Junior cycle reform must do homework on evidence


OPINION:Research into early post-primary education points the way towards creating a constructive learning environment

THE RADICAL changes to junior cycle education announced yesterday by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn will generate considerable debate.

It is vital that this debate about the move towards school-based assessment be informed by evidence about how the current structure is serving young people.

A post-primary longitudinal study, carried out by the Economic and Social Research Institute and funded by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, followed a cohort of 900 students in 12 case-study schools from first year (in 2002) to completion of the Leaving Cert in 2007 or 2008.

These schools were selected to capture the key dimensions which influence student educational experiences, namely the approach to subject choice, the use of ability grouping (placing students in groups with others of similar ability) and the type of support structures in place for students.

The study provides rich information on student experiences within junior and senior cycle as well as on the perspectives of early school leavers.

The current structure means that young people’s experience of junior cycle is quite fragmented between first, second and third year.

First year involves a certain degree of turbulence for all students as they adjust to the new school setting – especially to different teaching methods and more subjects than they were used to in primary school.

After the settling-in period of first year, second year is often described by teachers as one of “drift” on the part of students. Without the focus of an examination, they are seen as becoming more disengaged and “difficult” than previously. However, our research shows that second year is the crucial year in shaping longer-term student engagement, retention within school and academic performance.

Clear differences in student engagement are evident 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.

The other group, mainly male students, particularly those from working class backgrounds, is drifting or even actively disengaging from schoolwork and investing less time in homework/study than in first year. Experiences in second year have extremely important consequences for later outcomes. Many students who struggle with their schoolwork in second year find it hard to regain the ground lost later on and perform poorly in their Junior and Leaving Cert exams. Failure to complete senior cycle can often stem from difficulties coping with schoolwork and negative patterns of teacher-student interaction established within second year.

The Junior Cert exam sets the tone for student experiences in third year: students find schoolwork more difficult, spend more time on homework and study, often feel stressed about the impending exams, and have less access to the kind of “fun” lessons which help engage them in learning.

In some schools, the time allocation for some subjects, such as physical education, is also scaled back in third year. The presence of the Junior Cert exam significantly narrows the focus of teaching and learning to preparation for the exam.

Third-year students generally prefer teaching approaches that allow them to have more autonomy in the learning process, seeing a strictly teacher-led approach as less helpful. They highlight the importance of interaction in class, whereby everybody can contribute and discussions are encouraged.

However, these active learning methods become less evident as they approach the Junior Cert exam, with more time spent on “finishing” the course, completing homework, and on practising previous exam papers. These changes appear to further alienate those students who are already experiencing difficulties with schoolwork.

The nature and quality of interaction between teachers and students tends to deteriorate over the course of the junior cycle, with positive interaction in the form of praise or positive feedback becoming less prevalent, and negative interaction in the form of being reprimanded by teachers becoming increasingly common.

There is an overall decline in the extent to which students express positive attitudes about school and their teachers as they move through junior cycle. Negative interaction with teachers is found to contribute to early school leaving and to lower exam grades, all else being equal.

Early educational success is key to performing well in the Leaving Cert. Furthermore, choices made as early as first year regarding subjects and subject levels may limit the options open to young people in the Leaving Cert and beyond. Thus students who have chosen, or been allocated to, ordinary level English in the Junior Cert, for example, may find certain educational and career pathways closed to them.

This rich and robust evidence base raises crucial questions about whether the current junior cycle structure provides an engaging and challenging experience for young people.

The reform announced yesterday provides the opportunity for schools to shape a junior cycle programme that responds to the needs of their students, without the restrictions on learning which follow from the presence of an external “high stakes” exam. Like all reforms, its success will depend on implementation.

Our research findings show that schools can make a positive difference to student engagement and performance in a number of ways – by adopting a more flexible approach to ability grouping and promoting high expectations for all students, by using diverse teaching methods to actively engage students in learning, by focusing on positive behaviour rather than negative sanction in responding to pupil misbehaviour, and by promoting a positive climate with good relations between teachers and students.

These elements of good practice are central to the promotion of young people’s engagement in learning and would be key elements in the successful reform of junior cycle.

Dr EMER SMYTHis a research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute, and led the longitudinal study on post-primary students’ experiences

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