Carl’s Curriculum Caper!


Things that keep me up at night

During the banking collapse we heard about the ‘golden circle’ of investors who attempted to shore up shares in Anglo-Irish Bank. The media was focused more on the fact that there was a ‘golden circle’ than on what they were trying to do. In reality, the specific bank was (should be, sadly) a mere detail and nothing should have surprised anyone that such a network existed.

The fact is Ireland, like every other country, is composed of a collection of networks populated with élites with interests in particular areas of government, society and economy. I define ‘élites’ as a group of individuals with a set of common interests and/or goals and which is organised (they have expertise) and can direct action towards the attainment of their goals or the preservation of goals already attained. The network may include individuals who can directly deliver on the goals of the élite by virtue of their positional power.

The golden rules are that what happens in the élite stays in the élite, no one must know the élite exists, and if they do know, they should not know what they are up to. The élite are differentiated from the mass of people who are not expert in the élites’ field of endeavour.

I don’t buy into Pareto’s [1] notion of a single dominant élite (that’s more a South American thing, hence Venezuela). Instead, I think Schumpeter’s [2] estimation of democracy as a system of competing élites is closer to the mark. The idea is that democracies are composed of competing élites which vie with each other in the attainment of their goals.

The problem I have with Schumpeter’s analysis is that it is at a macro level. It would see, for example, an élite with a grip on medicine, or another with a grip on education.

Rather, I think we could now recognise that within each élite there is an in-group and an out-group. The in-group has the upper hand in realising their goals. The out-group, while members of the élite lack the political power to attain their goals. But of course this can change. The consequence is that instead of designing and implementing a shared vision of what is the greatest good in society, we have sections of the élite trying to gain on another in order to implement their exclusive vision of just how the world should be.

This is not conspiratorial thinking; it is a statement of fact. Each élite – both its in-group and out-group – by virtue of their expertise, determine the course of public debate. Doctors seldom discuss classroom management and teachers rarely discuss the finer points of cancer treatment. Of course anyone can express an opinion, but the mass of people assume that the ‘experts’ know what they are talking about.

This is a really important point. When someone speaks or writes cleverly showing a knowledge – importantly, a knowledge a non-expert does not have – the non-experts assume that the writer is an authority on the subject. (Hence Brexit)

What I hope (!) is that the mass of people would take a ‘deep-learning’ page out of the current curriculum designers’ book (I’m through calling it ‘reform’) and acknowledge that there are different levels of authority. Don’t buy anything I’m writing here. I might be wrong. Look at my credentials, my experience, dig out the research yourself and make your own conclusions. But do it because the future of your children depends upon it.

Of course this is not something that happens and this is why élites dictate how we live.

If you are still with me, great. Because this is what my mind was directed to when I saw yet another newspaper article arguing that History should not be a core subject. To see one article published is fortunate; to have two is a coincidence. To have four in the space of a few months and little to balance them? Well, I am beginning to wonder whether there is a network of élites out there trying it’s hardest to kill off common sense in favour of a pet experimental project they dreamed up for their kids and decided everybody else’s kids should have it too. Regardless of the research (although they have their own, of course!).

Of course, none of this is to question anyone’s sincerity. And certainly not Carl’s, nor to suggest that he is part of a network. He is simply providing an opinion piece. But anyone stepping into the fray should equip themselves with at least a minimum amount of reading. Networks survive and thrive when people are kept in the dark (again, Brexit).

And so…

I found myself reading Carl O’Brien in the Irish Times. It’s no harm to define some terms here; Core/Compulsory/mandatory/required/must-study all mean the same thing to me; we don’t need to play around unnecessarily with language that just diverts attention from the central issue; the entitlement of children to Geography and History.

I like to think that if History and Geography belong in the core curriculum there should be good reasons for them (the new Junior Cycle has just English, Irish, Maths and Wellbeing as compulsory subjects). With regard to History, here are four bad reasons:

Diarmaid Ferriter says so

President Higgins says so

Some randomers with no expertise or knowledge in curriculum design have wandered up to the Minister for Education on the Street and said so

It’s the centenary of a lot of fighting and now is a good time to remember the past.

