So I’m a professor now!

Last week we got an email from our HR department informing us that we are adopting the American ‘professor’ system of academic titles. So now I’m an Associate Professor! Personally, I’m glad this change has been made and it’s not because I’ve always fancied being a professor. No, it’s more to do with the fact that the ‘lecturer’ title is inaccurate; it does not convey what academics actually do.

Last academic year, for example, I gave about 98 lectures. Even if every lecture required, say, 4 hours of additional work (preparation, problem sets and solutions, assessments etc.), my effective lecturing time would only amount to about 25% of my total working time, which involves laboratory teaching, project supervision, personal research and administration. And meetings; lots of them.

Hopefully one of the (long term) benefits of this change will be a decline in the number of people who say “it must be great to have the summer off”.

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Education in Finland – what’s the secret?

Over the years, Finland has become a sort of educational Nirvana, at least in non-Asian countries, and its reputation has been built largely on its outstanding performance in PISA.

In her recent book, Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan describes her year-long, ‘fact-finding’ trip to the highest-performing PISA countries. In truth the book is a record of one teacher’s impressions of various education systems based on her conversations with a small number of teachers, so its ‘findings’ have to be treated with caution.

Anyway, the author’s  first stop was Finland and here is what she has to say about that country’s educational system:

The late start

Children start formal schooling in the year they turn seven. However, in the previous year they will have attended a kindergarten and before that many will have attended a state-subsidised pre-school.

Finnish pre-schools and kindergartens have the following characteristics: (i) high staff-child ratio; (ii) highly qualified staff (bachelor’s degree); (iii) a curriculum with significant academic content, albeit taught largely through play.

So, it is not quite true to say that Finnish children start school late. Even if it was true, international evidence suggests that the precise time at which a child starts school has little or no impact on their academic achievement by the time they are about 15. There are some social and emotional benefits, however, of a late start.

Comprehensive education

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Finland moved to a comprehensive education system. While private schools still exist, they are non-fee paying and are usually associated with particular religious groups. Finnish schools have traditionally been places where expectations of all students are high. When students struggle, extra supports are provided, including the design of a personalized catch-up plan agreed with the student and his/her parents. This all helps to create a very equitable system but there is some concern that the highest-performing students are not being challenged as much as they perhaps could be.


All schools have a multidisciplinary wellbeing team comprised of a psychologist, a counsellor and a social worker. This team meets regularly with teachers to discuss particular class groups. Emphasis is placed on those students who, in the view of the teacher, need some sort of intervention. In other words, the emotional wellbeing of the child is looked after by trained experts, not teachers.


Teaching, and education generally, is highly-valued in Finland (although not as highly as the hype often suggests) and entry to teacher-training courses is highly competitive. There are no Ofsted-like school inspections and no teacher evaluations. However, during the transition to the comprehensive system in the early 1970s, there was a highly centralised system of testing and evaluation until the new approach was bedded-in.


Teaching in Finland has traditionally been conventional in character and most lessons are based on the classic review-teach-practice formula. There is a large reliance on textbooks which means that although schools have considerable autonomy, there is actually very little school-to-school variation in what is taught.

Going to College

The comprehensive system continues up to the age of 15/16 at which point the pupils will go to either a vocational high school or an academic high school. Admission to universities or universities of applied sciences is done on the basis of high school GPA, a school-leaving exam (the Abitur) and a university entrance exam.

Current Trends

Finland’s average PISA score peaked in 2006 (553) but has declined consistently since then. In 2015 its average score was 523. Whether this decline is due to austerity, demographic changes (e.g. immigration), structural changes (e.g. amalgamation of small schools), changes in teachers’ commitment (e.g. reduction in take-up of CPD opportunities) or pedagogical drift is not clear at present.

Prediction (mine)

Academic standards in Finland will continue to decline, and probably at an increasing rate, as it drifts towards therapeutic and skills-based education.

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How should we teach science at secondary school?

Some numbers: This year there were about 76K applications to Irish universities and institutes of technology. At any given time there are about 11K enrolments in science and maths courses in the universities. About 40% of science and maths grads will go on to further education. About half of these will do PhDs, meaning that in a typical year, there will be about 2300 PhD students in maths and science. Given that a PhD is a pre-requisite for becoming an actual working research scientist that means that about 3% of school-leavers will eventually become research scientists. (A little more if you include the IoTs.)

