Lessons need to be learned before we change Junior Cert
The proposed reform of the Junior Cert needs proper resourcing and is wide open to abuse
AS SOMEONE who has complained in print for about 15 years about the horrors of the Leaving Cert and the exam system in general, I am aware that urging caution at this stage may sound perverse or even obstructive. I still believe we have to be very, very careful about how we replace the Junior Certificate.
As a second-level teacher, of course I am not a disinterested bystander. However, my concerns stem not from proposed changes in working conditions but from the assumptions that seem to underpin the reforms.
There is an underlying theory that young people have an innate desire to learn that is destroyed by “rote learning” and far too much focus on terminal exams.
Is that true? Think back to when you were 14. Were you innately interested in the course of Irish history, or why drumlins are that shape, or in Pythagoras’s theorem?
If you were lucky, you met someone called a teacher who was passionately interested in some or all of that, and some of that passion rubbed off on you. But even still, without the incentive of a State exam, you might not have bothered learning or retaining knowledge that did not immediately interest you.
Now consider young people today, many of whom spend hours a day on social media that offer instant engagement and reward. Where does that leave the assumption that if a lesson is well prepared, and active learning methods are employed along with judicious use of ICT, every young person will want to learn?
That’s the theory. After extensive fieldwork, I am not so sure. People’s levels of intellectual curiosity vary widely, and the amount of commitment to education in the home has a significant impact.
It is sad but true that some learning is boring. It is very hard to make the rules that govern apostrophe use riveting. Is it not part of education to learn to exercise discipline, to develop the willingness to slog at things that are not immediately rewarding?
Emer Smyth, a researcher for whom I have the highest regard, said in her opinion piece yesterday that by second year: “One group of students, mainly females and those from professional families, is increasingly challenged by schoolwork and responds by investing more time in homework and study.”
In other words, for one group of students, the current system works. It does not work, for example, for working-class boys, who have become increasingly disengaged. It is unjust that one group is so badly served by a system. Reform is needed but it must benefit everyone.
We hear a great deal about the educational success of Finland, and how the new system will bring us closer to that ideal. However, Pasi Sahlberg, who wrote Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, the book that everyone keeps quoting, spoke to Irish primary school deputy principals in 2011 ( tinyurl.com/8wrdm8n). He talked about Finnish middle school students (aged 11 to 14) and their teachers.