I’ll lay out good reasons another time but it is important to get these out of the argument. Back to Carl. There’s a lot fish to shoot in this barrel so bear with me.

Carl says that the debate about “history….being downgraded” was “a false debate” and that “ there is no binary choice between having history or none during the junior cycle.” Carl goes on to talk about how learning occurs in the classroom but I need to deal with this first.

By taking History and Geography out of the core curriculum (of 86% of schools and 94% of students), History and Geography have already been downgraded. The simple act of making it an option, is itself, by definition, logically, a downgrade.

And with regard to a binary choice, Carl needs to distinguish between ‘history’ as a little bit of reading you might do, and ‘History’ as a subject you might study. And very definitely, especially once you drill down into Carl’s next nugget, you’ll see that in fact it *can* very much be a binary choice.

Carl says that much of the debate is because of “outdated notions of how learning is taking place in the classroom.” Carl doesn’t back this up with any evidence; but that is maybe because the research does not substantiate this opinion. In fact, it sounds very much like an NCCA sound bite. But Carl uses this to lead into my favourite topic in this whole Junior Cycle thing.

Statements of Learning

Carl states “Under Junior Cycle reforms which are being phased in, teaching and learning is now guided by “statements of learning” which are core to the curriculum. There are 24 of them in all – and history directly relates to at least seven of them.”

(Note the interesting slipping-in of the word ‘core’ there!)

Firstly, This is true. There are 24 of them. However, it is a different 24 to the original before someone spotted that the NCCA left out science and technology. When they finally released the absolutely-final-definitely-we-got-it-right-this-time 24 four statements (had to be 24 for some reason) it looks like they deliberately took out physical geography from the original list.

But Carl doesn’t know this, or ignores it. But someone has it in for Geography. Way to go folks!

Secondly (and this is important later on), Carl says that history relates to 7 of the statements. But the word history is not mentioned in any of the statements…neither ‘history’ with a small ‘h’, nor History with a big ‘H’. This is important but Carl doesn’t seem to follow through on the consequences of having vaguely defined statements of learning rather than an actual subject.

He quotes one example….

“a student “values local, national and international heritage, understands the importance of the relationship between past and current events and the forces that drive change”. So, most children completing the junior cycle will still be required to study history in some shape or form.”

Again, Carl is confusing his ‘history’ with ‘History’. In addition to this, ‘some shape or form’ is not the basis on which to construct a child’s education. History, just like Geography and Science,  is a discipline, an area of inquiry with a set of methods and a philosophy that distinguishes it from other areas of endeavour. But to be fair, this is stuff a teacher would know.

The fact is the new Junior Cycle deliberately attempts to erase the notion of ‘subjects’ as distinct areas of study because, I would argue in my humble opinion, that notion fits the world view and narrow educational philosophy of a particular network within the education élite, whoever they are.

Carl goes on to state that

“calls to reinstate the subject (history, but insert geography and science also) as compulsory is also based on a false premise – it has never been mandatory in all Irish post-primary schools.”

It is not clear what Carl means here. Does he mean the false premise is that it was never mandatory and so it should be; or that it was, except it wasn’t and therefore it shouldn’t be? Either way, it is irrelevant. Whether any subject was ‘mandatory’ or not is not the basis on which it should or should not now be made mandatory.

Carl goes on…

“It has been an optional subject in what used to be known as vocational schools, which now account for almost half of post-primary schools.”

This is incorrect. History and Geography have been required in vocational schools since 1999 but these schools were allowed the option of retaining ‘Environmental and Social Studies’ – a less academic Geography and History course. I wonder if Carl reads his own newspaper. And vocational schools comprise 34% of schools. A good deal less than half.

