Cog Notes: Roddy Doyle concerned about how Fighting Words might work as part of junior cycle

He and co-founder Seán Love advise against any form of assessment that would add pressure or take away from students’ enjoyment

While the dispute over reform of the junior cycle continues, preparations are under way for further short courses under the new curriculum.

The latest proposal comes from Fighting Words, the creative writing centre set up in Dublin by Roddy Doyle and Seán Love in 2009.

In its first five years, it has worked with 45,000 participants, including 730 school groups. Its workshops are so popular they are oversubscribed by a multiple of five. Hence the idea of having Fighting Words on the curriculum.

An evaluation of the model by Francesca Lorenzi and Irene White at DCU's school of education studies highlights how Fighting Words dovetails with the new junior cycle framework in promoting creative thinking, collaborative learning and regular feedback.

However, a majority of teachers and tutors expressed reservations about transferring the model to the second-level curriculum, saying it would undermine the “out-of-school experience”.

This view was shared by NCCA chief executive Anne Looney, although she did see scope for incorporating the "methodology" used by Fighting Words into the English syllabus, particularly the promotion of verbal interaction.

The document highlights the difficulty of introducing anything that runs counter to the exam-centred educational framework.

Love argues there is “no freedom to think” at secondary level, and the last thing students need is another regimented course. Doyle shares this concern, advising against any form of assessment that would add pressure or take away from the enjoyment of Fighting Words.

The pair say “it is important to emphasise that we are not criticising teachers or schools; the problem is the system”. Left unsaid is whether the system would be improved with the junior cycle reforms.

The DCU authors note that “assessment perhaps remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the translation” of the model to the curriculum. “If the majority of the assessment . . . is of a formative nature, this is likely to impact less negatively on the students’ learning experiences,” they say.

Is there a doctor in the house? Actually there are three

Husband and wife Gerard and Bernadette McHugh met while studying in St Patrick's College in Drumcondra in the 1970s. They did their masters' degrees at the same time in the 1980s and eventually ended up running separate education centres providing continuing professional development to teachers.

And they have just completed their PhDs, both doing their vivas at DCU on the same day in mid-December.

“Having two people in the same house doing doctoral theses in the same week was probably not ideal,” says Gerard, a former school principal who is now director of Dublin West Education Centre. His thesis was on the leadership careers of primary-school principals in Ireland.

Bernadette, who heads up Navan Education Centre, examined the use of blended learning in teacher education.

The pair had hoped to do their doctorates earlier in life, but heavy work schedules and raising three children intervened.

Gerard believes it was better this way than doing a PhD straight after college. He says that option is “a flawed model” unless you’re planning a life in academia. “You should have a few years working before a master’s and then the same for a doctorate.”

They can’t, however, lord their new titles over their children in their Castleknock home with the taunt: “Is there a doctor in the house?” Their daughter, who works in obstetrics, beat them to it.

Not everyone was boozing back in Charlie’s day

Among the declassified government documentation released by the National Archives was correspondence unearthed by my colleague Fiona Gartland relating to Gemma Hussey's arrival in the department of education. As the first female minister for education, Hussey wrote to Sean Barrett, then the minister of state at the Department of the Taoiseach, to stipulate her accommodation needs, which included an electric kettle and proximity to a ladies' toilet.

Offices in Leinster House were being reorganised following the incorporation of the College of Science on Merrion Street into Government Buildings. Hussey said she frequently had meals in the office and requested a wash-hand basin, worktop, small fridge and cupboard. “This would be of great benefit on nights when the Dáil is sitting late and would enable me to prepare a salad or a sandwich while working in the office.”

Such industry contrasts greatly with the boozy lads culture depicted in RTÉ's TV drama Charlie.

Hussey was part of the 1982-1987 Fine Gael- Labour government that came into power after Charles J Haughey’s administration, and one of her greatest challenges was meeting the teacher unions’ expectations of a pay hike, which had been stoked up by the former Fianna Fáil leader, among others.