So what are the implications of these numbers for teaching science at secondary school?

Fundamentally, I think it means that we need to pass on enough knowledge about the physical world for school-leavers to be able to make sense of their environment even if they never study science again. If students lack fundamental knowledge they will not be able to make rational judgements about all sorts of issues that they will be confronted with in their daily lives. For example, if you don’t know what the liver and kidneys do then you’re likely to be a sucker for quacks selling ‘detox’ diets.

These days, acquiring knowledge is often portrayed as little more than rote learning a bunch of disjointed set of facts, facts that are easily found with Google. However, in a well-taught, knowledge-rich course in science, the student will also acquire a good appreciation of the scientific method and the role that evidence plays in that method. The history of science is full of fascinating stories of dominant theories being overturned by new evidence; of personality clashes, of chance discoveries, of painstaking research that leads nowhere. All of these stories can be incorporated into the curriculum not just because they will engage students but because they will simultaneously serve to explain the scientific method.

Crucially, this ‘integrated’ approach, is an efficient way of explaining what science actually is to students. In contrast there is a trend in science education these days to emphasize the ‘doing’ of science as a way of explaining what science is, all with the laudable aim of turning our students into rational decision makers. Take the following examples from the new Junior Cycle science curriculum (an SOL is a ‘statement of learning’):

SOL 9. The student understands the origins and impacts of social, economic, and environmental aspects of the world around her/him.

Students will collect and examine data to make appraisals about ideas, solutions or methods by which humans can successfully conserve ecological biodiversity.

 SOL 10. The student has the awareness, knowledge, skills, values and motivation to live sustainably.

Students will engage critically in a balanced review of scientific texts relating to the sustainability issues that arise from our generation and consumption of electricity.

 SOL 13. The student understands the importance of food and diet in making healthy lifestyle choices.

Students will collect and examine evidence to make judgements on how human health can be affected by inherited factors and environmental factors, including nutrition and lifestyle choices.

 SOL 15. The student recognises the potential uses of mathematical knowledge, skills and understanding in all areas of learning.

Students will participate in a wide range of mathematical activities as they analyse data presented in mathematical form, and use appropriate mathematical models, formulae or techniques to draw relevant conclusions.

 SOL 16. The student describes, illustrates, interprets, predicts and explains patterns and relationships.

Through investigation, students will learn how to describe, illustrate, interpret, predict and explain patterns and relationships between physical observables.

 SOL 17. The student devises and evaluates strategies for investigating and solving problems using mathematical knowledge, reasoning and skills.

Through planning and conducting scientific investigations, students will learn to develop their critical thinking and reasoning skills as they apply their knowledge and understanding to generate questions and answers rather than to recall answers.

 SOL 18. The student observes and evaluates empirical events and processes and draws valid deductions and conclusions.

Students will engage in an analysis of natural processes: through observation and evaluation of the processes they will generate questions as they seek to draw valid deductions and conclusions.

SOL 19. The student values the role and contribution of science and technology to society, and their personal, social and global importance.

Students will research and present information on the contributions that scientists make to scientific discovery and invention, and the impact of these on society.

The underlying philosophy here seems to be that in order to be able to make rational judgments – to be able to think scientifically – you need to spend a large amount of time being a sort of apprentice scientist. This is an extremely inefficient way of doing things but, more importantly, it would seem to be an ineffective way of doing so.



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Continuous assessment: the cure for all our ills?

Exam-only modules are increasingly rare in third level education in Ireland. On numerous occasions I have sat at exam board meetings only to hear extern examiners recommend that more continuous assessment (CA) should be incorporated into individual modules, and programmes generally. I have never heard those examiners say precisely why they think CA is required and I usually get the sense that the intention is to do little more than reduce the exam-time pressure on students.

Some lecturers, especially mathematicians and engineers, include some CA purely to incentivise good study habits. Doing ‘problem sets’ is a normal part of learning these subjects and the feeling among colleagues is that students will not do the problems (in a timely manner) unless those problems contribute towards the final module mark. In the jargon of modern education, the CA in this case is assessing the same learning outcomes as the final exam.

