Overhauling the Leaving Cert: Dos and Don’ts


After reading this article Is our education system fit for purpose in the 21st-century?  I re-read a blog I had written a while back in which I suggested that the Leaving Cert is probably un-reformable. The key word there was ‘probably’ and today I’m going to suggest a few things that we could do, things that could actually be implemented without industrial unrest.

First we have to define what the problems are. For most people, the key problem is that students are rote learning to an unacceptable extent. I’m not talking about learning off the basic rules of grammar or algebra or the laws of physics (that’s good rote learning) but things like learning off stock answers to questions on English literature or History or Biology; or even learning off entire essays. I’m not sure you can really do anything about this and if you talk to undergraduate college students they will tell you that they still employ these tactics even in third and fourth year.

The second problem that people associate with the Leaving Cert is that it supposedly stifles curiosity, perhaps by not allowing students to ‘drive their own learning’ by researching topics that they personally find interesting. I’m not so sure about all of this because I see a lack of curiosity in not only my undergrads but also in PhD students and even fellow academics.  Many of my colleagues, for example, have little or no interest in topics that are even a small bit removed from their area of expertise. In my experience, genuine intellectual curiosity, in a broad sense, is quite rare.  I also think that effect of the internet and especially social media has been huge and while Google gives us unprecedented access to information, most of us are using this access for socialising rather than learning, a wasting a lot of time in the process.

The third perceived problem is that the way students are assessed in a single high-stakes pen-and-paper exam is too limited and is incapable of testing a broad range of skills and talents. I would agree with this.

There are probably other complaints you could make, the main one being the fact that students from affluent backgrounds can avail of exam coaching in grind schools thus giving themselves an unfair advantage over their less well-off peers.

But what’s good about the Leaving Cert? For me it has too things going for it: (i) it is knowledge-rich and (ii) it is broad-based. Someone who leaves school with a decent Leaving Cert can consider themselves to be a reasonably well-educated person.

So how can we make it better? First let’s say what we shouldn’t do. First, we shouldn’t listen to CEOs of multinational companies. Multinationals employ graduates, not school-leavers, so if they want to engage with the educations system they should be talking to the universities and the IoTs. And when I say ‘they’, I don’t mean CEOs, I mean employees who actually work with graduates. Second we should not get caught up in 21st century waffle and obsess about trying to teach ‘skills’ like problem-solving, creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence etc. as if these things existed independently of knowledge acquisition. (Who wants to collaborate with someone who knows nothing?) If you have any doubts about this, just check out what’s going on in Scotland where the introduction of a so-called ‘progressive’ approach to education (the Curriculum for Excellence) is associated with a significant drop in PISA scores. Thirdly, and this is related to the last point, we should not fall for teaching approaches based on inquiry or discovery. These methods don’t work at this level. They do work at senior undergraduate and postgraduate level but not in secondary school.

The main thing we need to do is to introduce a bit of diversity into how we assess students. But we have to be careful and not fall into the trap of conducting large scale education experiments potentially at the expense of students. This is essentially what we’re doing with the Junior Cycle.

Education reform has to be done incrementally as was done with Project Maths. More importantly, every reform should be evaluated and changes made as required. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that mistakes have been made. For example recent research shows that we should be concerned about the fact that Project Maths seems to be causing a reduction in basic mathematical skills in first year college students. We don’t need to ditch Project Maths because of this but we do need to modify it in some way.

So we need to conduct some pilot studies on the use of things like: having more assessments (perhaps at the end of each term but not necessarily in all subjects); tailoring the method of assessment to the subject – using some computer-based assessments in mathematics, for example; introducing some multiple choice teststhey’re a lot better than people think if designed well; introducing comparative judgment (to reward original thinking) as opposed to the current marking-scheme approach that encourages the student to supply what he/she thinks the examiner wants. These are all initiatives that can be tried within the context of current system – a revolution is not required.

Of course there is a cost associated with all change especially if computers are involved.

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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 Overhauling the Leaving Cert: Dos and Don’ts

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Overhauling the Leaving Cert: Dos and Don’ts

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