Reviewing the Leaving Cert

Plans are under way to revise the Leaving Cert. There’s no harm in that – it does need to be looked at. Reform and renewal is good in many walks of life.

But the LC needs to be looked at in the context of the fact it is, and is likely to remain, the de facto entrance exam for college. Whatever the LC looks like in a few years’ time, it has to be fair and it must not disadvantage (any further) those from less affluent backgrounds. It also needs to be robust and not involve assessments that are marked with excessive subjectivity. (Creativity anyone?)

There is no doubt that whatever is proposed it will call for the introduction of a lot more continuous assessment. CA will be presented as fairer, as testing a wider range of skills, as reducing the levels of stress among students. However, it would seem logical to me that before introducing more CA at second level it would be wise to do a comprehensive study on the use of CA at third level because we’ve been adopting this approach for years. But the news about CA in the third level system is not all good. It has its problems and second level curriculum designers need to be familiar with those problems and not simply fall into the continuous-assessment-is-good trap.

No doubt the review will recommend the introduction of short courses, just like the Junior Cycle. So I hope the curriculum designers will undertake some sort of study on the experience of other countries who have gone down this route. My reading of cognitive science (and my own experience of learning) is that knowledge and skills acquired over a short period are quickly lost – it’s why I have doubts about the wisdom of semesterisation. “Use it or lose it” is true not only in rugby but in learning as well. Short courses might well be a complete waste of time if they are not integrated into the core curriculum and the content of those courses revisited regularly.

No doubt there will be calls to reduce the amount of “rote learning” and to focus more on “critical thinking”. I could argue all day about how the ability to think critically is intimately tied to the amount of knowledge you have in your head, but I won’t bother going there because as the fella says in Cool Hand Luke, “some people you just can’t reach”, especially those educationalists who believe in the idea of generic skills that exist as a ‘thing’ independent of context. The fear for me would be that the leaving cert will become infested with inquiry learning (as the Junior Cycle has, despite the evidence that IBL doesn’t lead to good outcomes at this level) and activities like making Lego robots and structures out of marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti – the kind of things you see on #stem on Twitter. So let’s just say this: those people who are arguing for more of an emphasis on “critical thinking” are arguing the case for making the Leaving Cert more difficult. They’re talking about throwing curveballs at students during timed assessments. They’re talking about a fundamental shift in our perception of fairness.

And it is very likely that all sorts of stakeholders will be calling for more emphasis on “life skills”. This is something that really puzzles me and this is why: we live in a time when many seemingly intelligent people believe that knowledge is fleeting, doomed to be replaced with new knowledge in a handful of years. And they also believe that Google has changed everything – if you can Google it, why learn it at all? But the same people seem to believe that skills are permanent. And that is just mad. In my own field of chemical engineering, core knowledge has changed little since I was a student but approaches to problem-solving have changed utterly because of the availability of easy-to-use computational tools. Nearly all of the problem-solving techniques I learned are obsolete now. But the knowledge is he same. Likewise in life, the skills we need to live are constantly changing and often very rapidly. Whether it’s shopping, booking a holiday, driving, getting a credit card, finding somewhere to live, doing some further education or getting medical care, how we go about these things changes year on year. The whole app industry is built on the fact that the skills we need to navigate through life are constantly changing and people are willing and able to adapt.

The reality is that knowledge of science, of history, of languages, of literature,  of geography is far more permanent than so-called life skills. And formal education should be about teaching that which will endure not that which will help you to get through the first few years of your college or working

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