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?