But Carl is using this as an argument to drive a distinction between voluntary secondary – more academic – schools, and vocational schools which were, apparently “innovating to ensure the curriculum engages often disadvantaged students through offering, say, metalwork or woodwork.”

It get’s juicier but let’s just deal with this nugget. Vocational schools were designed to provide a vocational education to students – one which would prepare and enable them to enter the work force. Secondary schools typically prepared students for further education or the Civil Service and professions which required the Leaving Certificate as the minimum qualification. Whether vocational schools provided courses in History and Geography is a non-argument in this context. But times have changed.

What is important to note here, is that History and Geography were still core for the majority of students pursuing an academic secondary education up until 1999. After 1999, it was core/mandatory/compulsory in reality for 86% of schools (secondary and vocational)……AND community and comprehensive schools also made them core. Hence, 94% of Junior Certificate students took the examination in History and Geography in 2018.

All that aside, none of this is an argument for, nor an argument against keeping History and Geography in the new Junior Cycle. Every student has an entitlement to Geography and History.

Élite

So then Carl drops this bombshell

“And this is part of the problem: much of the commentary to date has been through an elitist prism of what education is like in a voluntary secondary school.”

To my eyes, Carl is saying History and Geography are élitist subjects, and in the context of what he says about vocational schools above (and below) that should only be available to élites.

He misses the Freirean point that education should (on one level) be about liberation (that’s not me endorsing everything Freier says but I thought it would resonate with some of the Junior Cycle fan base!). I bow to E. D. Hirsch who makes this point so much better than me.

Knowledge matters. It is not the preserve of any élite. And the commentary Carl mentions is actually raising the issue that it is kids in disadvantaged areas who lose out with a dumbed-down knowledge-poor curriculum relative to the élite Carl complains about and whose upbringing already confers social and economic advantages on them even before they start secondary school.

Tied up in knots

Carl says that

“Making history compulsory would tie the hands of schools who are doing extraordinary work to engage some of the hardest-to-reach pupils.”

Well, no it wouldn’t. Firstly, teachers and educators worth their salt know the difference between curriculum and pedagogy. Secondly, good teachers can teach the most obtuse material to anyone.

But if making History compulsory does what Carl says (“tie the hands of schools”), and Carl also says that the Junior Cycle Statements of Learning mean all students will study History, then logically that would also “tie the hands of schools” which presumably schools would respond to by dropping History.

And they can. Because the Junior Cycle doesn’t require the study of any “subject”  except Irish, English, Maths and Wellbeing. So to cover the history component of the Statements of Learning, a school could give students a smattering of history while studying, say, the Atlantic. Box ticked! Next? That is the nature of the new Junior Cycle.

Carl’s not done yet. There is more digging to be done…

“ There is also a worry among critics that making history optional will lead to a flight away from the subject. Again, past experience tells us otherwise.”

Carl fails to appreciate the reality of timetabling on the ground, and the (lack of ) attractiveness of teaching at present. If the subject is not core, there will be fewer jobs. So fewer graduates will be attracted to History teaching. In fact, as experience in England is currently showing with Geography, fewer students will be attracted to it as a subject in university. This will make it harder for schools to get teachers. The easiest thing for schools to do it to just not timetable those subjects.

Worse than all of that, several sectors of the economy that rely on gradutes with History and especially Geography are finding in increasingly difficult to find them.

So Carl goes back to vocational schools…

“Take vocational schools again. While it has been an optional subject for them (no Carl, not since 1999), some 90 per cent of students in these schools are studying history during junior cycle (No Carl, they are studying it for the Junior Certificate. We don’t know how many have dropped it for the new Junior Cycle). “This is because these schools see its value and have chosen to make it core, or (which is it Carl?) students have chosen it themselves.” (They’re waiting for the dust to settle on the whole cycle before seeing where they stand – just like almost all schools)

Home, School where the History teachers roam

So Carl continues….

“Students’ exposure to subjects at second level also owes much to the supply of qualified teachers in that subject. Latest official figures show there are more registered history teachers than in almost (What Carl…more than Irish, and Maths, and English, and Science, and RE and…) any other subject. So, the reality is the vast majority of schools will continue to offer history. Where else are these permanent staff going to go?”

