2 Things To Help Fix Irish Second Level Education


The Innovation Academy
So, in June I attended the group project presentations of the Entrepreneurial Educators in the Innovation Academy in UCD. If you don't know what this is or have never heard of it, play the video on the right and consider taking their certificate or diploma course. The course examines innovative and creative approaches to education with a heavy dollop of design thinking, mindfulness, leadership and creativity. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Innovation Academy successfully creates a space where teachers can experience the freedom to explore creative ideas which they can take back to their schools and classrooms. So the presentation of group projects always promises something interesting. Two projects that caught my eye included one identifying short-comings in the teacher training. More anon. Another project presented what the group called 'Invested Learning'. A quick internet search found nothing so this appeared to me to be a completely new concept. I thought it was a powerful idea which, in a nutshell, conceptualised education as a holistic, community driven enterprise. Think of 'it takes a village to raise a child'. It was an interesting mix of aspects of the Educate Together model, community schooling and real, child-centre education.

The Teaching Council
As part of the presentations, the Innovation Academy invited Tomás O' Ruiarc, the Director of the Teaching Council, to a 'fire-side' chat with the group. Tomás is a civil servant committed to the ideals of the Teaching Council. He speaks with a sincerity and reason that leaves no one in any doubt of his commitment to his work as Director of the Teaching Council and his concern that teachers and the teaching profession is seen to be an upstanding profession.

Unfortunately, the poor man must be exasperated wherever he goes because invariably, someone is going to raise the issue of the relevancy of the Teaching Council, what is the Council doing to help teachers, why does everyone hate the Teaching Council and when is it going to go away and leave us alone. There is a bit of me that thinks this mindset is becoming inter-generational, sadly.

In response to a question on this, Tomás said that teachers are proud when they receive their registration with the Teaching Council. There is a pride in having achieved the final step to becoming a recognised teacher. The problem with this is not everyone feels this way. Tomás quite rightly expressed concern for how it looked when teachers were seen to criticise the existence of their own professional body. But this is the problem. Many teachers do not see the Council as 'their' professional body. They had no hand, act or part in its creation and see it as something that was imposed on them. Appeals to the fact that the Council is made up of a majority of teachers rings hollow. The Minister, through the Teaching Council Act exerts a huge influence on the work of the Council, and by extension, the professional working lives of teachers.

I do not feel *pride* in my Teaching Council registration. If anything, I originally felt annoyed by it. I still have my original registration document from the Department of Education. I was already a registered teacher before the Teaching Council came along. What the Teaching Council Act did was to annul that recognition, and then charge me, initially €95 a year for the privilege, and then latterly, tell me how lucky I was that it was being reduced to €65. I know many teachers feel the same way. It's only those teachers who graduated after the Council was established that can feel relief at having met its requirements (there's a whole other post!).

Add to this the Codes of Professional Conduct - sounds good when you say it but teachers see it as more restrictions and demands; the Fitness to Teach Committee - which have the potential to ruin a teacher reputation even if it is found that there is no basis to conclude the absence of fitness; and Cosán - the requirement to meet Continuing Professional Development targets or lose registration (and hence, salary); So it is easy to see why teachers feel less than positive about the Council.

The fact that other professions have their own council got a mention. I balk everytime I hear someone say other professions have regulatory councils, for example, the Medical Profession. This is a poor reason to have a teaching council; but that aside, we cannot control numbers entering the profession and we cannot control what teachers are paid. So the Teaching Council is not a council like any other. It has to stand on its own merits and not simply because 'well, everyone else has a council'.

All that said, I think on balance, the Teaching Council is a good thing.

I don't like having to pay every year for my registration when in the past, my once-off registration was sufficient. But following the failed strike (poor strategy on the ASTI's part) in 2000, the government was determined to have a regulatory council whose terms it could dictate and the cost of which we would pay. Hence, Teaching Council.

What the registration fee does therefore, is allow me to challenge the Teaching Council when I feel, as a professional, it is at odds with the profession or indeed, its own professed ethos; or to cheer it on when it does something right.

So I can congratulate the Teaching Council on things such as the Cosán, which although it has flaws, has been a long time coming. And I can criticise the Council when it talks about using Showcases at Féilte to "celebrate teachers and teaching" - but only if it's teachers in pairs! Apparently individual teachers are not doing anything of worth!

