A Digression: Irish Secondary School Education, Learning and the Leaving Certificate

Blogging about Perry Shaw’s argument against education as mere information acquisition provides opportunity for a rant measured criticism about the Leaving Certificate exam within Irish secondary school education.

Someone sent me a recent Discussion Paper on the Leaving Cert (Sept 2011) prepared by Áine Hyland, Emeritus Professor of Education, University College Cork and Chairperson of the Commission on the Points System 1999.

I can’t think of a more damning analysis of the Leaving Certificate and indeed the whole skewed structure of Irish Secondary education towards incentivizing, rewarding and encouraging the mere acquisition of knowledge. In the words of the Report itself, the only thing that counts is what points students get at the end of the process. Actual learning is not only marginalized, but actively rejected where it might get in the way of maximizing points.

During their senior cycle studies, students (advised by their parents and teachers) will do everything possible to optimise their potential points. Some students base their subject choice for Leaving Cert on the perceived likelihood of getting a high grade, rather than on their aptitude for the subject or its relevance to their higher education course of choice.

The Hyland Paper quotes this criticism

For too long the cart has been before the horse; final marks (i.e. the marks achieved in final examinations) have been treated by society as the ultimate goal of education. Intellectual curiosity, the joy of discovery, involvement in intellectual issues – in a word, all these activities and responses which contribute to true learning have been subordinated to, often sacrificed to, a public examination. To restore things to their proper order is the most pressing problem in Irish secondary education at the present time.

When do you think this was written? 2008? 2000? No, it dates from 1970 and rings completely true today. Why is the system so immune to reform? What vested interests are at work to maintain such an obviously inappropriate and narrow approach to education? I really don’t know.

There are many many fine fine teachers and highly motivated students working within this system. But it seems to me that real learning happens despite rather than because of the structure of the Leaving Cert. And those who learn in ways not suited to final exams are stuffed. The whole approach traps everyone within a points race that pretty no-one believes is good for learning.

Hyland quotes recent criticism from ex-DCU President Ferdinand von Prondzynski,

Here’s the situation. We have a final secondary school examination that we all know isn’t fit for purpose. It encourages learning methods that offend the most basic principles of pedagogy. Its curriculum is outdated and hard to change to something better. By all accounts it fails to engage the interest and enthusiasm of either teachers or students. It doesn’t attract any respect from the wider world, including the world of business. It has little impact internationally ….

It is widely acknowledged that the Leaving Certificate, with its focus on rote learning, leaves students ill-equipped to meet the challenges of third level. Research shows increasing numbers of students entering third level education with serious deficiencies in basic literacy and analytical skills.

Hyland refers to other critics.

The former dean of the Smurfit School of Business in UCD, Dr. Tom Begley, describing the Leaving Cert as “dysfunctional” and saying it needs to be “blown up”.

Professor Brian MacCraith, President of DCU, stated that it discourages independent thought and critical thinking. It does not deliver the type of rounded education that will be required for Ireland’s economic recovery, in that it fails to develop strong skills in literacy and numeracy as well as excellent generic skills in communications, digital intelligence, adaptability, critical thinking and innovation.

Rant over.

Change is afoot. But don’t hold your breath.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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