The Leaving Cert, the national fixation

August is a maddening time if you work in education especially during that period when the  Leaving Cert results are issued and the CAO offers announced.  Twitter and the media are full of ‘commentators’, the majority of whom suggest that the Leaving Cert is “not fit for purpose” , while failing to mention what that purpose might be. There are a number of types:

  • The person who has become successful in life without achieving academically – the Jeremy Clarkson type. People like these are outliers who have done well despite their modest academic track record, not because of it. They are like smokers who say things like “I smoke 20 a day and I’ve never had a day sick in my life”.
  • The self-employed person with, let’s face it, has a bit of a chip on his/her shoulder and who is disdainful of those of us who are conscientious and in steady pensionable jobs by virtue of the fact that we worked hard in school and university. A typical example of this type of person is celebratory economist and knee-jerk contrarian, David McWilliams, who described the Leaving as “bullshit” and little more than a pub quiz”
  • The person (and there are thousands of them) who derides the Leaving as being little more than an exercise in “rote learning” or “memorisation”.
  • The person (and again there are thousands of them) who say that the Leaving stifles creativity and doesn’t encourage that most ill-defined of all things – “critical thinking”.
  • The person (and there are fewer of these but they include McWilliams) that say that the Leaving Cert encourages the group-think that was a big part of the financial crisis.
  • The person who suggests that the Leaving Cert is contaminating third level education in some ill-defined way.
  • The person who believes that the Leaving Cert is not preparing school-leavers for the world of work. Ibec is the leading proponent of this view.
  • The person who believes that the Leaving Cert does not prepare school-leavers for third level because  it doesn’t do the things that third level is supposed to do.
  • The person who believes that the Leaving is not preparing school-leavers for the jobs of the future. This kind of person tends to trot out clichés about complex problem solving and creativity. People like this typically present speculation as “research”.

Before getting into some of these issues in more detail, I should state what I think is the purpose of the Leaving Cert: I think its purpose is to produce “educated young women and men”. This is old-fashioned stuff for sure. Being an educated person used to mean that you were knowledgeable and able to communicate and discuss that knowledge, regardless of whether you went to university or not. The idea behind the concept of an educated person was that having broad and deep knowledge of the world – both past and present – made you a wiser person and good company to boot. Who wants to go on a long haul flight with someone who knows very little?

Admittedly this view of the Leaving Cert is complicated by the fact that the Leaving has become an entrance exam for third level and it is hard to reconcile that fact with the more idealistic view of education as an end in itself. That’s a major challenge for the future.

The other point I should make is that transitions are always going to be difficult. And, whether it’s primary to secondary, or secondary to tertiary, or tertiary to the workplace, or even tertiary to PhD, I believe it is the obligation of each level to inculcate the values and methods of that level. Employers for example, cannot expect the third level institutions to “produce” job-ready graduates: third level education and work are completely different things but it shouldn’t take long for a graduate to find his or her feet in the workplace as long as the employer is willing to provide the necessary training.

We in the third level sector  also need to take our responsibilities seriously. It is unrealistic and unfair of us to expect the second level sector to produce college-ready graduates. If it did, then why do we refer to each stage of the education systems as “levels”. It is our job to teach our incoming students in the ways of third-level learning – and we can do this pretty easily and quickly.

Critical Thinking

“Critical thinking” is a phrase that comes up a lot when the Leaving cert is discussed. Anyone who has used this phrase and made a statement like “we need to teach students how to think critically” should really take the time to read this brilliant article by Daniel Willingham. There are two points that stand out. The first is this quote from the paper: “Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in—and even trained scientists can fail in.” So the idea that, for example, the financial crisis might not have occurred if students had been taught to think critically is a fallacy. Indeed the idea that human beings can be programmed in some way to be “critical thinkers” is at odds with everything we know about how human beings make decisions. The works of Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman, and indeed the extensive literature on the psychology of groupthink, are essential reading here.

The second point, and it’s one that Willingham and others have repeated many times, is that the ability to think critically is crucially dependent on having relevant knowledge – not information that you can retrieve from the internet – but relevant knowledge in your head.  Attempts to teach “critical thinking” or “problem solving” in a knowledge-free way – by using Lego or Minecraft or unproven edtech gimics– are doomed to failure because the skills involved in solving, for example, Lego problems, will not transfer to other domains. The evidence for this is incontestable.