Whither DES?
Beyond this, Tomás highlighted a few issues in education. He lamented the fact that teachers and parents needed more and better conversations about education and that in general, we don't talk enough about teaching and learning. I think he is correct. But is a little difficult when the government funds the National Parents Council. When it comes to choosing between supporting teachers or the government, you can figure who the NPC will back. But then arguably, driving a wedge between teachers and parents has been a key government target, ably assisted by the print media.

What caught my attention perhaps more than anything else was when Tomás said that too often we tend to look to the Department of Education to solve problems and don't do enough at local level.

Sadly, looking to the Department to solve issues is absolutely necessary in Ireland. If the Department did not issue circulars, I am fairly certain the most schools would not take SEN students, for example.

I have a particular interest in gifted education. Even when I have been able to get (some) schools past their unintended but preconceived and misguided beliefs about giftedness, they still fail to act. Other schools have shown that this is not an issue of resources, but one of school leadership and professional will. And anywhere failure to act is an issue in schools, on whatever the issue, only a Department circular can achieve action.

2 Things
And this brings me neatly back to the Innovation Academy presentations. There are many great teachers with many great ideas but they are often hamstrung by poor leadership and professional will in their schools.

There are poor teachers. That's right. Some people manage to qualify as teachers but still aren't as good as their students might deserve. I'm not referring to the occasion when we might not be all things to all students. No one is everyone's cup of tea. I referring to teachers for whom a student acknowledging they were even at least 'okay' was the exception rather than the common opinion.

1. Teacher Education
One of the projects presented attempted to identify this indirectly by reference to Teacher Education. The project challenged the idea of producing teachers as Content Teachers and sought to identify how we could train teachers as 'Coaches'. This concept is not new. And the list of topics they suggested teachers could study while training is not rocket science either. I didn't agree it should be one over the other; I think teachers need to know their content and know it very well. But I also think that teachers' training is the single most important step in improving the experience of children in school.

I think this is one place where the Teaching Council has failed badly. While Initial Teacher Education was reviewed in 2009 I do not think the Council went far enough in demanding specific standards of the Teacher Training Colleges. The fact the the new PME is, in some cases, so obviously the H.Dip stretched over 2 years, rather than a root-and-branch reengineering of teacher education merely highlights the failure to address standards in teacher education and by extension, teacher quality in schools.

Irish teachers are still some of the best there are. I know from talking to recruiters and teachers in other countries how impressed they are with Irish teachers. Irish teachers are in demand everywhere it seems. Whether this is a function of the shortage of teachers elsewhere or the fact we actually are that good is not the point. The point is, adopting a standards or competency-based approach to teacher training could enhance teacher performance. Without the stick, or the carrot.

2. The Points System
There are many laudable aspects to the points system. Notwithstanding the distribution of economic and social inputs to education, the CAO system is impartial and fair and it successfully rations out courses. It would be nice to think that everyone who wanted to their first choice course in Law, could get it. But there aren't enough places and so places are rationed with the points system determining the entry level.

As points are determined by LC performance and this performance is often determined by socio-economic status, we sometimes end up with a student talking a course because they achieved the points, but they did not have to cognitive ability necessary to pursue that course at third level. So they may then drop out having taken a place that could have been given to another student.

The points system has a disproportionate and wholly unwelcome impact on teaching and learning at senior cycle. In effect it allows universities a huge and negative say in how much of business is done at LC level. And while noting the distinction between rote learning/rote memorisation and rote teaching, the focus on knowledge (though knowledge is good) and the lack emphasis on testing cognitive ability at LC level means that some students get courses for which, in some cases, they can't even read the textbook.

A better system would place the responsibility for university entrance directly on the universities - on a individual basis if necessary. I would like to see terminal exams scrapped altogether (though keep class-based exams obviously) and instead, institute a GPA-type system that indicates a students general level of ability in each subject they study. The GPA could be combined with an SAT score for course entry, or combined with an interview. Think of a cross between the US, the UCAS while keeping our breadth of subjects at LC.

There is no magic wand in education. But getting closer to how children learn naturally would have to produce better outcomes in education.

