When you are obliged to challenge colleagues in public

I wrote this letter to the Irish Times the other day. Despite the fact that the letter challenged, in public, the work of DCU colleagues., I felt I had to do it because I can see where the conversation is heading.

People will use the fact that school-leavers lack some very easy-to-teach skills (like using scientific databases rather than Google, or referencing sources properly) to justify doing a Junior Cycle on the Leaving Cert.

While the Leaving Cert is not perfect and could do with a bit of an overhaul, the Junior Cycle is a mess. Its emphasis on ill-defined skills rather than knowledge and its obsession with inquiry methods (despite so much evidence that inquiry methods are ineffective at this level) is shocking. It will be a disaster in the same way that Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has been and in the same way that Sweden’s deep dive into the so-called student-centred approach has been. Yes, students might be engaged by the so-called ‘progressive’ approach but being engaged and learning are often two very different things.

When I read, for example, the so-called curriculum specificaton for science, I despair. Despite being 27 pages long, the document doesn’t actually say anything about content. So we have a situation where our National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has no view about what should be taught in Junior Cycle science – they only have a view about how it should be taught.

Their curriculum ‘specification’ is an ideology-driven barrage of the worst kind of education-speak. I can’t imagine what parallel universe the writers of it are living in because every scientist and engineer I have ever spoken to recognises the importance of content. Science, whether it’s physics, chemistry or biology, is a hierarchical discipline. If you want to study the orbits of the planets, you need to have studied Newton’s laws. If you want to study chemical reactions, you need to understand atomic structure. If you want to study microbial cell growth, you need to understand some basic biochemistry. A curriculum document must specify what students need to be taught and in what order. The NCCA document reads like it was written by ‘educationalists’ who have no idea what science is. It reads like it has been written by people who Googled for some inspirational quotes (i.e. clichés) about science not being a body of knowledge but a way of thinking.

If we do a Junior Cycle on the Leaving cert, students will come to college lacking basic knowledge and then we’ll definitely have problems.

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