School Kill Creativity and Innovation

The idea that schools kill creativity really took off  with  Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk which has been viewed over 50 million times.  The argument has an air of plausibility about it and you can see how it might have made sense 50 years ago when stories of youngsters leaving school at 14 to become millionaires abounded – the Bill Cullens of this world.  But things are different nowadays (the 21st century!). What is abundantly clear is that formal education is at the core of innovation. Take this study on the demographics of tech innovation in the US. Among many interesting findings in the report, the most interesting for me was the fact that the majority of innovations come from people who not only hold undergraduate degrees, but masters and PhDs. The idea of the maverick who comes up with game-changing tech solution is a mirage caused by the fact that it happens so rarely that a big fuss is made in the media whenever it does happen. Meanwhile, innovations abound in large companies often the result of the work of very experienced engineers and scientists (often in their forties), but we don’t get to hear about them.

But that’s the US, you say, but what about Ireland? Surely with our education system where “rote learning “ is supposedly emphasised, we must struggle to be innovative. Well, according to the International Innovation Index, we rank number 5 in the world. That’s not bad for a rock on the edge of Europe and it suggests that we’re doing a lot of things right in our much-derided education system.

To return to Ken Robinson: he defines creativity as follows: “Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value. There are two other concepts to keep in mind: imagination and innovation. Imagination is the root of creativity.” Robinson is half-right in stressing the fact that ideas must have value. This gets to the heart of why children appear to be more creative. Educated adults automatically filter out ideas that have no value or are unrealistic. This is why the paperclip experiment is utterly flawed.

Oh, and the reason that Robinson is only half-right is that he forgot to mention knowledge. All those tech innovators in the US have bucket-loads of knowledge – in their heads.

The Leaving is contaminating third level education

In fact it’s the other way around. Our starting point is this: traditional lecturing is hard. It is very difficult to get the balance right between being engaging and being organised and methodical. The great physicist, Richard Feynman, was said to be a brilliant lecturer. Students loved his lecturers because they were so inspiring but often they found themselves without a decent set of notes when they left the lecture hall. On the other hand, in my time in UCD I had some soporific lecturers but they at least provided us with good notes. Finding a balance between the two extremes is difficult, especially in the smartphone age.

In this context, it’s very easy to succumb to the idea of replacing lectures with “activities” of all kinds and it’s very easy to mistake engagement for learning. And this is why approaches like active learning, inquiry based learning and digital learning are so seductive. And that is why so many third level academics – not just educationalists – have drifted into pedagogical research. It seems to be the land of opportunity.

Apart from the psychological basis for adopting these “progressive” approaches, there is a much more utilitarian reason for adopting novel (and generally unproven) approaches in higher education and it is this: innovation is seen as an end in itself. If you want to be promoted from lecturer to senior lecturer in my institution you will have to show evidence of “teaching innovation”. It is not enough to simply claim that you are an excellent lecturer in the traditional sense; you have to show evidence of teaching initiatives of some kind. This is why I have dabbled in lots of innovations over the years even though I knew in my heart that the fundamental problem was that students weren’t studying hard enough.

But there is another factor driving the adoption of unproven methods and it’s the fact that those whose primary area of research is in education have a vested interest in making the case that our current approach to education is unfit for purpose. If the traditional model of education were fundamentally sound, that would significantly reduce the opportunities for research. It’s not that educators are being cynical; it’s that they are being the “rider on the elephant” as Jonathan Haidt would say. They believe in their approach to teaching and they spend their careers coming up with post-hoc rationalisations for their beliefs. They are so personally invested in their approach that they will never be convinced that they might be wrong.

While these things are happening at a micro level, the macro culture of third level education has changed dramatically over the years. The move to a modularised and semesterised system and the large reduction in content and contact time that came with this move (for philosophical as well as workload reasons), the adopting of the learning outcomes philosophy (recently adopted in the Junior Cycle where many of the progressive pedagogies that originated in the third level sector are now being championed), and the extensive use of continuous assessment (often with the primary purpose of keeping failure rates down) have all changed the very nature of third level education. These days, students’ learning is increasingly managed and they are often assessed on small “chunks” of material that they study once and then forget. A simple comparison is worth making: the terminal exam in most institutions is now 2 hours long and covers 12 weeks of material. Compare that to the Leaving Cert which covers 2 years of material in (mostly) 3 hour exams.

