego Maradona had
Problem-solvers All graduates Mainly engineers
Transforming A benefit of education What was happening to Bruce Banner when he turned green
Passion Being interested in something Being in love
Bloom Education theorist What flowers did
Finland Educational paradise A country with a lot of  rally drivers
PISA Education testing system run by the OECD A town with a leaning tower
STEM Science, technology, engineering and maths Flowers again
STEAM Everything Stuff that comes out of a kettle
21st Century Brand new era requiring a revolution in education The century after the 20th
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The great education debate is coming to Ireland – I hope

There is a strong tendency among bona-fide academic educationalists and their more dodgy fellow-travelers who seem to be taking over the internet, to de-emphasise the need for students to acquire knowledge.

“We need to teach students to learn how to learn” is one of the mantras of both groups but especially the latter. Try reading some of their ’inspirational’ quotes. They all sound the same, don’t they? I often wonder if these ‘guys’ even realise how unoriginal they all sound. If you follow them through the Web you’ll end up hearing their TED and TEDx talks and after a while you’ll find yourself going slightly mad. The feeling I get from watching them is reminiscent of the mental numbness I used to get when I watched MTV back in the 1980s.

In an international context, the debate between those who believe in a knowledge-rich curriculum and those who believe in a more knowledge-light, skills-heavy curriculum is not new. But it hasn’t been the focus of much attention in Ireland where education debates tend to be dominated by the working conditions of teachers, the role of the Catholic Church in primary education and, increasingly, the question as to who should pay for third level education.

I hope, though, that as the new Junior Cycle comes under more scrutiny, the traditional versus progressive debate will become more obvious in Irish life. On the one side, there will be the traditionalists i.e., people like me who believe that learning is generally hard, even with an excellent teacher and a good learning environment, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and study using research-informed techniques. Why? Because there is no surer way to develop a long-term love of a subject than to become good at it. How many careers do you know that sound like they should be inherently boring but yet people love them and they do so because they’re good at them.

On the other side we have the ‘progressives’ who say things like “students need to drive their own learning”, or “students need to construct their own knowledge”. This type of educator is more likely to believe that skills and quasi-skills like problem-solving or creativity are more important than knowledge. Indeed, many, if not most, will downplay the undoubted importance that knowledge plays in acquiring and maintaining these skills. They are likely to dismiss knowledge acquisition as rote learning or ‘banking’. Many will buy in to the whole idea of 21st century skills and the notion that we are currently preparing students for jobs that not only don’t exist yet but haven’t even been imagined. Educators in this camp use words like “engagement”, and phrases like “relevant to student lives” a lot, a concept which is surely one of the most anti-education ideas that you could imagine. They tend to believe that learning should come naturally to students and they often believe that the “oppressive” classroom environment stifles all enthusiasm and creativity. They are likely to cite as evidence the enthusiasm and natural learning ability of toddlers despite some very powerful counter arguments.

The progressive camp is definitely in the ascendancy and scored a major victory with Project Maths. We all know where that has led. The new Junior Cycle, if it comes to pass, will be an even bigger win. If you think the Junior Cycle is simply about teachers assessing their own students, try having a read of this really interesting critique on the huge emphasis (up to 400 hours) in the Junior Cycle on a new subject called “Wellbeing”. The new Junior Cycle involves a major shift away from pupils acquiring the knowledge that will actually broaden their minds and help them to find their element, and encourage them to “engage with real world problems” (as they say!). How can 14-year olds, for example, have any kind of meaningful, informed discussion (as opposed to an “engaging” discussion) about, say, climate change, unless they have a decent amount of background knowledge of plain old geography?

I think this debate, if we have it, is one that is of vital importance to our country. I believe that if the so-called ‘progressive’ side comes out on top we will do very significant, long-lasting damage to our education system and, more importantly, to our young people. People, especially academics, need to get off the fence and start getting involved, whichever side they’re on. This is too important for it to be decided by a small group of insiders. And we know where insider thinking has got us in this country.

I’ll leave you with an ‘inspirational’ quote from Sugata Mitra, one of those education gurus I mentioned: “Knowing is NOT the most important thing. To be able to FIND OUT is more important than knowing”, which, when you think about it, implies that there must be things we need to find out about. So why not start in school?