Some lecturers, myself included, use CA to assess knowledge and skills that cannot be assessed in a final, hand-written, closed-book exam. My CA typically involves some sort of computer calculation, perhaps using the Solver tool in Excel, or maybe WolframAlpha.

Of course, an unspoken purpose of CA is that having a CA component tends to reduce failure rates. Average marks in CA tend to be higher than in the final exam (and the standard deviation tends to be lower) and, in my experience, a significant number of students scrape through modules on the basis of their performance in the CA.

So is CA a good thing or a bad thing? Is it fairer and does it encourage more ‘higher order thinking’ than exams do? It’s impossible to answer this question because the CA can be anything from a short in-class test aimed at assessing a very small ‘chunk’ of material, to an essay or an oral presentation, or a group project, or even a reflective diary.

The one aspect of CA that we have to be wary of is this: In a semesterised and modularised education system in which content has, as a matter of policy, been reduced and divided up in to smaller and smaller ‘chunks’, is there a danger that the use of multiple CA components will further encourage our students to compartmentalise their knowledge and  to become so focused on clearing an increasing number of assessment hurdles of ever diminishing height, that they will end up lacking the very ‘critical thinking skills’ that we want them to develop?

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We need to teach empathy…and stuff

Tibor Navracsics is the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. Today he tweeted this:

Most of today’s children will have jobs that don’t yet exist*. Soft skills are vital in enabling them to succeed in the labour market and life.

Tibor also quotes himself as saying:

It is no longer sufficient to equip young people with a fixed set of skills – we have to develop their resilience and their ability to adapt to change.

There’s nothing new in this kind of stuff – it’s all a bit clichéd by now and it’s part of a bigger picture. Just Google the phrase “21st century skills” and you’ll get the idea.  Indeed you’ll soon see that among the many ‘skills’ that we need to be teaching in this “highly complex and connected 21st century”, where information is expanding “exponentially”, are the following:

Critical thinking

Problem solving





Independent learning










Emotional intelligence

Mindset (especially of the ‘growth’ variety)


In the minds of many ‘thought leaders’, education is now viewed as a sort of social and therapeutic engineering project rather than a process where students acquire the broad knowledge that they need to live fulfilling lives regardless of their chosen career.

Now, if you believe that ‘teaching’ personality traits and attributes is the primary purpose of education then that is your right but there is a problem: who’s to say that any of us are really qualified to do any of this teaching – and that’s presuming that these attributes can be taught at all?  In fact, aren’t these traits and attributes best ‘learned’ by students ‘constructing their own knowledge’ through a process of discovery, i.e., life.

But even if we choose to teach these attributes, wouldn’t we need our teachers and lecturers to themselves be happy and resilient and mentally healthy? Or curious and collaborative, emotionally intelligent and empathic?

I would hope that we’re all a little more mature and wiser than our students but isn’t it just a tiny bit arrogant of today’s adults to suggest that we can teach children and young adults to be emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy? Have we done such a fantastic job?

I find it interesting that while we demand that teachers and lecturers have proven expertise in the academic subjects that they teach, the same high standards do not seem to apply when it comes to our teaching these non- subjects.

Mind you, maybe in the future all teachers will have to undergo one of those “Voigh-Kampff” empathy tests, just like in Blade Runner.


*Check out this nice BBC investigation of the whole jobs-that-don’t-exist thing

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Van Morrison, Newton and Einstein

Enlightenment, don’t know what it is“; so says van Morrison. But what about ‘understanding’? Well, just the other day I was taking to my son…


Be careful there, Leo, you might fall.

Dad, how come if I step off this wall, I’ll fall to the ground?

That’s because of gravity, son.

What’s gravity?

Well, all objects attract each other. So when you step off the wall, the earth and you attract each other and you actually accelerate towards the ground. If the wall is very high you’ll accelerate to quite a high speed so you’ll hit the ground with a bit of a bump.

Ok, but how does the earth actually attract me?

