More drift in Ireland’s Education System

Carl O’Brien’s article in the Irish Times today signals a further shift in our educational system towards what one might call ‘progressive’ methods. It seems that we’re going to do away with subjects and focus on learning by playing at least up until the age of 10. This is what Finland does. And Finland, as we all ‘know’, is the Nirvana of education. Mind you, the fact that Finland’s performance in PISA has been steadily declining tends to be ignored.

According to the article “Research indicates there is little evidence that teacher-led early learning improves long-term achievement.” Presumably, therefore, the theory is that early learning should focus on play, inquiry, creativity, problem-solving etc. I would really love to see the research that Carl is quoting here. Honestly, I would be surprised if anyone, anywhere, has done the long term studies needed to establish a link between early teacher-led instruction (or otherwise) on long term academic achievement.

The proposed changes to primary education follow hot on the heels of the new Junior Cycle Framework which marks a fundamental shift away from a knowledge-based curriculum to one that seems to be obsessed with ‘skills’. By all accounts the new Junior Cycle aims to strike a “balance between skills and knowledge” but given that knowledge and skills are so inextricably linked, it is hard to know what is meant here by ‘balance’. In my view, the new Junior Cert is an experimental drug for an undiagnosed illness and my prediction is that it will make the patient worse. Time will tell, though.

It’s hard to know where all of this ‘progressivism’ is coming from because by international standards our education system is performing very well – and we should be proud of it. So what precise problems are we trying to fix when we make such major changes to how we educate our youngsters? Of course, we should always try to improve what we are doing, but why make such radical changes? Given the stakes, why not be a little bit more incremental?

I think it’s partly to do with the seductive nature of change. Since the first election of Bill Clinton (or even JFK), the idea of ‘change’ has had huge appeal. It is probably part of the reason why Donald Trump was elected. Change is always seen as good and within the university sector, change in the form of innovation has become a belief system all of its own. These days, teaching ability is valued in the university system (at least in my institution) but it is hard to demonstrate your teaching excellence, at least on a CV. So teaching innovation often becomes a proxy for teaching excellence and the result is that there are an awful lot of people dabbling in education research within our universities. I’ve done it myself but gave it up because I realised that I don’t have the knowledge (of cognitive science, statistics, psychology etc.) to do rigorous research in education. I didn’t want to spend my time doing Mickey Mouse studies on whatever was flavour of the month. But a serious consequence of all this dabbling is that there is an awful lot ‘cheerleading’ for methods like problem-based learning or inquiry-based methods generally. And if enough people say something often enough, soon everyone begins to believe it.

While the innovation culture was taking hold, third level participation rates increased enormously meaning that class cohorts have become a lot more diverse these days, both in terms of students’ academic ability and in terms of their attitude and work ethic. Now, lecturers are constantly chasing their tails, innovating desperately to get students to learn better. It’s all quite admirable really. In this kind of environment, teaching methods that are seen as more ‘engaging’ are quite seductive. Anything is better than a sea of blank faces.

Meanwhile, and in the background, university lecturers have been griping constantly, and in public, about the ‘fact’ that incoming students lack critical thinking skills, and they blame this on the rote learning culture of the Leaving Cert. These criticisms have become something of an article of faith. But the fundamental flaw in this ‘reasoning’ is that it fails to recognise that incoming students are novices. They are usually coming to subjects for the first time and they lack the deep knowledge that they actually need to be able to think critically about those subjects. Many Arts students, for example, flock to courses in philosophy, a subject that they will never have studied before. Yet the expectation is that as soon as they arrive on campus they should morph into students who can think and write originally and critically about challenging philosophical ideas and principles. And when we realise they can’t, we choose to blame the second level system. In the process we relieve ourselves of the responsibility to put in place a proper plan for nurturing our students and encouraging them to eventually think for themselves. Instead we take the easy route and perpetuate the culture of second level.

But the idea that university students lack critical thinking skills and that this lack is the fault of our primary and secondary education systems is a powerful one. Furthermore, when you throw into the mix the notion that the ability to think critically is a uniquely 21st century attribute, then you have an almost unstoppable force.

Finally when you then think of our history as a country; the brutality of our schools, the often toxic role of the church and religious orders etc., you being to understand why there might be tendency to ‘overshoot’ when it comes to education reform.

And so we will overshoot and we will make the same mistakes that other countries have made. It kind of sums us up as a country really.


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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