All posts by Greg Foley

About Greg Foley

Chemical engineer trying to convince biologists that engineering is interesting. Hater of education bullshit.

The biggest problem in higher education

When I was engineering student in UCD every day was pretty much the same: lectures in the morning, labs in the afternoon. Our weekly contact time was up around the 30 hour mark. That seems like a lot – and it is – but what we had was structure. There was never a temptation to say, “feck it, I’ll just head home”, because if you did you’d miss too much.

Part of the whole modularisation and semesterisation project was to reduce content and hence to reduce contact time. This was consistent with a lot of modern thinking in education, namely that content is less important than it used to be (Google and all that) and that students need to spend more time developing “skills” like independent learning.

However, this shift to a contact-light approach has had some unanticipated consequences. With the cuts in education funding and the increase in student numbers, student timetables tend to be sub-optimal to say the least. Students often find that they have large gaps between lectures and if the next lecture is late in the afternoon, the temptation is to just head home. (For example, I have a class today at 11am and the next lecture for that class is at 4pm – on a Friday.) It is likely that the notes will be posted on Moodle or Blackboard anyway. If the gap between lectures is small, the natural inclination is to convince yourself that there isn’t enough time to do ‘proper’ study and just spend a bit of time on your smartphone instead.

A few years ago the Irish Survey of Student Engagement asked students how much independent learning they did. What was revealed was that most students did far less study than they were (technically) required to do. For me that was one of the most important findings of that study but for some reason the question has been removed from later versions of the survey.

The lack of structure in the student day is a major barrier to student engagement and in my view it is one of the biggest problems in higher education today. The only solution to this problem is more space and more staff. So it’s not going to be fixed any time soon.


Thoughts on semesterisation

Most Irish universities are now modularised and semesterised. Modularisation was largely an exercise in repackaging but there are good reasons to believe that semesterisation has fundamentally changed the way students learn and not, perhaps, for the better.

There is plenty of evidence in the cognitive science and education literature that we retain content in our long term memory only if we revisit it multiple times. We rapidly forget that which we only study once.

Under the current semesterised system, students typically have 12 weeks of contact and 1 to 2 weeks of exam preparation time. Furthermore, continuous assessment is increasingly becoming a feature of the majority of modules. And finally, many modules are taught in ‘blocks’ by more than one lecturer – often to suit our increasingly busy schedules.

In that sort of learning environment, one in which students are constantly meeting deadlines and in which they are ‘jumping’ from one topic to the next, and not always in the ideal order, it is hard to imagine that students are really spending much time revisiting content in an organised and effective way throughout the semester. In fact it is very likely that most students revisit content for the first time in the couple of weeks before the examination. This may be enough for them to pass but because they have studied the material only once in an intense burst of cramming, they will rapidly forget it. And hence when we ask a question in class, the answer to which requires knowledge acquired in the previous semester, we are often met with blank faces.

In contrast, in the pre-semesterised era, there were fewer CA deadlines for students and, most importantly of all, the extended Easter break provided students with the time to really lay the foundations for the intense pre-exam study period. In theory at least, this meant that students’ retained content for longer and were in a better position to draw on that knowledge in future years.

We made the transition from the year-long to the semesterised system without ever thinking seriously about how that might affect student learning. People who opposed the semesterised approach (I wasn’t one of them) were portrayed as reactionaries. Now that we have a far better understanding of how people learn, it is worth having another look at semesterisation. I’m not suggesting that we should turn back the clock – that’s never going to happen – but we need to think very carefully about how we organise our semesters and how we teach to ensure that students revisit material multiple times.

Maths, rules and creativity

I’m a chemical engineer. I’m ok at maths – competent but not a natural like this guy with whom I went to secondary school. Nevertheless, I have written a book on mathematical modelling. The book is not all that advanced – it mainly contains calculus and ordinary differential equations – but I’m kind of proud of it. I think the writing of it was the most creative period of my career and that creativity was based on sitting down with a blank page and solving engineering problems of a particular kind year after year.

So when I heard maths guru, Jo Boaler, say this: “Maths should not be about rules, and right or wrong answers, and mindless memorisation but about creativity and ideas”,  I was a bit baffled. I’ve read Boaler’s book, Mathematical Mindsets, and I found it very creative in the sense that the author seemed to have a rare ability to make arithmetic far more complicated than it needs to be. Like that scene in Father Ted where Ted roars at Dougal “play the effing note”, I wanted to shout “just learn the effing rules!”.