Well, that’s a tricky one. A great scientist named Isaac Newton was able to describe exactly what happens when two objects attract each other. For example he said that the heavier each object is, the stronger the attraction will be, and the further away the objects are from each other, the weaker the attraction will be. He was right but he didn’t really say what gravity actually is.

So we still don’t  know what really happens when two objects attract each other?

We do actually. Albert Einstein came up with the idea that when two objects come close to each other, it’s a bit like what happens when two people are sleeping on a soft mattress. They both make a big dip in the mattress and they end up rolling towards each other. Einstein said that space is a bit like the soft mattress and objects make dips in space that cause them to roll towards each other.

But space is nothing!

I know, it’s weird, isn’t it.

Do you really understand it all, Dad?

I do and I don’t. Understanding is a bit like an onion; you know the way you can peel an onion apart, layer by layer? So somebody who has very little understanding might only have one layer of knowledge; like me telling you that if you step off the wall you’ll fall because of gravity. Somebody with a bit more ‘understanding’ might remember some stuff about Isaac Newton and seem a bit cleverer to you. Somebody else might have seen a science programme on TV  and learned all about Albert Einstein and his theory of gravity, and that will make them seem that they understand things even better. But in the end most of us run out of layers of knowledge and at that point we say we don’t understand something.

So the mattress is the end of the story?

It is for me, I’m afraid!

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But what is critical thinking?

Since I wrote this letter to the Irish Times earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about what critical thinking actually is.

Basically, I believe that all of what we call critical thinking is recall; it’s not some mysterious process somehow separated from more ‘normal’ mental processes like remembering who won the FA cup in 1973 or what the longest river in the world is or what the atomic weight of Neon is.

So here’s what I think: when somebody is thinking critically, they are simply accessing (what they perceive to be) relevant knowledge stored in their long term memory, and they are using to it to bolster their original argument.

For example, many of my students, when encountering anomalies in experimental data, will say things like “the rise in flowrate was unexpected and was probably due to experimental error”. This is an example of student who is not thinking critically but it’s not because they can’t think critically; it’s because they are either intellectually lazy or else they simply have no idea what factors might cause the flowrate to rise, i.e., they lack relevant knowledge and they resort to writing down something – anything – that seems plausible. But having submitted their lab report and gained some feedback, this student will learn that in future they shouldn’t just ‘throw out’ statements that cannot be justified in some way, and hopefully their next report will be better. This is an example, I suppose, of “teaching critical thinking” but it’s done in a context that is tangible for the student and targeted at scenarios that they are likely to encounter in their discipline. This should be, and hopefully is, a normal part of university education.

A better student might say something like: “the rise in flowrate was probably due to a rise in pressure”. This student is connecting an experimental observation to knowledge that he or she has stored in their long term memory, namely that a rise in pressure will cause an increase in the flowrate. But an even better student might say something like: “the rise in flowrate may have been due to a sudden rise in pressure as it was observed during the experiment that the pressure tended to fluctuate and it was difficult to control using the manual approach that we employed”. This student has high expectations and is determined to provide as complete an explanation as possible. But his explanation is built, fundamentally, around recall; both accurate recall of what happened in the experiment itself and recall of relevant theory from long term memory.

So I think critical thinking emerges when a person has two attributes: (i) the right mindset, i.e., a desire or need, either innate or acquired though feedback, to base their conclusions on the justifiable rather than the plausible; (ii) having relevant and accessible knowledge stored in long term memory.

But what do we mean by “accessible” knowledge? I think the highest-achieving students have automatic recall of relevant facts. They will have achieved this ‘automaticity’ through effective and regular study/practice and not necessarily through a conscious effort to ‘learn off’ facts. If you like, key knowledge is firmly embedded in their long term memory and in a way that makes it rapidly accessible. Observations or statements or claims trigger a ‘visit’ to long-term memory where easily-accessible and relevant knowledge is retrieved. This combination of observation and accessible knowledge creates the process that we call critical thinking.

An academically weaker student, or a student who might not have studied so hard, or who might not have paid enough attention during the laboratory session, won’t have this automatic recall even if relevant facts or part-facts can be ‘dragged out’ of them following some prompting from the lecturer. This will make them appear to lack critical thinking skills when what they really lack is readily-accessible relevant knowledge.

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