The Innovation Academy

So, in June I attended the group project presentations of the Entrepreneurial Educators in the Innovation Academy in UCD. If you don't know what this is or have never heard of it, play the video on the right and consider taking their certificate or diploma course. The course examines innovative and creative approaches to education with a heavy dollop of design thinking, mindfulness, leadership and creativity. I can't recommend it highly enough.

The Innovation Academy successfully creates a space where teachers can experience the freedom to explore creative ideas which they can take back to their schools and classrooms. So the presentation of group projects always promises something interesting. Two projects that caught my eye included one identifying short-comings in the teacher training. More anon. Another project presented what the group called 'Invested Learning'. A quick internet search found nothing so this appeared to me to be a completely new conceptual framing of education provision. I thought it was a powerful idea which, in a nutshell, conceptualised education as a holistic, community driven enterprise. Think of 'it takes a village to raise a child'. It was an interesting mix of aspects of the Educate Together model, community schooling and real, child-centre education.

The Teaching Council

As part of the presentations, the Innovation Academy invited Tomás O' Ruiarc, the Director of the Teaching Council, to a 'fire-side' chat with the group. Tomás is a civil servant committed to the ideals of the Teaching Council. He speaks with a sincerity and reason that leaves no one in any doubt of his commitment to his work as Director of the Teaching Council and his concern that teachers and the teaching profession is seen to be an upstanding profession.

Unfortunately, the poor man must be exasperated wherever he goes because invariably, someone is going to raise the issue of the relevancy of the Teaching Council, what is the Council doing to help teachers, why does everyone hate the Teaching Council and when is it going to go away and leave us alone. There is a bit of me that thinks this mindset is becoming inter-generational, sadly.

In response to a question on this, Tomás said that teachers are proud when they receive their registration with the Teaching Council. There is a pride in having achieved the final step to becoming a recognised teacher. The problem with this is not everyone feels this way. Tomás quite rightly expressed concern for how it looked when teachers were seen to criticise the existence of their own professional body. But this is the problem. Many teachers do not see the Council as 'their' professional body. They had no hand, act or part in its creation and see it as something that was imposed on them. Appeals to the fact that the Council is made up of a majority of teachers rings hollow. The Minister, through the Teaching Council Act exerts a huge influence on the work of the Council, and by extension, the professional working lives of teachers.

I do not feel *pride* in my Teaching Council registration. If anything, I originally felt annoyed by it. I still have my original registration document from the Department of Education. I was already a registered teacher before the Teaching Council came along. What the Teaching Council Act did was to annul that recognition, and then charge me, initially €95 a year for the privilege, and then latterly, tell me how lucky I was that it was being reduced to €65. I know many teachers feel the same way. It's only those teachers who graduated after the Council was established that can feel relief at having met its requirements (there's a whole other post!).

Add to this the Codes of Professional Conduct - sounds good when you say it but teachers see it as more restrictions and demands; the Fitness to Teach Committee - which have the potential to ruin a teacher reputation even if it is found that there is no basis to conclude the absence of fitness; and Cosán - the requirement to meet Continuing Professional Development targets or lose registration (and hence, salary); it is easy to see why teachers feel less than positive about the Council.

The fact that other professions have their own council got a mention. I balk everytime I hear someone say other professions have regulatory councils, for example, the Medical Profession. This is a poor reason to have a teaching council; but that aside, we cannot control numbers entering the profession and we cannot control what teachers are paid. So the Teaching Council is not a council like any other. It has to stand on its own merits and not simply because 'well, everyone else has a council'.

All that said, I think on balance, the Teaching Council is a good thing.

I don't like having to pay every year for my registration when in the past, my once-off registration was sufficient. But following the failed strike (poor strategy on the ASTI's part) in 2000, the government was determined to have a regulatory council whose terms it could dictate and the cost of which we would pay. Hence, Teaching Council.

What the registration fee does therefore, is allow me to challenge the Teaching Council when I feel, as a professional, it is at odds (imho) with the profession or indeed, its own professed ethos; or to cheer it on when it does something right.

So I can congratulate the Teaching Council on things such as the Cosán, which although it has flaws, has been a long time coming (longer - it's not due until 2020). And I can criticise the Council when it talks about using Showcases at Féilte to "celebrate teachers and teaching" - but only if it's teachers in pairs! Apparently individual teachers are not doing anything of worth!

