Learning in the Junior Cycle
Chapter 3 of the Framework is entitled ‘Learning in the Junior Cycle’ and opens with with this platitude:
“The orientation of the new junior cycle – the rationale for change – is to place a greater emphasis on student learning, on the quality of that learning, and on the respective roles of teachers and students in that process’.
Clearly a greater emphasis on learning and on the quality of that learning is important (that of course is not to say the quality that is there is not already good – but everything can always be made better). However, let’s look purely at the numbers.
If a student takes English, Irish and Mathematics and 9 other subjects (apparently quite common) they current enjoy 2802 hours of class lessons over the three years of the Junior Cycle. Under the new Junior Cycle, assuming students take the maximum 8 subjects, class contact will be 1720 hours. On this basis alone, I have to question how improved learning will take place with students getting less class contact.
Chapter 3 continues with a summary of the ESRI research findings. ” In first year the challenge is one of progress.” Their research shows that there is little progress in reading and mathematics. While this is probably true for some students, it cannot be true for most. If there are issues with literacy and maths, they need to be addressed but this hardly calls for entire curriculum change. What is puzzling is that findings from second year suggest the key problem is that students don’t know what second year is about (‘purpose‘). In 21 years of teaching I have never heard a second year student wonder what second year is all about (unless of course they were asked ‘what is second year all about?’). Second year, we are told, is when students disengage. It is worse amongst boys and in particular, boys in disadvantaged areas (there is no attempt to offer an explanation for this). On this basis alone, one wonders how students learn anything at all in Junior Cycle. But then we are being prepped for the finding in year 3, namely, the concern is with ‘product‘ – passing the exam. All told, the impression painted is that nothing happens in school between entry to first year and January of third year when all of a sudden, teachers discover they have students and being ‘grinding’ them for the Junior Certificate Examinations! The chapter states quite unashamedly,
“during this time, an over-emphasis by teachers, with the support of their students, on the structure of lessons and covering the course at the expense of deep learning emerges.”
This is stated almost as if it is the design and desire of teachers. The over-emphasis is not by teachers; it is forced on teachers, in part by parents, in part by school management and in part by external pressures such as league tables. And while I agree with the chapter when is says the key to addressing the above lies with a different approach to assessment and examination, this does not justify changing the entire curriculum.
The NCCA proposes the Framework as a way of helping schools develop a high quality junior cycle. This of course assumes that schools aren’t doing this already. And as shown above, with the reduction in class contact time of the new junior cycle, it is hard to see how a new ‘Framework’ will do this.
This section is so littered with contradictions that it is clear we are in for some turbulent years of education policy making. It says the Framework will provide for the ‘national qualification’ of learning in junior cycle, thereby implying a standard. Yet it says that schools will have the ‘space and flexibility’ to decide how to meet the learning needs of their students. Standards, but whatever standards you’re having yourself. Much more ominous is this statement
” Recent research into educational change in improving education systems worldwide shows that while structural change and resources are still important, the vast majority of interventions now focus on learning and teaching and ‘spend more of their activity on improving how instruction is delivered than on changing the content of what is delivered’ (McKinsey, 2010)”.
Ignoring the contradiction, it says resources are important, but teaching is more important. To me this reads as an excuse for not resourcing the new Framework. Teachers will have to carry the burden of introducing the new curriculum without sufficient funding, especially for the ‘active methodologies’ which it is desired teachers would use. This is going back to the whole issue with the original junior cycle – namely, active methodologies were not supported with funding then. All teachers had was the textbook and the blackboard. And so teaching methodologies didn’t change. Teachers stuck to what they knew worked. There was no money to do anything different. If this is the ‘resetting’ chapter one talks about, then it is guaranteed to happen and this whole exercise will not manage to be anything more than the half-baked idea it appears to be.
How will the Framework support better learning in junior cycle?