So I’m on the side of Fields Medallist, Tim Gowers, who said:

It is quite possible to use mathematical concepts correctly without being able to say exactly what they mean. This might sound like a bad idea, but the use is often easier to teach and a deeper understanding of the meaning, if there is any meaning over and above the use, often follows of its own accord.”

Maths takes time. It requires patience and practice. There are no shortcuts – unless you’re a genius.

The Charter for Irish Universities

The IUA have been out in force what with the launch of Ireland’s Future Talent – A Charter for Irish Universities. The campaign started with this letter to the Irish Times. In the letter, the Director General of the IUA (Jim Miley) repeated the oft-stated point that state funding for Ireland’s higher education is the second lowest in the EU. This is true but only if that spend is expressed as a percentage of our notoriously inflated GDP. However, if the spend on higher education is expressed as a percentage of total government expenditure, Ireland’s spend is just below the median value and almost identical to Germany’s.

Later in the letter, Jim Miley argues “If the under-funding of third-level education continues as it has for the last decade, there’s a real risk that the earnings dividend of future graduates will be seriously eroded.” This is a very odd and badly thought-out argument. Countries where the earnings dividend of higher education is high tend not to be ones that we would associate with equity. The top five countries in this regard are Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. In contrast, the places where the earnings dividend is lowest tend to have the most equitable societies in the world. Readers will not be surprised to learn, therefore, that the earnings dividend of higher education is lowest in Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Finland. It is a pity that the IUA is promoting the idea of an elitist education system where those who cannot afford to go on to third level education are destined to be relatively low earners. Surely, it would be far more desirable to have a system that provided a wide range of pathways to high-earning careers? In fact, this was the case back in the 1980s when many professions were accessible without the need to go to university.

Anyway, what about the charter itself? The first thing that struck me about the charter was that it has a very DCU feel to it. The word “talent” in the title reminds me of our latest strategic plan which has the title “Talent, Discovery and Transformation”.

The second thing that struck me was that it seems odd for all of our universities to buy into a single vision. Surely DCU’s charter, for example, differs from, say, Trinity’s.

The third thing that struck me was that the charter contains no surprises. There are the usual pleas for more state funding coupled with more autonomy, something I would suggest that large swathes of the private sector would laugh at. Worryingly, the universities clearly want to be able to hire superstar academics on super-salaries in order to give themselves a quick boost in the international rankings. This is the Manchester City* approach to education. But wouldn’t it be great if the universities adopted the Leinster Rugby** approach and committed to nurturing the young talent we have through the university and IoT systems?

Apart from that, there are the usual suggestions around more engagement with industry and society, more funding for research and innovation, more international students and better access for disadvantaged and disabled students. There are plenty of random targets and the one that caught my eye was the target of a 30% increase in PhD students. I’m not too sure what problem this target is designed to solve but I suspect it is a target that is designed to serve the interests of the universities themselves. I don’t think business and industry are clamouring for more PhD graduates. In fact the structured PhD concept came into being because it was recognised that the traditional PhD was not serving the needs of business and industry.

There is very little in the document on teaching and learning other that some vague references to “digital learning” (whatever that is) and a “professional development framework” for lecturers.

In terms of university operations, there is a commitment to establishing more “flexible” and “accountable” structures. I don’t really know what these things mean but one thing I do know is that the consistent trend over the last two decades has been to bureaucratise both teaching and research in the universities; so I am sceptical of any stated ambitions to increase flexibility.

All in all, it’s a pretty disappointing document. There’s no real analysis of the role of the universities in Irish society and in the Irish economy. It’s presumed throughout that the universities must grow and climb in the international rankings as ends in themselves. There’s no serious analysis of how the universities might better connect with the secondary school system, the further education sector, and the professions to ensure better access to high-earning and rewarding careers for all segments of society. In an era when everyone talks incessantly about creative thinking, I see none in this document. It’s the same old, same old really.

*Manchester City are the current English Premiership champions. Their success is based on spending over a billion pounds on superstar players from all over the world.

** Leinster rugby are the current European champions and their success is based on nurturing home-grown talent through their academy system. 

Do we need to spend more on higher education?

