In defence of the Leaving Cert

At this time of year it is usual for all sorts of interested parties to emerge from the woodwork and denounce the Leaving Cert. It is portrayed as cruel. It is said to be biased against those from disadvantaged areas. It is said that it rewards little more than rote memorisation and stamina. It is claimed that it does not equip students with essential ‘21st century skills’ like creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.

The fact that the Leaving Cert is a very high stakes, one-opportunity examination does indeed cause students a good deal of stress. The claim is usually made, therefore, that by introducing continuous assessment and de-emphasising the final, all-or-nothing exam, much of this stress will be lifted. But where’s the evidence? Assessment in the third level sector is now very diverse; continuous assessment is used extensively and the semesterised system means that there are more, less-demanding examinations. But as I mentioned in a recent post, stress levels among third level students are at an all-time high. Of course financial and personal factors might be at the root of this, but there is no real evidence that the modular system, where students are assessed regularly and often, is proving to be less stressful for students. In fact, one could argue that the cumulative effect of constant, low-level stress caused by the frequent assessments is actually more damaging than short periods of more intense stress. To use the academic cliché of all academic clichés, more research is needed.

The idea that the Leaving Certificate is unfair because it favours middle class students who can afford to go to grind schools is absolutely true. But this is not really a consequence of the exam per se; it is more a consequence of our two-tiered education system in which we, as a society, have made it possible for sections of our society to buy an educational advantage over others. We do the same thing in health care where queue-jumping is not only tolerated, it is actively encouraged. This is a problem for society, not the designers of the Leaving Cert.

One of the most commonly promoted ‘fixes’ for the inequality discussed above is to introduce teacher assessment, i.e., assessment of students by their own teachers. Unfortunately, however, there are good grounds to believe (see here and here) that teacher assessment introduces biases that standardised tests do not. This is not really the ‘fault’ of teachers; it is simply an inevitable consequence of their humanity. This is one of those areas where we need to be very wary of our intuition because as pointed out by Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt and others, our intuition is often wrong because it is susceptible to all sorts of unconscious biases. As Haidt says, we are the conscious riders on our subconscious elephant and it’s the elephant who is usually in charge even if we like to engage in a lot of post-hoc rationalisation.

Does the Leaving Cert only reward rote memorisation? You certainly need to have a good memory to do well in the Leaving Cert. In fact you need a good memory to get a H1 in an honours degree programme. But as Daniel Willingham and others have point out, memorisation without understanding is actually very difficult and I think we can safely say that while many of our high-pointers have engaged in a bit of rote memorisation, they have done so while simultaneously acquiring a good knowledge and understanding of the subjects they have studied.

As for this whole concept of 21st century skills and the obsession with ‘problem-solving’ and all those nebulous concepts that educationalists like to talk about these days, there are two key points: First, predictions that the future world of work is going to be dominated by developments in artificial intelligence and automation, and that most workers will be focused on higher order activities like creativity and problem solving, are pure speculation. The world of work has changed considerably since the early 1990s when the internet first emerged, but we still need workers who are reliable and conscientious even if they are not creative; workers who have a great eye for detail even if they are not necessarily great critical thinkers; workers who even though they might not work well in groups, are innovative and original in their thinking. The world of work will always need diversity and it will always need the maintainers as much as it needs the creators.

The second point is that even if we want the education system to be a breeding ground for creative and critical thinkers, it is not at all obvious how we should go about achieving this. The great and creative thinkers of the 20th century (and there were many) were taught using what many refer to disparagingly as the ‘factory model’ of education – what you and I would call traditional, teacher-led education. There is no convincing evidence to suggest that the 21st century is so radically different from the latter decades of the 20th century that we need to fundamentally change the way we teach and assess our students. Many educationalists and self-appointed gurus seem to be making a lucrative living  saying these things but they do so in an evidence-free zone.

Even as a trained engineer, that most pragmatic of disciplines, I find it fundamentally depressing that so much of our conversations around education are, in a sense, anti-education. In fact, the word ‘education’ has largely been replaced by ‘skills’. The idea of acquiring knowledge seems to have been devalued to the point where the students being taught facts of any kind is derided because “we have Google”. But acquiring knowledge is one of the most life-enhancing things that any young person can do – it is far more transformational than acquiring problem-solving skills. It affects our entire quality of life and not just our job prospects. How can anyone understand the nuances of Brexit, for example, without having some knowledge and understanding of the British Empire and the Second World War? How can you understand the plight of the Palestinians if you know nothing of the Holocaust?

The Leaving Cert has its problems but it is the culmination of 6 years of secondary school learning and anyone who does well in the Leaving can consider themselves to be an educated person who has studied a broad range of subjects, from science to history to English Literature. Yes, the Leaving Cert does not prepare students for third level education but no system in which teachers and parents provide so much guidance (and coercion) will fully prepare youngsters for the transition that awaits them. It is our job in third level to ensure that this transition is managed well. Just as it is unrealistic for employers to expect us to produce industry-ready graduates, it is unrealistic for us to expect the second level system to produce independent-learning, third level-ready school-leavers.

The way we assess students in the Leaving Cert does need to be tweaked constantly but a radical overhaul is not justified.


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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One Response to In defence of the Leaving Cert

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » In defence of the Leaving Cert

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