According to this section, the Framework is ‘designed to encourage innovation in schooling and teaching and creative learning in the classroom’. Yet the document does not offer a single educational theory nor even a suggest even one classroom methodology to achieve these objectives. One might say that this document is not the place for this, but where is? The document should at least propose the means by which these objectives will be achieved one order to contain any validity as to the position adopted by the NCCA in producing it. The alternative is nothing more than the vague idea doing something and perhaps working out any necessary details later. Except it is schools that will have to work out the details. And because the Framework envisages schools doing their own thing, there will be no uniform standard against which to judge what is happening in schools. (There is a caveat to this – standardised testing. More anon!)
Statements of Learning and ‘Report Card Templates’
Chapter 3 presents a ‘clear and concise description’ of what students ‘should’ learn. There is no reference to who or what decided this ‘should’ but to be fair, they are quite wide. What students should learn is presented in the form of 24 statements of learning. The Framework highlights that these are not everything a students can learn in junior cycle but “their introduction does reflect the view that it is inadequate to describe what students should learn in terms of subjects alone.” This statement of course is pure and utter nonsense. The statements are expressions of learning outcomes. All syllabi at senior cycle have been or are currently being redesigned and have at their heart learning outcomes. The rebalanced junior cycle syllabi that are current waiting to see the light of day were all re-written to bring them into line with the senior cycle and contain sets of outcomes.
The key point about the statements of learning is that they represent what the NCCA wants students to “know, understand, value and be able to do” at the end of junior cycle. You can best understand the significance of this if you can imagine a teacher teaching a learning statement rather than a subject. A subject – now called ‘curriculum component’ -will only have value if it can inform a particular statement of learning. Instead of learning a subject, student will effectively only need to learn only a bit(s) of a subject.
What makes it utterly reprehensible is that a bureaucratic-watchdog approach to monitoring achievement of these statements will be introduced in the form of ‘Report Card Templates‘. But the effect of these cards means that teachers will teach for 15 minutes per class and spend the next 25 minutes ticking boxes just so that some poor sod in the DOES who doesn’t know the first thing about teaching (nor cares) can file a report up the line that X number of students out of N cohort can do Z skill at Year Y.
To be slightly more moderate about this, the ‘Report Card Templates’ haven’t been issued (nor designed for all we know – unless they previously formed part of someone’s thesis on something) and so we don’t know what they look like, how they will work and so on. I would like to think that there is an overall plan that hasn’t been revealed yet; but this is Ireland and we’re not known for long term plans – unless they have already been tried elsewhere and found not to work – like say, the Thatcher/Baker ‘reforms’ in the UK in the 1980s and…oh dear lord…!
Subjects are dead. Long live skills.
The Framework approaches curriculum design from a skills perspective. Subjects are, for all intents and purposes, redundant. It is almost implicit in the Framework that ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning for its own sake are without value. Much has been written about the ‘evils’ of rote-learning. So much in fact that virtually everyone who hasn’t been in school for 20 years is suddenly an expert on it. It is such a mis-understood concept one wonders if we shouldn’t just burn all the witches now and when we have gotten over ourselves conduct an inquiry to see what went wrong. So it is enough to say two things; 1. The entirety of human civilisation has been built on memory 2. no one wants their brain surgeon to have to google ‘frontal lobe’ when they are on the slab.
Not all subjects will be dead though. Mathematic, English and Irish will continue to be subjects. Indeed, these will be the only ‘core’ compulsory subjects. Student will take 8 subjects; or 7 subjects and 2 short courses; or 6 subjects and 4 short courses. (I’ve used ‘subjects’ there but I meant ‘curriculum components’ or something; the Framework keeps switching so it is hard to know what’s meant to be what). This alone represents a dumbing down of the curriculum. 12 subjects may have been too many. But only ‘may‘. Any child that was having difficulty could always be accommodated by schools so that they didn’t have to do all 12. The original intention was that students would only be able to sit 8 exams in June 2012. Then someone introduced the Department to this little thing called ‘reality’ and so the decision was reversed. But ultimately (2014), students will only be able to sit 8 exams at most. I can not see how this improves choice for students. If a student, especially an academically talented student, wants to take 12 exams, then they should be allowed to. The Minster stated that students could still “study” more than 8 subjects, but in reality, students will not be motivated to put in the same effort without the recognition the exam brings. However, ultimately, if one needed 12 teachers for 12 subjects, but the students only take 8 exams (no point taking any more), then arguable only 8 teachers will be needed. And fewer examiners. And less exam superintendents hours etc. Sounds more like cut-back than improving standards.
