The media is full of discussion about the proposed changes to the grading scale to be employed in the Leaving Certificate, essentially back to the 1992 situation. So, I’m going to focus today on the link between second and third level, a link that we have never managed to get right. I’ll write about the innovation ‘thing’ tomorrow instead.
One could argue for weeks on end about how to design a fair, transparent and robust Leaving Certificate that serves the twin roles of providing a broad-based basic education and, at the same time, acting as an entrance examination for third level. But I want to keep this brief so I’m going to talk only about the latter issue only.
Two of the main criticisms of the leaving Cert are the following: (i) it rewards too narrow a range of abilities, not rewarding a broad variety of ‘learning styles’ in the process and (ii) it is solely a test of memory, rewarding rote learning in particular.
Regarding the first of these and thinking about it in the context of third level entry, we have to remember that third level education, especially education to Level 8, is a fundamentally and predominantly an academic activity and is built, more than anything, on the student acquiring knowledge, becoming proficient with the methods of the relevant discipline and acquiring a genuine understanding of that discipline. In the process and with good and varied teaching methods, we hope that students will become ‘embryonic’ creative thinkers and problem solvers with the ability and the desire to continue learning throughout their careers and their lives.
This brings me to what I want from the Leaving Cert. When I get students in the second year of the Biotechnology degree program at DCU, I want them to have a sound knowledge of basic mathematics and science, a good work ethic, some enthusiasm and an ability to communicate well through their writing. We can work on the rest. What really matters to me is that I shouldn’t have to teach students algebra, I shouldn’t have to tell students how to draw a graph and I shouldn’t have to repeatedly correct English grammar. Furthermore, I expect that students will keep their part of the bargain and study hard. But it is the basics that I really want. I want the Leaving Cert to be like a passport that says “I have acquired the necessary foundations to be able to study at third level”. For me the Leaving Cert is a foundation exam and the idea that a nineteen year old will emerge from school with all sorts of higher-level attributes like innovation and creativity (even if these could be measured reliably) is of no real concern to me because I believe attributes such as these are only developed on the back of strong foundations.
But, the key problem with the Leaving Cert at the moment is that one can score high points without having good basics; a good attitude, some academic intelligence and a good work ethic, yes, but without a grasp of very basic concepts and skills. And that, to me, is the crucial flaw in the Leaving Certificate as an entrance exam for third level.
So what about the rote learning ‘problem’? The key point is this: rote learning at second level is not a problem for third level; rote learning at third level is a problem for third level. De-programming a rote learning mind-set at any level – but especially in a state examination – is not easy because you are battling some very deeply ingrained cognitive preferences. Human beings have a very strong innate tendency to rely on memory to solve problems, and learning to the test is very much consistent with this. It makes perfect sense for students to learn in this way and indeed Daniel Willingham and others have shown that of all the study methods available to students who want to score well in exams, doing practice tests is probably the best.
But we have one great advantage at third level; we do both the teaching and the assessment. We have the power to nuance our teaching and assessment in a way that forces the student to go beyond rote learning. We just have to be brave enough to do so and we have to realise that it is a gradual process and cannot be achieved in the first year or two when class sizes are often just too big.
So, if the Leaving Cert consistently gives us students with genuinely good foundations, it will give us something to work with at third level. That’s all I want. Not too much to ask is it?