Whither DES?

Beyond this, Tomás highlighted a few issues in education. He lamented the fact that teachers and parents needed more and better conversations about education and that in general, we don't talk enough about teaching and learning. I think he is correct. But is a little difficult when the government funds the National Parents Council. When it comes to choosing between supporting teachers or the government, you can figure who the NPC will back. But then arguably, driving a wedge between teachers and parents has been a key government target, ably assisted by the print media.

What caught my attention perhaps more than anything else was when Tomás said that too often we tend to look to the Department of Education to solve problems and don't do enough at local level.

Sadly, looking to the Department to solve issues is absolutely necessary in Ireland. If the Department did not issue circulars, I am fairly certain the most schools would not take SEN students, for example.

I have a particular interest in gifted education. Even when I have been able to get (some) schools past their unintended but preconceived and misguided beliefs about giftedness, they still fail to act. Other schools have shown that this is not an issue of resources, but one of school leadership and professional will. And anywhere failure to act is an issue in schools, on whatever the issue, only a Department circular can achieve action.

2 Things

And this brings me neatly back to the Innovation Academy presentations. There are many great teachers with many great ideas but they are often hamstrung by poor leadership and professional will in their schools.

There are poor teachers. That's right. Some people manage to qualify as teachers but still aren't as good as their students might deserve. I'm not referring to the occasion when we might not be all things to all students. No one is everyone's cup of tea. I referring to teachers for whom a student acknowledging they were even at least 'okay' was the exception rather than the common opinion.

1. Teacher Education

One of the projects presented attempted to identify this indirectly by reference to Teacher Education. The project challenged the idea of producing teachers as Content Teachers and sought to identify how we could train teachers as 'Coaches'. This concept is not new. And the list of topics they suggested teachers could study while training is not rocket science either. I didn't agree it should be one over the other; I think teachers need to know their content and know it very well. But I also think that teachers' training is the single most important step in improving the experience of children in school.

I think this is one place where the Teaching Council has failed badly. While Initial Teacher Education was reviewed in 2009 I do not think the Council went far enough in demanding specific standards of the Teacher Training Colleges. The fact the the new PME is, in some cases, so obviously the H.Dip stretched over 2 years, rather than a root-and-branch reengineering of teacher education merely highlights the failure to address standards in teacher education and by extension, teacher quality in schools.

Irish teachers are still some of the best there are. I know from talking to recruiters and teachers in other countries how impressed they are with Irish teachers. Irish teachers are in demand everywhere it seems. Whether this is a function of the shortage of teachers elsewhere or the fact we actually are that good is not the point. The point is, adopting a standards or competency-based approach to teacher training could enhance teacher performance further. Without the stick, or the carrot.

2. The Points System

There are many laudable aspects to the points system. Notwithstanding the distribution of economic and social inputs to education, the CAO system is impartial and fair and it successfully rations out courses. It would be nice to think that everyone who wanted to their first choice course in Law, could get it. But there aren't enough places and so places are rationed with the points system determining the entry level.

As points are determined by LC performance and this performance is often determined by socio-economic status, we sometimes end up with a student talking a course because they achieved the points, but they did not have to cognitive ability necessary to pursue that course at third level. So they may then drop out having taken a place that could have been given to another student.

The points system has a disproportionate and wholly unwelcome impact on teaching and learning at senior cycle. In effect it allows universities a huge and negative say in how much of business is done at LC level. And while noting the distinction between rote learning/rote memorisation and rote teaching, the focus on knowledge (though knowledge is good) and the lack emphasis on testing cognitive ability at LC level means that some students get courses for which, in some cases, they can't even read the textbook.

A better system would place the responsibility for university entrance directly on the universities - on a individual basis if necessary. I would like to see terminal exams scrapped altogether (though keep class-based exams obviously) and instead, institute a GPA-type system that indicates a students general level of ability in each subject they study. The GPA could be combined with an SAT score for course entry, or combined with an interview. Think of a cross between the US, the UCAS while keeping our breadth of subjects at LC.

There is no magic wand and I am sure you can think up plenty of other ways the Irish Education system needs fixing, but better teacher training and removing the direct, negative effect of university entrance requirements on second level might help.

What do you think?

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