So Carl’s argument here is schools are offering History because they have lots of History teachers. It’s like schools opened one day to find a herd of History teachers roaming the playing fields and the principal felt morally obliged to invite them in only to discover they wouldn’t go away!

The History and Geography and Science and Maths and English and Irish teachers exist because there are jobs there which attracted them to enter the field. They didn’t take a risk of studying the degree in the random hope that some benevolent principal would take pity on them and invite them in for tea and a bikkie.

Seriously!

If it ain’t broke, break it some more….

Carl continues to search around for a valid argument….

“Some of the voices against change say we should just keep the system as it is. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. This ignores a problem : while close to 90 per of students currently sit the Junior Cert history exam, this plummets to about 20 per cent in the Leaving Cert.

No mystery there Carl…and the drop is unrelated to the “system”, that is, the system isn’t being “fixed” to

Earth Science Ireland, Issue 10, Autumn 2011

deal with the drop in numbers between JC History and LC History. Really, sometimes I.just.can’t.  There are fewer subjects to take at leaving Certificate (7 versus 10), and since History and Geography is not compulsory at Leaving Certificate, there is a big drop off in who takes it. Guess what will happen if History and Geography remain optional at junior Cycle?

Now there are plenty of people – presumably the élites who have gotten their hands on the decision making – who would say that it should be up to kids to decide. I beg to differ, in the same way I beg to differ with anti-vaxers. Children often don’t know what is good for them in the present, never mind in the future (no, this does not mean that students should not have a voice!). History and Geography are pre-eminently important in combatting ignorance, hate and fake news – as Brexit and recent events in Derry have brought into stark relief.

Getting Hammered

So Carl ploughs on….

“The core ideas of the junior cycle were hammered out following years of consultation and research over the past decade or more.”

Nope. Wrong again. Carl combines two separate things here – research, and consultation. Let’s deal with research. The research was initially conducted in 1999. It was qualitative (opinion-based) and based on a 3 per cent sample of secondary students. 3 per cent is the standard minimum sample size for quantitative (scientific-based) research. I would argue it is insufficient for qualitative research. Notwithstanding this, the results of the research are entirely dictated by the questions asked. Students said for example that they did not like exams. The only policy one could derive from this, if the decision to address it was made, would be to get rid of the exams. What is not analysed is the notion that this is an expected answer. Simply, just because kids say they don’t like exams is not a reason to get rid of exams. The same research found that students switch off in Year 2 but doesn’t seem to have factored in the transition from year 1 to Year 2 and the changes that adolescents go through in Year 2.

As for consultation…when the Minister for Education visited the NCCA to congratulate them on the Framework for the new Junior Cycle, he congratulated them on the secrecy with which they drew up their proposals. Some consultation Carl!

So Carl goes further…

“For example, an influential ESRI study in the mid-2000s revealed major problems with the engagement of pupils at junior cycle level. While girls from middle-class backgrounds were highly engaged in school work, a second group – especially boys from working-class backgrounds – were switching off.”

Boys from all background are switching off. But notwithstanding this, this is not the basis on which this Junior Cycle should be foisted on all students. We cannot have a situation where just because boys are doing badly, we need to drag girls down by scruff of a dumbed down Junior Cycle curriculum. I’m more for dragging the boys up; children, as every teacher knows, will just as easily live down to our expectations as live up to them. We should have high expectations, not a common-level dumbed down Canape-Buffet curriculum of edutainment.

“What emerged in the reforms are changes which, overall, seek to give schools more freedom to meet their students’ individual needs.”

This sounds lovely until a little digging reveals the shallow nature of the curriculum and the huge increase in workload being foisted on teachers and more prescription than is being let on. In fact, it is nothing short of shameful.

