A planned new syllabus for Leaving Cert science subjects is in danger of creating lower standards by focusing on “learning outcomes” rather than traditional building blocks of knowledge, a leading researcher has warned.
Prof Áine Hyland, emeritus professor of education at University College Cork, has criticised the planned reforms in physics, chemistry and biology, saying the guidelines for teachers to date lack detail. She warns that similar problems will arise with other Leaving Cert syllabuses undergoing review "if the matter is not addressed now".
The new syllabuses in the three science subjects provide a greater focus on practical work, moving away from a fixed set of experiments to a team-based “inquiring” approach. The reforms are aimed at taking the focus off “rote learning”, while also creating a more interactive learning experience.
However, Prof Hyland said she had studied the practice in other countries and she had not come across “any centralised or public examination syllabus at this level which provides only a list of topics and learning outcomes” as had been conceived by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).
“It can be argued that if teachers focus only on learning outcomes, there is a real risk that the teaching and learning target will be a minimum rather than a maximum, that the bar will not be set high enough for student learning, and that, as a result, standards will fall.”
Prof Hyland, who was commissioned by the Irish Science Teachers Association to conduct the study, said: “It is the considered opinion of this researcher that the issue of depth of treatment and clarity of examination specifications will become an issue for all Leaving Cert subjects as the revision of Leaving Cert syllabi proceeds. It is almost inevitable that the concerns raised by ISTA will be echoed by other subject teachers and associations as well as by third-level representatives if the matter is not addressed now.”
She also questioned the wisdom of using materials exclusively online, saying “given the inadequacy and/or unreliability of broadband access in many parts of Ireland, it is still too soon to rely exclusively on online access and in the short to medium term at least, hard copies of syllabus materials will have to be provided”.
Prof Hyland also cited “a lack of clarity regarding mandatory experiments and the assessment of practical work. Even highly experienced science teachers are struggling to interpret the new syllabi.” In contrast, she notes the current syllabuses “are highly regarded by teachers and have contributed to a reversal of the decline in the numbers of pupils taking science subjects at senior cycle”.
Mary Mullaghy, chairwoman of the science teachers association, said it was clear from Prof Hyland's report that the NCCA's plans were "seriously flawed" and "do not measure up to international best practice." The association had already made four submissions to the NCCA on the matter but "all of these concerns appear to have been ignored".
Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock, who has responsibilty for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has called on the NCCA to “sit down” with the science teachers to discuss their concerns.
While teachers accepted the need for conceptual understanding, there was a fear the approach might not be challenging enough for students who wished to go on to third level and “I am inclined to hear their concerns”, Mr Sherlock said.
The NCCA welcomed Prof Hyland’s contribution but said she was “not comparing like with like” when making international comparisons. A spokeswoman stressed that what had been completed to date was simply a specification of the syllabuses and this had to be agreed with Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn before the support materials and guidelines were drafted.
The NCCA stressed further consultations were always planned, with a target date of 2018 for the new syllabuses after a planned trial in 40 schools starting next year. This would allow time for development of resources and teacher training, the council said.