Amid all the talk about our higher education system being it crisis, it is worth having a look around the EU and asking how much each state spends on higher education (tertiary education) and to what extent that spend benefits the economies of those states.

The graphs below show what percentage of government income is spent on education across the EU. Ireland is pretty much at the median for both total spend and HE spend.



Now we look at how the spend relates to GDP per capita and GNI per capita. The currency is PPP dollars and these are dollars adjusted to take into account the different costs of living in each state. (It should be noted that Ireland’s economic numbers are always distorted by the output from our very large biopharma sector and by tax laws that many would claim make Ireland a tax haven.)



CORRECTION: x axis should read % of total government expenditure.

So what, if anything, does any of this mean? What it means is that we need to be careful about simply arguing that pumping more money into education will lead to economic prosperity. The relationship between education spend and prosperity is a complex one and education is not always the cause and prosperity the effect: causality can flow in the opposite direction, i.e., wealthy countries (e.g. those blessed with valuable natural resources) can afford to think long term and pump more money into third and fourth level education, and into basic research. Furthermore, economically weak nations might see pumping money into higher education as a way of promoting economic growth while wealthy states might simply decide that they’re doing alright with a moderate level of investment in higher education. Germany is a case in point.

So what about the Minister’s claim that Ireland will have the best education system in Europe by 2026? Non-Irish readers should know that Irish politicians always set ridiculous targets and they always miss them. I’m pretty sure that at one time we were promised the best broadband not only in Europe but in the World! We all know how that worked out. And politicians are always talking about excellence – centres of excellence and that kind of thing. Former Minister for Health, Brian Cowen, once got so exasperated with all the talk of excellence that he is reported to have exclaimed “all I want are centres of f**king adequacy!”

Anyway, what about the Education Minister’s claim? Well, in truth, it is best described as “not even wrong.” The best education system for any country is one that is most appropriate for the type of economy that the country has, and the one that meets the needs and desires of its citizens. A country like Germany whose economy is based on manufacturing, doesn’t necessarily have to spend huge amount on higher education. A country like Romania might have to spend a lot on HE to build up the expertise required to modernise its economy.

What about Ireland? Should we spend more on Higher Education? It would seem obvious that we should, at least if you listen to the academic establishment as they repeatedly claim that the system is in crisis. But the establishment is not making a case based on any real economic argument – the data does not show that investment in higher education correlates with anything. Rather, they are arguing for their own survival and their positions in the international rankings. And implicit in their argument is the idea that more is better.

But what if we took the German approach and designed our education system to suit our economy and our people. In order to do that we would have to get rid of our national inferiority complex that drives us to focus so much on becoming a “knowledge economy” with a big emphasis on STEM industries. And year after year there are articles in the papers highlighting the fact that big-brand multinational software companies are finding it difficult to recruit computing graduates. And guess what? They always will because Ireland will never supply enough computing graduates to meet the needs of the multinationals that we have ‘encouraged’ to locate here. So we’ll continue to import the expertise.


Education spend data

Some thoughts on constructivism in a STEM context

Constructivism is now the dominant ideology within the Irish educational establishment. For a long time I’ve struggled to understand what constructivism actually is because most definitions seem pretty vague to me. But while perusing the UCD Teaching and Learning pages I came across this list of the characteristics of a constructivist learning environment and I’ve added a few comments on each point:

  1. Provide multiple representations of reality.

For an engineer like me, or indeed for most of the scientists and mathematicians that I work with, this aspect of constructivism is a problem. Most sane people believe that the laws of nature are the laws of nature and not a social construct. Yes, the directions that scientists take in their research are subject to social, cultural, political and economic factors, but that doesn’t mean that nature itself is dependent on these same factors. Of course we all have different images in our head as to what, say, a proton actually is; but a proton will behave like a proton regardless of how you think about it.

  1. Emphasize knowledge construction inserted of knowledge reproduction.

The thinking here is that knowledge construction is somehow superior to knowledge acquired from a teacher or a book. Many constructivists argue that knowledge that has been constructed (e.g. through inquiry or discovery methods) is somehow “deeper” than knowledge acquired from interacting with a teacher. This is an ideological stance, not one grounded in cognitive science and not one supported by evidence. In fact one can argue precisely the opposite: knowledge acquired through discovery is shallower than knowledge acquired from a good teacher. A good historical example of this would be Kepler’s discovery of his laws of planetary motion. Kepler didn’t really understand why his laws were the way they are – it took Newton to explain them all. Indeed the history of science is packed with empirical observations (‘constructed knowledge’) that were understood and explained years later.