Interestingly, one would have imagined that if standards were to be improved, more time would be devoted to improving them. The Framework envisages students spending a ‘minimum of 240 hours’ studying each of Maths, English and Irish over 3 years. However, at present, the average is 334 hours. Surely if there was an intention to improve standards, the minimum would be set above the current average time spent on these subjects.
What is simply astounding is that within the Framework, Science was excluded from the ‘core’ compulsory subjects and that the opportunity to introduce a proper ICT course also as a core was not taken. Page 17 suggests that ‘Personalised learning skills can also be developed by means of short courses that focus on enquiry based learning or ICT based learning around a topic or theme of interest to students’. This is not the same as having a structured, systematic course in ICT. The NCCA will argue that their research shows that someone somewhere felt that the junior cycle was ‘too early to specialize’ and that schools and parents and grannies ‘wanted more choice’. Yet nothing at junior cycle was ever ‘specialised’. The idea of having compulsory subjects is society saying ‘we believe every citizen should have a minimum, basic set of knowledge and skills’. Compared to this concept, the Framework is a 1960’s hippy commune. It’s full of love and warm glowy feelings man but that’s not an education.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being hippy and there is no reason why being so should preclude success. That is not the issue. The issue is having an education system where every child has an opportunity to become the best they can. In this vein, I think the idea behind short courses is welcome. But why can’t they be long courses. A short course is 100 hours duration over three years – an hour a week give or take. ‘Hours’ tend not to work very well in schools. Most schools have periods of 40 minutes give or take. This usually translates into 35 minutes of class time after getting to class and settling in. Subtract a few minutes for occasional disruptions and keeping ‘with it’. In this context, a hour a week becomes one period of 40 minutes and another of 20. But 20 minute classes are meaningless. 35 and 25 offers a bit more. 30 minutes and 30 minutes could work but this effectively means two classes each of 25 minutes duration. This is not enough time to explore any topic in any detail in a class. It’s also very difficult to timetable. Easier would be a hour long period but this is too long for the majority of students whose concentration span usually cycles between 20 and 40 minutes. The other alternative is to have short course in modular form across, say, 3 months or so. But anything learned would quickly be forgotten. This is one of the key points about junior cycle education. Try this. Try to remember a series of weeks during your first and second year in school. Virtually impossible. Memory fades very quickly unless it is refreshed regularly. By spreading subjects over 3 years, learning is more likely to be retained than if focused on just a few short months and never refreshed again. This is not about rote learning. It is about retention of learning and it applies to skills as much as knowledge.
The list of short courses given is incredibly unimaginative and arguably repetitive in places. The NCCA plans to produce ‘specifications’ (a word apparently borrowed from the UK) – these will basically be syllabi. School-produced specifications will be done to a template provided by the NCCA.
And today’s lesson is….
In another significant intrusion into the professionalism of teachers, each course and each lesson will have to show where it satisfies the relevant statement of learning and the relevant key skills. The key skills given are ‘Managing myself; Staying well; Communicating; being creative; working with others; Managing information and thinking‘.
There is a place in education for key skills but the emphasis accorded them in the curriculum is unjustifiable. When speaking to the NCCA at the launch of the Framework, the Minister listed the key skills, a varying from his peaking notes stated “Managing myself – every parent of a teenagers worst nightmare’. The implication is inescapable. The government feels that this ‘nightmare’ should be the work of schools. It is distractions such as these that weaken standards in schools. A teacher’s job is not to parent their students. It is to teach them the subject which they have studied and trained in.