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I’m with ASTI on the Junior Cycle

I was going to write something substantial about the new Junior Cycle but having visited juniorcycle.ie and perused the documentation, I abandoned that idea because it was all so predictable and even depressing. Education is now seen (by the majority it would appear) purely as the acquisition of skills, especially quasi-skills like problem-solving, creativity and collaboration. Knowledge seems to be a dirty word, almost as dirty as rote learning.

My biggest problem with the Junior Cycle documentation is the fact that, like a badly written review article, it is completely disconnected from the research literature. For example, its section on being creative makes repeated reference to Sir Ken Robinson, a self-appointed creativity expert who is famous for his TED talk in which he makes the completely unsupported accusation that Schools Kill Creativity. Robinson is not a serious thinker when it comes to education despite the popularity of his talks and books.

Elsewhere, it is presumed, amongst other things, that outcomes-based education is superior to traditional education. For years, education has been seen as somewhat open-ended and fuzzy, a process where each individual student reaches his/her own outcomes based on their innate ability, their personal circumstances and their commitment. Not now. These days, a grade is presumed to mean something precise despite the fact that assessments can only sample the sum total of a student’s knowledge and skills.

Elsewhere, assessment for learning (AfL) appears to be a key philosophy underpinning the new junior cycle and while AfL as a concept is plausible, there are some well-respected dissenters. There are serious questions to be discussed here but ultimately it would appear that education policy is driven by ideology, not evidence.

I could go on but in the face of the juggernaut that is the modern, groupthink-riddled, education establishment, it’s hard not to think that resistance is futile. And so, the new Junior Cycle, an experimental drug for an undiagnosed illness, will be administered. I just hope that we don’t end up like Sweden, a country whose education standards are on the slide to a point where one of the architects of its highly progressive approach to education has recently apologised for the role that academics played in that slide. Or like Ontario, which, having adopted a more progressive approach to teaching mathematics, is now aghast to find that mathematics standards are on the decline.

Sadly I predict that after a few years of the new Junior Cycle, students are going to start struggling with the Leaving Cert, leading to the dumbing down of that exam. This will have a knock-on effect on third level and we will have two choices: fail more students or dumb down ourselves. As they say in the movies, I have a bad feeling about this.

By the way, there is one simple answer to the rote learning problem and it is this: make exams harder! Ask more challenging questions, throw a few curve balls at students, adopt less restrictive marking schemes, give examiners more autonomy. But that wouldn’t be fair. Right?

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Are universities inflating points?

The basic argument is this: (i) universities cynically restrict their intake to courses, (ii) the CAO is a supply and demand system, (iii) points go up, (iv) prestige of institution is enhanced.

But it’s wrong.

To prove this, I examined the data from 2015 (it was all published in the Irish Times) and I looked at business courses only. I also restricted my analysis to the university sector. I didn’t include Law + Business courses (I think they’re more law than business).

I included all courses with a business component: business,  finance, business+language, international business, commerce, accounting and marketing. In one case (a UCC course) the intake represents the total number of students admitted to the business+language courses and the points represents the average value for all languages available.

Here’s what I got. The different symbols reflect different institutions. The log scale on the x-axis is used purely for visualization purposes.

If you can see evidence of manipulation, you’re a cleverer person than me.



Added later: It should be pointed out that there are some very legitimate logistical reasons for why some of the courses have a very low intake, e.g, a formal agreement with a university in another country.

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More myths about the CAO and the Leaving Cert

Myth 1

School-leavers are attracted to high point courses because of the prestige factor

Why this is a myth (I think!)

My experience of talking to pupils at careers fairs over the years is that the opposite is the case. Youngsters tend to be reluctant to apply for courses that they think might be beyond their reach. Their thinking seems to be that it would be a waste to put down a course as their first preference if they have little chance of making the grade.

The only way to settle this whole argument would be for the institutions to release their first preference data and, if they did, I am pretty confident that the number of first preferences for low intake courses of any description will not be much greater than the total number of places available and so these courses will account for a very small proportion of the total number of first preferences in the system. We need to stop obsessing about these so-called niche courses and think more about the fact that all sorts of stakeholders are ‘encouraging’ school-leavers to adopt a herd mentality (the real source of heat in the system) by choosing careers purely on the basis of the job opportunities that they might provide.

