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?