By Colm Dooley
“People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”
These words, spoken by the late great Umberto Eco, refer to a ‘simplistic’ novel which he had written and which had bombed. Known for his erudition, the great scholar had produced the book in response to claims that his work was too complex.
The focus of Education Matters Yearbook 2015-2016 spans the breadth of the Irish Education system. Articles are organised by sector from Early Childhood to Higher Education. Central themes such as resource deployment, pedagogy, transitions, STEM, Junior Cycle reform, and deposition on senior management introduce the volume and are rooted in the opinions throughout.
It is a journal that cries ‘Crossroads!’. As educators we are challenged to take stock of our current position, reaffirm our values and principles and then refuse to allow any type of background noise to interrupt our purposeful progress.
Curriculum and pedagogical improvement dominate the pages of the yearbook. We are urged to remember what really matters when redesigning all aspects of curriculum. Professor Brian MacCraith highlights the issue of attempting to align an education system stretching from 14 to 20+ years of age with economic needs, particularly in a society experiencing and destined for further flux. It seems amazing that over 100 years after John Dewey, educationalists still have to caution politicians about their efforts to align education exclusively with current economic and industrial needs.
Clive Byrne hopes that the results from PISA 2015 will not bring us back to a 2009 scenario. We are all aware of possible short-termist political reactions when the likes of the 2009 results are released. Cherry picking of simplistic league table data is akin to “an individual who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”, claims Clive Byrne.
However, despite cutbacks and innovation fatigue, we need to continue to effectively reform our methods in teaching and learning. Majella Dempsey concurs and wants us to excavate back to the origins of the current curricular/pedagogical change movement. She reminds us of the Emer Smyth ESRI longitudinal study which strongly suggested that as an educational system we were/are failing many of our young people. While speaking about the challenges and opportunities connected with the overhaul of the junior cycle, Majella tries to refocus the objective of the change: an enhanced learning experience for our students. She eloquently synthesises the approach required, building from the essential foundations of curriculum, assessment and pedagogical practice. If any of these “pillars” are omitted the student’s experience remains unchanged.
Reading this text, I keep being brought back to Mike Hughes’s claim in the Magenta Principles that “all teachers operate in a specific context – but they have a common challenge – deep meaningful learning”.
Professor Philip Nolan bemoans the influence of the points race in undermining the assessment “pillar”. Although standardisation for transparency is a good idea overall, it should not be the primary driver for an assessment. Its narrow techniques are counter-productive; students who rely on rote learning techniques to achieve success in the Leaving Certificate largely present with poor resilience and independent skills, which undermine their ability to be successful at Third Level. Can we really have meaningful, embedded curricular change as long as the behemoth that is the Leaving Certificate remains unchanged?
Contributors consistently highlight pedagogical augmentation as the central scaffold required for curricular overhaul. Professor Brian MacCraith sets the tone while calling for the improvement of STEM teaching in our schools. He rightly reminds us of the McKinsey report’s claim that “the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers”. Augmentations must be rooted in embedded professional development at all levels.
These sentiments are echoed by Majella Dempsey, who recalls the OECD Tallis Report (2009) comment which stated that “Irish teachers favour structuring practice in the classroom more than any other nation’s teachers”. Agreeing with Professor Nolan, she infers that Irish students are a long way from independent thinking and creativity and she maintains that the system has underestimated the paradigm shift required to encourage traditional classroom practitioners to diversify their methods.
Viewing the system from a technology perspective, Professor Mark Brown worries about practitioners wanting to bolt old outdated methods on to new technologies. Technology needs to be exploited with methodologies that synchronise with its capabilities. He highlights the conclusion from the OECD report Students, Computers, and learning: Making the Connection, in which they say that “technology can amplify great teaching but great technology cannot replace poor teaching”. We need adaptive institutional cultures in order to get the best out of the technologies available to us, according to Professor Brown.
Finola O’Dwyer of the Teaching Council quotes a High Court Judge from 1960 who said “A profession’s most valuable asset is its collective reputation and the confidence it inspires”.
Overall, the contributors’ feeling is that there is a lot of work to do with the methodologies currently employed in classrooms if meaningful embedded curricular change is to occur.
We are all acutely aware that the above embedded changes will be difficult to implement; even more so considering the chronic lack of resources that we experience everyday. Ferdia Kelly’s article chronologically synopsises the Junior Cycle negotiations of the past year from a management perspective. Our management bodies have been focussing on the mechanisms required to properly implement and embed the new Junior Cycle reforms. He states that “without appropriate resources and supports the whole essence of the initiative will be threatened”.
Pat O’Mahony speaks about the research that has been conducted by the ETBI on management in secondary schools. Respondents implied that schools only continue to function on the back of the “unconscionable burden that has been carried by Principals and Deputy Principals”. The whole middle management structure is obsolete and needs to be modernised to suit a 21st century school. “Teaching is no longer about delivering a static curriculum to a compliant homogenous group”. If we accept this then management structures must be redesigned to support it.
However, there is a message of hope and positivity that more time will be made available for personal and professional development for school leaders. According to Mary Nihill, the new Centre for School Leadership will be central in ensuring a continuum of leadership “extending from the classroom teacher to the Principal”.
Contributors are calling on all educational partners to ensure that the opportunity for meaningful embedded change is seized. They want this achieved in consultation with our students and their parents. A lot of capacity building is required so that these stakeholders, represented by Don Myers and Craig MacHugh in this volume, can constructively participate in the process.
This Education Matters volume strongly suggests that we should ignore the ‘background noise’ and target a system which we feel is true to the values and principles of holistic and expansive student learning. It may be ‘utopian’ thinking considering the series of complex hurdles in our way but like Eco’s work, the result could be a wonderful legacy.
This review was first published in April 2016 in the NAPD LEADER journal and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editor.