Myth 2

Increased third level participation rates are due to parental snobbery

Why this is a myth

Just look at the environment in which students make choices about their career. They are bombarded with advice about the supposed skills shortage in STEM, about how we are currently training students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, about how the average school leaver can be expected to change career umpteen times during their lifetime etc. etc. Meanwhile, education experts and the folk at organisations like the World Economic forum talk incessantly about how crucial it will be for the employees of the future to be adaptable, emotionally intelligent critical thinkers, adept at solving complex problems using their 21st century skills!

So what is a young person and their parents to think other than that third level education is essential if you want to survive in the workplace of the future?

Of course, things have become even more confusing in recent years as increasing numbers of middle class commentators suggest that other people’s children take up apprenticeships, the complete opposite of the whole jobs that don’t exist concept. Who’d be a school-leaver?


Myth 3

CAO points don’t matter

Why this is a myth

As I followed the Leaving Cert coverage on social media last week, it struck me just how many people were tweeting in an attempt to reassure youngsters that the Leaving Cert “doesn’t define them”. (The worst are the celebrity types who did badly at school and who boast about how well things turned out for them.) Where exactly are all these people who supposedly “define” school-leavers on the basis of their CAO points score? I’ve never met anyone who thinks that CAO points are the measure of a person. But getting a high CAO points score opens doors and gives young people the fastest route to their career of choice. Furthermore, those of us in the third level sector, while believing that the Leaving is a reasonable measure of overall academic ability, also realise that it is not a very good predictor of individual performance at third level. All sorts of other factors come in to play when a person makes the transition from second level to third level. But ask any third level lecturer if they would prefer a class of 500-pointers over a class of 350-pointers and the vast majority will opt for the former. And they do so because a class of the former will have a much better dynamic, one where there will be a good work ethic and where the majority of students will have high expectations of themselves. But we don’t make any judgement about the students as human beings and we never have.



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Myths about the CAO system

It is desperately frustrating to hear, year after year, the same nonsense being spoken about the Leaving Cert and the CAO system. So let’s try to expose (yet again!) some of the myths.

Myth 1

By offering courses with a small number of places, institutions are adding to the ‘heat’ in the CAO system thus causing extra stress for young school leavers.

Why this is a myth?

In fact, the majority of courses with low intake also have low entry points and most of these low-intake courses are in the IoT sector. (About two thirds of courses with an intake of 10 or fewer students have points below 350.) The low intake and the low points are a direct consequence of very low demand and the real ‘crisis’ in the CAO system is that the IoT sector is offering large numbers of Level 8 courses that nobody wants to do.

 Myth 2

By introducing broad entry, some of the heat will be taken out of the system.

Why this is a myth?

Contrary to what is commonly believed, the CAO system is not a simple supply-and-demand one. The relationship between supply and demand is seriously complicated by (i) the prestige of the institutions, (ii) the herd mentality and (iii) points inflation. For example, despite the huge class sizes, common entry to science in UCD has required more than 500 points in recent years while common entry to engineering in UCD, despite having the largest intake of any engineering course in the country, also has the highest entry points.

Furthermore, it is quite likely that points for construction-related courses will rise this year for the simple reason that students are once again seeing these disciplines as providing greatly improved career opportunities. As the herd moves around, the points follow. In other words, demand is extremely volatile.

Finally, it is worth noting that in 2008, about 15,000 students scored 400 or more points in the LC. By 2015, this number had increased to 20,000. At the same time, the number of students scoring <400 points remained essentially static. (This is a trend that predates the introduction of bonus points for maths.)

Myth 3

Broad entry will allow students to make more mature decisions about their specialisation of choice

Why this is a myth?

Unless an institution can guarantee all students a place in their specialisation of choice at the end of first year, broad entry will lead to a highly pressurised first year. In effect the pressure of the Leaving Cert will be transferred from school to college. As a passing comment, it is absolutely essential that colleges who are publicly advocating the increased use of broad entry should be open and transparent about how exactly they intend to allocate students to the various specialisations. And they also need to reassure students that if places are guaranteed, the quality of those specialised courses will not be compromised should the numbers be unexpectedly high.

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