Hardly a week goes by without their being yet another article in some newspaper or other bemoaning the “rote-learning culture” of the Leaving Cert and its inability to prepare students for the 21st century. There are the usual pleas for a greater emphasis on creativity and original thinking, but rarely, if ever, are there any suggestions as to how one might achieve these things.
Why do students rote learn, i.e. ‘learn off’ essays and answers to past and predicted exam questions? Because, in an examination that has a very well-defined structure and a very well-defined marking scheme, rote learning is a good tactic if you want to do well. So if you want to rid the system of an over-reliance on rote learning, you have to deal with not only how the Leaving Cert exams are structured but also how they are marked.
If you want to encourage originality and critical thinking, and to assess these ‘skills’, you first have to design the exams so that the unexpected becomes the norm. The only way a student can demonstrate their ‘higher order skills’ is if they are confronted with a situation in which they have to use those skills.
Secondly, you would have to allow the examiners, i.e. those marking the scripts, a bit more freedom. Creativity and originality are very subjective characteristics and what is ‘creative’ in the mind of one examiner might be just plain ‘wrong’ in the eyes of another. In truth, creativity and originality cannot really be assessed in any kind of robust way. In fact, you could almost define creativity as a cognitive skill that is un-assessable.
The problem with all of this is that unpredictable exams and ‘loose’ marking schemes would be completely unacceptable to students, teachers and especially parents. Fairness has come to be synonymous with transparency and predictability.
Meanwhile, and in the background, the dominant trend in education over the last decade or so has been the idea that students should know exactly what is required of them if they are to achieve a certain grade. This is especially true at third level where ideas like ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘rubrics’ are increasingly presumed to represent good practice.
One could argue, however, that the more traditional approach to education, in which the end-point of a student’s studies was more open-ended and highly individual, was a better way to encourage original thinking. The view used to be that students would set off on a learning journey and the endpoint of every journey was different and very much dependent on the ability of the student and, more importantly, their commitment.
It seems to me that throughout the second and third level system we are trying to do the impossible. We want a highly transparent, robust and fair system but at the same time we want that system to encourage creativity and original thinking. I don’t think that’s possible.