Does the Leaving prepare students for third level

I’m sure I’ve written about his before but I’m returning to it today because is has come up on social media today.

Here’s the context: many academics bemoan the ‘fact’ that students arrive in college unprepared for the challenges that await them. By all accounts, incoming students cannot think critically and they rely way too much on rote learning. These claims are typically followed by suggestions that the Leaving Cert needs to focus a lot more on critical thinking, evidence-based analysis and argument construction, the presumption being that these skills are not required in the current Leaving Cert – something that is highly debatable. There is also a strong sense that academics, rather bizarrely, resent the fact that they have to inculcate these “skills” in incoming students – rather like employers complaining that graduates do not possess workplace skills like business acumen, marketing etc.

Let’s first about critical thinking. As cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, has pointed out, even toddlers can think critically in certain circumstances while experts can often fail to think critically. Critical thinking is not a thing that once you’re trained in, you do forever more. In the context of education, if you want students to think critically, you should design assignments and assessments that demand critical thinking and where critical thinking is absent, you should provide feedback to explain precisely what critical thinking is within the context of the relevant discipline. That’s our job at third level. If second level was the same as third level, why would we have ‘levels’ at all?

Second level is a bit more tricky because fairness and transparency are inextricably linked. Students, parents and all sorts of stakeholders believe strongly that students should be absolutely clear as to what is expected of them if they want to achieve a certain grade. There is so much at stake that the  unexpected is seen as unfair. However, if you really want to ensure that students place less emphasis on ‘rote learning’ then you have to design assessments that demand critical thinking. In this context, we can define critical thinking as the ability to analyse situations or solve problems that students have not encountered before. Thus students would have to link knowledge that exists in their long-term memory (yes, you do need to remember stuff) to solve those problems or analyses those situations. So when people suggest that the Leaving Cert needs to place more emphasis on critical thinking, they are, in fact, suggesting that the Leaving Cert should be made harder and perhaps that marking schemes should be loosened somewhat. Advocates of Leaving Cert reform should acknowledge that.

The Leaving Cert is currently a knowledge-rich, highly demanding curriculum that requires a strong work ethic, a decent level of all-round intelligence and an ability to communicate. It provides students with a strong basis on which to take on third level. But it doesn’t produce third level-ready students just as university does not necessarily produce work-ready graduates. Just as employers need to accept that they need to provide incoming graduates with further training, we need to accept that we need to provide ‘training’ in the ways of third level education. It’s not a big deal and we shouldn’t be moaning about it. After all we have four years.

There is one more important point. Many students choose to study subjects at university that they have never studied in school. They have zero knowledge of their chosen subject. The idea that students who know very little about their chosen subject should be somehow able to think critically about that subject goes against everything we know about how students learn. The ability to think critically depends crucially on having relevant domain knowledge, including knowledge of the culture and norms of the discipline that they have chosen to study. Evidence in law, for example, is quite different from evidence in science; argument-construction in theology is likely to be quite different from that employed in, say, logic or even philosophy.

We need to stop blaming the Leaving and focus on ensuring that our own house is in order

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