This idea that knowledge construction is superior that knowledge acquired through being taught it is the reason why so much of education, specifically the new Irish Junior Cycle, puts so much emphasis on process and method rather than knowledge.

There is also the suggestion in the above that when knowledge is acquired from a teacher or a book, it is not used or applied; it is only reproduced. This is a complete mis-characterisation of traditional, teacher-led approaches to education

  1. Emphasize authentic tasks in a meaningful context rather than abstract instruction out of context.

This is a curiously instrumentalist view of education because it implies that learning should only relate to relevant, real-world problems. It rules out vast swathes of human learning; from art to philosophy to history to literature to theology, the very subjects that have the most potential to enrich our lives.

  1. Provide learning environments such as real-world settings or case-based learning instead of predetermined sequences of instruction.

This is what I call the “mimicry fallacy”: the real word is like X therefore we should learn like X. So if research scientists spend their time inquiring, then students should learn through inquiry.

This philosophy is what has spawned the obsession with interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. It’s also an approach that if applied to sport would suggest that, for example, rugby teams should train mainly by playing “authentic” 15-a-side full-contact practice matches. Good luck with that.

  1. Encourage thoughtful reflection on experience.

All learning environments encourage reflection. The study of English literature, for example, is defined by the fact that it requires reflection.

  1. Enable context- and content- dependent knowledge construction.

This is pretty much a repeat of point 2.

  1. Support collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation, not competition among learners for recognition.

Again this is just an ideological position, not one grounded in learning science. It is another example of the mimicry fallacy: people sometimes collaborate in the workplace therefore students should learn collaboratively. Most mathematicians, scientists and engineers I know would argue that to master these subjects a student has to settle down in a quiet room and concentrate fiercely on solving problems or getting to grips with difficult concepts. You don’t learn calculus by brainstorming.

  1. Avoid oversimplification and represent the complexity of the real world.

That’s precisely what scientists and engineers don’t do. They try to get to the essence of problems and then, if required, they build in added complexity to capture, as accurately as possible, the behaviour of physical, chemical and biological systems. Given the stunning technological advances of the 20th century, we’d want to be very careful about making fundamental changes to how we teach the STEM disciplines.

Brian Cox, exams and what Level 8 means

In a recent interview, Brian Cox, physicist and science communicator, said this: “I think it is the wrong message that their job as students is to pass an exam. It really is not; it is to understand their subject.”

I think we’ve all encountered the student who seems to be a good exam performer but when you chat to them in a lab or work with them on a project, you are puzzled as to how they are doing so well. But, in my experience, this sort of student is rare.

Likewise it’s rare that students who do badly in exams perform exceptionally well in project work. They might do better than expected but rarely are they brilliant. Aagin, in my experience.

So, by my reckoning, exams seem to be a good marker of all round ability and a good marker of how well students, on average, understand their subject.

Let’s look at some CAO data from 2018. In the graphs below, the bars represent the median entry points (that’s the median of the minimum points required for each course). The “error bars” represent the range of points required for courses in the institution in question.



We know that within a typical first year university/IoT class, the correlation between CAO points and final grade is weak. But does that mean that points don’t matter? Can we say with  confidence that courses where the minimum entry points are 300 are taught at the same level as courses where students enter at 475 points?  This question is a sensitive one but it’s one we need to ask.

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.


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.

Universities and their pet projects

Everyone claims there is a financial crisis in higher education. So two recent announcements made me pause for thought. Trinity’s announcement of a one billion euro innovation campus  and UCD’s announcement of a 48 million euro  innovation and creativity centre (or something) seem somewhat incongruous. I’m surprised that no one – in the media or in politics  – has asked what the impact of these prestige projects are likely to have on the funding available for undergraduate education. I’m sure the funding arrangements are complex and I don’t know what they are, but I’d imagine some borrowing will be involved. And loans have to be paid off.

Whenever I chat to colleagues about issues like this, they often express frustration that funding can always be found for pet projects but never for the nuts and bolts of undergraduate teaching. They might be right.