Skills over Content: The Case for Formative Assessment

World education is moving towards the primacy of formative assessment and Ireland needs to be part of the worldwide debate on what is the purpose of education for students, says Paul Rowe.

Paul Rowe, Chief Executive of Educate Together

Paul Rowe, Chief Executive of Educate Together

PAUL ROWE, CEO OF EDUCATE TOGETHER, talks to Ken Glennon about the worldwide movement towards the retuning of education systems and the need for Ireland to be part of the global debate on the purpose of education for students in society today.

Q: What do you think are the merits of continuous assessment at Junior Cycle over the current model in Ireland which builds to one final exam?

Paul: World education is moving towards the primacy of formative assessment through the education process. So there is really a need for a reform process in Irish Education, especially at second level, to move towards a much more learner-focused, formative type of assessment rather than the old fashioned single high-stakes summative exam.
I think the big advantage of formative assessment is that it can concentrate on developing skills of learning – all types of learner-driven and learner-led skills which are essential for progress in the later education system and also in life.

Q: Speaking of the later education system, do you think it’s an issue that students in secondary have a very different learning process to college students? In my first week in college I was told to forget how we did things for the Leaving Cert.

Paul: I appreciate the irony of getting your first college assignment and having to sign a non-plagiarism pledge at the end of your essay, when you had been trained for the previous six years at second level to do pretty much nothing else but remember the right answer and write it down. But there is a lot more [to formative assessment] than just preparing students for third level. This is about fundamental life skills, collaboration, lifelong learning, students taking responsibility for their own learning and learning how to learn and to work with other students in a discovery led process. That’s really what we have to move towards in our education system and it’s not just the education system, it’s our whole society.

So, it is really important that the experience of students in second level prepares them properly for third level but what we’re talking about is a really important life skill transfer which should be universally applicable irrespective of whether they go to third level or not.

Q: Is adding continuous assessment to the Junior Cert a step in the right direction and will it engender a more investigative or collaborative atmosphere in the classroom?

Paul: Yes. The interesting thing is, I think that almost everybody in the Irish second level environment sees the benefit of reforms towards self-directed and learning-directed study and collaboration leading to the transfer of skills rather than simple knowledge.

The big battle at the moment is around industrial relations regarding the summative exams which is actually a different issue.

But I think there is a real need for us to start a much wider discussion – not just amongst schools and in the teaching profession but in society in general –  about the move away from these high-stakes, largely rote-learnt exams and towards the evaluation of the actual skills and abilities of the individual student.

Q: Are there any international models which you feel are better equipped to prepare students than the Irish model?

Paul: Well, there is a worldwide debate around this whole question in education and there is a lot of reference to work being done in Finland and Ontario, and there is a very innovative programme developing in Scotland at the moment. You’ll find that educators, almost throughout the world, are trying to re-tune the education system to meet the needs of a generation of children who are coming into a world of ubiquitous technology, fantastic communications, and a real need to address the whole question of sustainable development in communities, in people, in families, in nations and continents. That’s really the agenda that is coming to the fore. That’s really what’s behind the need for reform at second level in Ireland.

Q: Is the current debate in Ireland making progress?

Paul: I think it’s kind of missing the point, to be honest. The purpose of the Junior Cycle is to provide a young person with a wide educational experience in which they explore their own abilities and skills in a broad and critical way. For the last eight or so years now, Educate Together has been working, in relation to its reform programme in second level, towards a national discussion as to what education is for. We need to have a discussion and have parents involved, and we need to make sure that we are looking at good practise internationally. What is the purpose of education for students in the society? What is the point of the junior cycle?

The problem with the current debate and the current industrial relations impasse is that it’s very much focused on the terminal exam after three years in the system. We (Educate Together) would have the view that the terminal exam, after three years of the junior cycle, introduces the almost inevitable consequence of schools teaching to the test rather than teaching to the abilities and needs of the children in the school. We (Educate Together) think that the question of whether we ought to have this terminal exam at the end of junior cycle needs to be properly discussed.

Currently 90% of students go on to senior cycle. So, the Junior Certificate is used as a rite of passage, or a formal certification of their time in school, by very few students. And for those who do, there is a wide range of alternative and probably more valuable certifications than the Junior Cert.

That’s really the debate that I think needs to take place.

As far as the relationship between the student and the teacher and the exam is concerned Educate Together and I would have the fullest confidence in the professionalism of Irish teachers to evaluate properly, and with great integrity, the abilities and skill-levels of their students. The whole process of formative assessment would enable that to take place in a natural and transparent way which would be very robust and have great integrity if that scenario were to become a reality.

Q: Speaking with Saoirse Faughnan, author of ‘The Irish Teacher’s Voice’ blog, she praised the system in Ireland for being one of the best in the world for fostering a sense of work ethic in a high pressure scenario where students have to push themselves to get results. Do you think this is a positive in our system?

Paul: Well, formative assessment induces very hard work and challenges the individual student, and it takes place all the time. This huge, high stakes exam at the end of a stage of school completely distorts the learning environment for a vital period of the development of the young person’s identity, mentality, academic and other skills.

Skills by their very nature are a continuum and develop constantly. They don’t just come to a peak at one particular time of the year at the age of eighteen. This one huge, high stakes test at one stage in a person’s life, irrespective of how well they happen to be at that time, or how well their family circumstances are and so on, and a writing marathon requiring a skill which virtually nobody will have to use later on in their life in the modern world, is outdated as a methodology and is quite unfair.

What is much fairer is a proper formative assessment in which a person is in dialogue with their teacher, their parents, themselves and are challenged to meet educational goals and objectives which can be transparently assessed. That is the way that most education systems in the world are moving and that is the way we should be working.

We mentioned Finland and Ontario. I am familiar with some of the practises in those countries and the people I know in both those countries think they are going in the right direction but they certainly don’t think they have got to the right destination yet.

Essentially, the Irish education system has to participate in this world-wide debate and this move towards empowering learning as the critical deliverable in the education system, rather than a massive high stakes test predominantly of content rather of skills.

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