And the broader context is that the higher education system is now a market. Everyone is keeping an eye on failure rates and retention rates. No individual lecturer wants to be isolated and under the spotlight, so there is a strong but mostly unacknowledged pressure to make your assessments “accessible” as they say. But there are also some quite explicit pressures to design your assessments so that the weaker students are able to scrape through. For example, in one of my modules (Heat Transfer) I have often asked students a question like this:

A double-pipe heat exchanger is used to heat 450 kg/h of a process fluid (cp = 3000 J/kgK) from 10°C to 26°C. 310 kg/h of hot water (cp = 4180 J/kgK) enters the exchanger at 90°C. The heat exchanger operates in parallel mode and the overall heat transfer coefficient can be taken to be 700 W/m2K. Calculate the heat exchanger area in m2.

Over the years I have been “encouraged” by external examiners to write the question like this:

A double-pipe heat exchanger is used to heat 450 kg/h of a process fluid (cp = 3000 J/kgK) from 10°C to 26°C. 310 kg/h of hot water (cp = 4180 J/kgK) enters the exchanger at 90°C. The heat exchanger operates in parallel mode and the overall heat transfer coefficient can be taken to be 700 W/m2K. Calculate: (i) the temperature of the water leaving the exchanger, (ii) the log-mean temperature difference, (iii) the rate of heat transfer, in Watts, in the exchanger, (iv) the heat exchanger area in m^2.

The argument was that my approach was unfair to weaker students who might not know how to even start the question.  So, in effect I was being encouraged to ensure that students didn’t have to think critically. I was being encouraged to tell students how to actually do the question. For a few years I succumbed to the pressure, but no more.

A final point on rote learning: rote learning is alive and well in third level education. How do I know? Because when I chat to students in the lab they tell me! Any lecturer who has ever told an anecdote in class and found it appearing in exam scripts will agree. The reason students learn by rote (i.e. learning off paragraphs of material without knowing what it means) is that they can, even at third level. It’s not because of contamination from the Leaving Cert. If you, as a student,  are expecting questions that begin with words like “describe” or “discuss”, then rote learning and a scatter-gun approach is a reasonable tactic. We need to take a long hard look about how we design our assessments in such a way that they demand critical thinking. But that’s a dangerous route to go down because questions that cannot be answered using rote learning are harder for the student and likely to lead to higher failure rates. That’s something to ponder for the many who insist that the Leaving Cert should demand critical thinking. You are effectively saying that the Leaving Cert should be harder, that it should be less predictable and that curve balls should be thrown at students during assessment. Good luck with that in the current era of transparency, in a time when the whole emphasis is to make it absolutely clear what is expected of students. I don’t mean vague expectations like “we expect you to be able to think critically”.

Incidentally, rote learning has always existed at third level, even in disciplines like engineering which is supposedly a problem-solving discipline – there was no golden age. I have to admit that when I was studying chemical engineering, I rote-learned many computational techniques without really understanding them. It was only years later that I got to appreciate how clever they were.

Jobs that don’t exist

A constant theme running through the world of education is that the world is changing so rapidly, and knowledge becoming obsolete so quickly (apparently) that that we need to revolutionise education and focus more on so-called generic (and non-existent) skills like complex problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and, for some bizarre reason, empathy. Most of these ideas come from “educationalists” who seem to have a terrible fear of change and appear to be downright ‘futurephobic’. To misquote a line from a U2 song, many educationalists “ demonise the past while the future dries up.” Many countries have succumbed to this kind of fatalistic thinking, most recently the Australian Capital Territory.

Jess Bezos is the founder of Amazon. He’s obviously a smart guy. In a recent interview, when asked about how he plans for an uncertain future (futures have always been uncertain), he said this: “Focus your vision on the things that won’t change”. Somewhat ironically, the world of education could learn a thing or two from the arch-capitalist, Bezos. It seems obvious to me that while technologies and skills change rapidly (zip drives anyone?), the vast bulk of (important) human knowledge endures, and teaching that knowledge should be at the core of all levels of the education system.


Finally, what do we expect from an 18 year-old school-leaver? Is it really reasonable to expect them to be creative problem-solvers who can think critically? I think the curse of knowledge looms large in the commentary around the leaving Cert. Too many people have forgotten where they came from.


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