Education Reform in Ireland Part 1 2

Before I get started on the title of this post, let me throw out a few things from the recesses of my mind.

When I was in secondary school, my RE teacher had a poster on the class wall (top right hand corner above the blackboard) of a pile of Hippos in a small boat. The caption underneath read ‘More is not always better’.

The second thing swimming around inside my head is Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mindsets’. I’m right behind Dr. Dweck’s work and tend increasingly to use language in my class suggesting ‘A’s don’t come before effort – one has to grow towards them. The unfortunate tidbit here is the ‘A’ – I’m sure Dr. Dweck would disapprove!  It’s unfortunate because there are better ways to assess whether a student has acquired the skills and knowledge required of them than a 3-hour terminal examination.  That said, grades exist and for the moment we have to live with them (to be fair, they do have some uses). However, there is a fallacy called ‘justification of effort’.  Our political system is rife with it. And it exists in schools.  It is the notion that just because one works hard at something, one deserves a particular reward. This is clearly untrue.  The reward has to come after achieving a particular standard, preferably a high standard, but in the case of schools, a high standard relative to the student’s ability. I am conscious of the distinction between process and outcome, but when we talk about the the quality of our education system, it is measured by outcome.

Much has been spoken and written about the Irish education system. Much of it is contradictory.  When it suits some, politicians usually, our system is ‘one of the best in the world’.  And when it suits others, sometimes politicians and sometimes media pundits who write solely for arguments sake, our system is failing and not fit for purpose.

Clearly if our system is one of the best in the world, only minor tweaking is necessary to raise standards.  But if the systems is failing, then we need to fix it.  Often the arguments about what needs fixing ends up focusing on teachers.  The reasoning appears simple but is in fact simplistic.  It goes like this. Educational outcomes are poor. Literacy and maths scores have fallen*.  These things are happening in schools. Therefore the teachers are to blame.

* according to PISA 2009.  While science has remained static, in real terms it has actually improved considering new entrants who scored higher than us and should have moved us down in the rankings..

The unfortunate outcome of this restricted and uninformed view of the dynamics of educating a population is that we have to ‘hammer the teachers’ (according to one former TD in interview)(teachers must wonder whether they are wasting their time on anti-bullying initiatives).  We have to ‘make teachers work longer hours’.  We have to have a ‘longer school year’.  While it is hard to argue against spending more time learning, the fact is more is not always better.  Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  More bullying of teachers, more teaching hours and longer schools years do not necessarily a better education system make.

It is not the case that the Irish education system must work harder; it is the case that it must work smarter.

Before looking at what can be done I thought it might be useful to consider of what the education system is made because it is the quality of these holistically which determine the quality of education a child recieves. It is easy to think that it is purely schools, teachers and the curriculum.  My thinking is slightly broader and based on the notion that if it takes a “village to raise a child”, then it also takes a village to educate one.  So the following is me thinking out loud on all the influences in educating a child. Bear in mind that there would be little point having state-of-the-art teachers and schools if all the other factors conspired to deny a child the opportunity to reach for their potential…

  • The child – personality, ability, aptitudes, date of birth, place in family and physical characteristics
  • The child’s siblings – their personality, ability and aptitude
    • The relationship between these two
  • The child’s parents – their personality, ability and aptitudes and their relationship with one another and their parenting style and relationship with the child.
  • The socio-economic background of the child
  • The Child’s friends and peers – their personality, ability and apptitudes and their relationship with the child
  • The child’s development – the mother’s health during pregnancy, the bonding experience of the new born child, the child’s development -social, physical and emotional up to the age of 7, the language and vocabulary acquisition of the child by the age of 3.
  • The child’s schooling
    • The quality of the school – ethos, school culture, school sub-culture, management and management style, leadership, policies, staff-staff, staff-management and staff-pupil relationships, the physical school environment, the classroom environment and all the myriad of issue pertaining to this.
    • Government education policy, government education leadership, structures for the content, design and implementation, management, inspection, and appraisal of curricula and syllabi, the examination framework, the legislative framework, the personality and characteristics of the actors inputing into schooling, voters and political will.
    • Teachers – personality, ability and aptitudes, their motivation as a teacher, the quality of their schooling and university education (and their cultures, environment etc), their teacher training – the nature of this training as well as the quality of it, their commitment to personal and professional development irrespective of formal requirements/compulsion, their interest in teaching children, their commitment to ‘the job’, teacher unions, parent associations, teacher satisfaction with their teaching career.
    • Fashion Trends in educational research
    • Broader economy and society, international linkages, role of women in education and society in general

It’s highly likely I missed something. The point here i s that education reform isn’t simply a matter of demanding more of teachers and schools.  What schools and teachers can do depends hugely on the quality of many other inputs.  And while everyone seems to expect teachers to solve all society ills (‘we must teach safe driving in schools’ being my favourite), the fact of the matter is we can’t. Consequently, to ensure the best quality education of our children* we must demand more from all the inputs into the system.

Practically speaking, it is very difficult to do anything about bad parents or a child’s development history – but their role in the education of children should not be forgotten.  Schools can try to do somethings to lessen their impact, but only so much.

* as opposed to the best quality education regardless of the child’s experience of it.

In my next post, I’ll offer some suggestions that I believe are important for change in those areas over which some control can be exercised. And it’s not all about science!

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