Educated in Ireland: a call for data

It’s hard to get away from education. I was home in bed yesterday, struck down by some virus or other when I turned on the TV only to end up watching the Oireachtas Committee on Education – I think it was this. Some guy was talking about the benefits of collaborative learning. I think he was trying to flog some educational software. He should read Susan Cain’s book on introverts and how they learn and work. A large chunk of the population, me included, prefer to work on their own, especially when they want to think a problem through. Forcing them into collaborative learning is often counter-productive. I’ve seen this in my own teaching. The idea of brainstorming with a bunch of people throwing out random ideas fills many with dread.

However, in amongst all the noise, there was one beacon of sense last week and that was Francis Ruane’s piece in the Irish Times. Her column was a call for an evidence-based approach to policy-making. It was a low-key column but it was an extremely important intervention in my view. Far too much of what passes for policy, especially in education, is driven by sound bites that would be appropriate in a Zoo TV show. A key point that Prof. Ruane makes is the need for policy-making to be based on good data. The education world needs data badly.

There is a wonderful and ongoing study, coordinated by the ESRI and Trinity, and it’s called Growing up in Ireland. The study is “following the progress of almost 20,000 children across Ireland to collect a host of information to help improve our understanding of all aspects of children and their development.”

We need an Educated in Ireland study. We are spending huge amounts of money on education and everything we do should be evidence-based. I suggest that we track a very large cohort of young people, right through the third and fourth level systems, and beyond into the workplace. It would be a long-term project and would need  resourcing. But let’s at least find out, scientifically, whether the vast resources we are spending on education are really benefitting the individual, the economy and the society. Here is a random selection of questions that I’d like answered. I’m sure there are many other worthy ones.

  • What level of maths is really used in industry?
  • How committed are students to their studies?
  • Do students really gain anything substantial from taught Master’s programs or do employers just use the possession of a Master’s degree as a means of sorting candidates?
  • To what extent is rote learning perpetuated at third level?
  • Are there ‘mickey mouse’ degree programs out there?
  • Are companies taking enough responsibility for continuing education and training?
  • What happens to all the people with degrees in the humanities?
  • Is burnout a big issue for people who do software qualifications?
  • Do we really need to educate nurses to degree level?
  • Where do PhD graduates go and what kind of jobs do they do?

Maybe I’ll give my answers to some of these questions in a later post!


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Educated in Ireland: a call for data

  1. cormac says:

    I think the first question could give misleading answers. A great many people will never specifically use calculus in their working lives, yet understanding the concept of the rate of change is very useful indeed, whether you’re trying to make sense of an article on the economy or calculating a mortgage. I think maths also gives training in logical reasoning that is useful in most areas of life, although it many not show up on surveys because it is not used explicitly.

  2. Greg says:

    Good point. I remember back in the eighties when Garret Fitzgerald used to talk about the fact that the rate of increase of the budget deficit was decreasing!” I used to think, “Christ, he’s talking about second derivatives!”

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