Keen to map a new way forward
MY EDUCATION WEEK: AOIBHINN NÍ SHÚILLEABHÁIN, PhD student and former Rose of Tralee
My Saturdays have been like weekdays recently. I’ve been filling in for Síle Seoige on Newstalk. Really good fun and some very memorable guests, like the singer Pixie Lott and Lee Child, the multimillion-selling author, who only took up writing when he lost his job aged 40. We’ve also had some great live music acts on – Julie Feeney was my favourite. Anyway, today is my last week in the slot. I’ll miss it, but I don’t think I can keep up a full-on media career right now. I have a PhD to do.
I do make time on a Saturday to act as a Project Maths facilitator for teachers. It’s a big job to get this curriculum bedded in, so it’s all hands on deck.
Saturday-night dinner with friends at Chez Max on Baggot Street, in Dublin.
I spent today researching eyelash bugs. Nice, eh? I do a weekly science slot on The Daily Showon RTE1, and this week we’re looking at all the weird and disgusting insects that travel around with us on our bodies. They’re not just microscopic bugs, either: eyelash bugs are 0.4mm and can be seen with the human eye. Lovely.
After that I needed a bit of fresh air, so I went walking along the Dodder with a friend, to blow those bugs away.
Going through a period-drama phase, so closed down the weekend with a bit of Brideshead Revisited, revisited.
I’m back at college, studying for a PhD. Three months in and I’m starting to get the hang of it. I don’t think the novelty of walking into Trinity Front Square will wear off for a while yet. The strangest part is not going to school every day. I’m used to my life teaching maths at St Mark’s in Tallaght. When you are accustomed to 120 teenagers passing through your classroom every day, it’s quite a shock to find yourself alone in a library every day. It changes your priorities. Now when I find a research paper or book relevant to my studies I react like I’ve just found the perfect dress after trawling the shops all day. A sweet, sweet feeling of satification. What a nerd.
Over the next three years I’m hoping to design a new approach to continuous professional development for maths teachers. As it stands, teachers go off for a day’s in-service training and then they go back to the classroom and shut the door. There’s no follow-up, no way of assessing how the training is being implemented, no opportunity for the teachers to feed back or develop what they’ve learned. Based on the very successful Japanese model of CPD for teachers, I’m hoping to build a more collaborative approach, with teachers working together in groups to develop their classroom practice. It’s common in many countries now but not here.
If it works it could be applied to other areas, too, but maths and science are my pet subjects. I did my primary degree in theoretical physics.
My cousin in Wicklow is looking for maths grinds. Must get down there at the weekend to help him out. He’s doing Project Maths now and wants to get the inside track. There are some teachers and students out there who are a bit lost in Project Maths, but overall the programme is going really well. It will take a while for everyone to get used to it, because it is a complete change of approach. It does away with that panic that students get when they sit down to do the exam paper and see a question they don’t recognise. It’s not fair that that person’s future career could be determined by a panicky moment in an exam.
With the new maths curriculum for Leaving Cert, none of the questions is familiar. It’s all about problem-solving, and students must do all the questions on the paper. It’s a much more level playing field, but it will take time to get our heads around. The idea is to give them the skills and confidence they need to tackle these problem-style questions rather than learn off questions and hope they come up.
I’ve been asked to launch a designated-driver campaign. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but, coming from a small town in Mayo, I know what it’s like to be designated driver. The idea is that 1,000 pubs across the country are offering free soft drinks to designated drivers throughout December. I’ll do the photo shoot – nothing fancy, no jumping into fountains or anything – for a good cause. I’ll be in Mayo for Christmas myself, home to the family for a week.
Went to the library in the afternoon, but instead of working on my PhD I gathered my thoughts for a meeting of Pharmachemical Ireland next week. The idea is to get companies that employ scientists to feed back to the education system about what needs to be done to increase the number of science graduates and improve their skill sets.
I’m delighted to be getting the chance to contribute to this: my philosophy about science and maths teaching has become more entrenched in recent years. Now, because of the PhD, I have more of the theory to back up my opinions, so I’m really looking forward to putting my case for changing the way science is examined at second level.
A good teacher – and there are so many good science teachers in the Irish system – should be able to inspire a student. I was inspired to study theoretical physics by a really excellent teacher, Mr McMonagle, when I was in school. He used to give us DVDs to watch at home and tell us about great TV programmes on physics to watch. He was very enthusiastic and nurtured enthusiasm in us. The problem for great teachers like him is that, after spending a week doing really interesting, stimulating work with students, you know that the pressure is always on to shut that down and go back to teaching to the exam formula. That kind of inspirational teaching and learning is always a distraction from the exam preparation. It shouldn’t be that way.
I also remember my dad, a principal in Carnacon National School, bringing classes to our house in the evening to stand in our garden and look through the telescope at the stars. It certainly got me interested in astrophysics, whatever about the others. I wonder is there a disproportionate amount of Irish astrophysicists from Carnacon?
Will I ever go back to teaching? I really do miss the classroom, but once I get this research bug it may keep me going for years. We don’t have a lot of research in education happening at the moment, and it’s really important to research education properly before implementing policy.
I think I will study at home today. I have found Debussy to be a great study aid, so at least I can blast him out in Milltown. Three more years of this solitary, self-propelled studying: hopefully, at the end of it I can produce a programme that teachers can use.
THIS WEEK I WAS . . .
The Poisonwood Bibleby Barbara Kingsolver – although it turns out to be heavy going for someone already spending a lot of time reading research papers
Period drama: Sense and Sensibilityand Brideshead Revisited
Claude Debussy when I study and M.I.A when I don’t