Now, understandably, there are parents who fail their children and it is the States responsibility to ameliorate this. One could argue that the State can do this outside schools but practically, schools offer a convenient opportunity to help out these children. But this is no reason to impose on all schools this notion. The State should never voluntarily assume the responsibilities of parents. Nor should parents allow this.
There is a place for key skills however, by insisting in a ‘micro-management’ way that each lesson demonstrate where key skills are addressed, the Framework is moving away from international best practice – which of course, in a European context is Finland. Interestingly, Finland doesn’t get a mention. Arguably because English is not the first language of Finland, whereas it is in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
On top of what will be a requirement to have individually crafted lesson plans demonstrating the relevant statements of learning, the relevant key skills and also having the ‘Report Card Template’, teachers will have to babysit students ‘self-assessment material to monitor their own engagement with and progress in the key skills‘ which will be provided by the NCCA.
There is no suggestion as to what this material will look like or how it is to be managed within a classroom setting. Indeed, it seems such an idea has more in common with research than teaching. What is very clear is that what is planned for the new Framework is an education system the polar opposite of Finland. Instead of trusting teachers and enhancing autonomy to do what they know works in a classroom, teachers are going to be roboticised into collecting data on narrow windows of classroom training. This, for me, is simply madness. One of the defining characteristics of the education system here, and one of its greatest attractions to multinational investment, has been the flexibility it produces in school leavers. It seems all of this is to be squeezed out of the system.
The Framework emphasizes the importance of literacy and numeracy and recognizes that these will be addressed naturally within each key skills. This is good. But the motivation is the key. While the Inniovation and Identity document foresees the eventual disappearance of junior cycle examinations altogether, the Framework envisages at least one standardized test in literacy and numeracy during the 3 years cycle. Of course, this will grow. Practice after all, makes perfect. The goal is clearly to improve our PISA rankings. This would be (almost) fine if that was all it was about. But it is clear that literacy and numeracy scores will become a tool with which to judge schools and teachers. This will force schools to concentrate on standardised tests to the detriment of both the warm glowy stuff mentioned above and parental involvement in schools.
Finally, English, Irish and Maths will be studied at Ordinary and Higher level but all other subjects will be examined at a common level. This again, represents a dumbing down of the curriculum. There is a much wider variation in ability between students taking ordinary level papers than those taking higher level. The proposal that they would all be lumped in together means that the ‘curriculum components’ must be either too easy for capable students or too hard for the less able.
The solution to this of course is in how schools implement the curriculum. Schools that have a cohort of more practical-subject oriented students but still have mostly academic students may find that they need to network with other schools and share ‘allocations’ i.e. teachers. This could place some school in a difficult position vis a vis the ethos of the school.
But in summary, the Framework offers no concrete proposal as to how school will implement the Framework. It recognises that there will be timetabling difficulties but offers no suggestions as to how to address these.
There seems to be an element in the Framework of trying to do the opposite of what we are now doing based on the assumption that everything we are doing now is wrong or flawed. The result, to me, while it has several commendable features, seem to have been drawn up in a vacuum and bear no cognisance of the reality of teaching nor of teaching young adolescents. Nothing that was ever worth having was easily gained. I honestly think that the Framework represents a lowering of expectations of adolescents and a gross underestimation of their abilities. While there are schools and students who struggle to make progress in learning, they would never suggest that all schools must work at the level they do; nor would stronger schools fob off those that arguably achieve more simply by getting a student successfully through to the end of compulsory education.
Far from having a free-for-all, the Framework should have established compulsory subjects (with the attendant knowledge and skills) representing a minimum set of education standards that all citizens should have and then left it to the professionalism of teachers to engage the student. I will write more about this another time – I hear echoes of Peig!
It is interesting to note that the UK is about to make History and Geography compulsory to 16 years of age when we’ve just removed it from the core curriculum. I guess ireland will just have to go through the motions.
I promise my next post will be much shorter!
Priority Learning Units will make up a separate level qualification (Level 2) at junior cycle. The suggestion is that only a small number of students will work towards this.