Originally, the NCCA was going to timetable a 3 week window for each subject in each school to complete a Classroom Based Assessment (CBA) in Year 2, and another in Year 3 in addition to the rest of the course work. When it was pointed out to them that this would literally mean a CBA every three weeks in school – with all the extra anxiety that brings – the response was a nonchalant ‘well we’re going to see how it works out’.

But then they found it wasn’t working out. So what the NCCA did was dump the problem on schools by telling them the school could decide which three weeks for which subjects within a six month window. That’s freedom for you!

As for the curriculum, instead of jettisoning the negative aspects of the Learning Outcomes approach, the NCCA decided to keep the vague, ill-defined dumbed down approach rather than setting out a minimum common standard of education which would uphold the principle of equality of opportunity for the very boys Carl mentions.

But, but, but…the plan….

So Carl draws a conclusion that is unrelated to his premise,

“A move to make history compulsory threatens to undo much of the philosophy behind these reforms. It would, doubtless, lead to a queue of other subjects who would rightly demand that they too should be compulsory: why shouldn’t geography, science, business studies, art, French or Spanish be mandatory too?”

Surely anyone can see that if the plan is being threatened by common sense, then there is a problem with the plan and common sense should prevail.

It would be nice if there was a philosophy behind the Junior Cycle but the NCCA has not specified one and I’m not going to point them to a justification for this curriculum programme…because those philosophies are weak and not based on modern evidence.

But Carl makes the point himself. It is clear that there should be a core curriculum and one has to wonder why the NCCA and the Minister and all the groupies can’t see how to marry the positive aspects of the new curriculum with the positives of the old (in fact, the old curriculum is scarily like the new but nobody seems to have read the old syllabi. Shhh!)

Carl says “Junior cycle reforms aren’t perfect by any means.”  Correct, but no one expects perfection. Neither do they expect excuses for what should be common sense…like requiring students to complete between 6 and 10 Classroom Based Assessments in Year 2 and also in Year 3 (bear in mind, the purpose of the assessments is not to assess students but to give students the experience of being formally assessed by their teacher; that is, they are to make sure teachers are doing their job).

Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on……

Carl goes on saying “wellbeing, a new subject, takes up too much time in the curriculum, say many” but Carl has no problem with this being compulsory. Maybe the arguments that apply to compulsory History and Geography don’t apply to compulsory feelgoodness, er, I mean wellbeing.

And on…. “There will inevitably be teething problems and tweaks along the way.” Yes, because the whole thing is being made up as it goes along. The details were never thought out. One would have thought that the time between 1999 and 2015 (when the ASTI Union came on board) would have been enough time to get it sorted. Even being generous, the draft framework was published in 2011. So the NCCA had at least four years to do something. Anything. To get it right. Where’s that “philosophy behind the reforms” now, eh?

And on…. “But the current approach at least holds the promise of harnessing teachers’ skills as professionals, giving schools more autonomy and genuinely putting pupils at the centre.”

Because the previous curriculum never did that? Was that because teachers were rubbish. Or was it because the government simply never funded schools for the resources they needed to implement the original Junior Cycle. The government is spending €100 million to introduce the new curriculum and roll out training. How much will they assign for the ongoing teaching of the curriculum once the training is all done?

As for putting students at the centre, seriously, Irish education policy has nothing to do with putting students at the centre. If it did, there would never be any question about Special Educational Needs funding, or Traveller Education, or Modern Foreign Language education in Primary Schools.

The hidden bit of the Junior Cycle is the new emphasis on standardised testing. But no one is allowed to mention that. Remember, the rules of the élite….

Carl is only reporting an opinion, but there is too much wrong with the new Junior Cycle curriculum for it to be left alone. There are ways in which the Junior Cycle Framework can be intelligently implemented while retaining the positive and necessary aspects of the Junior Certificate curriculum.

As ever Minister, you know where to find me.

_______

  1. Finer, S. (1966) Vilfredo Pareto: Sociological Writing (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)
  2. Schumpeter, J. (1943) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper & Rowe)

 

 

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