'Primary teachers know how to teach children - secondary teachers know how to teach subjects'


INNOVATION IRELAND:In the second of a series on innovation in Ireland we look at the shortage of science teachers, and the Minister for Education shares his ideas for change, writes JOHN HOLDEN

THE EU COMMISSION’S Innovation Union 2020 initiative defines Ireland as an innovation follower, not leader. So should we grab our coats and give up?

Not just yet. Recent announcements – such as the roll-out of industrial broadband to all secondary schools by 2014 and the publication of criteria for Technological University status – have made February a pretty significant month from an innovation perspective.

What’s clear, though, is that initiatives aimed at modernising the Irish education system are pointless without educators being properly equipped to get on board.

Criticism of the teaching of maths and science subjects, particularly at second level, has been frequent recently. “We have to provide additional maths classes for undergraduate students in a range of subjects from physics to business studies,” says Dr Brien Nolan, senior lecturer at the DCU school of mathematical sciences. “It is done in every university in the country. A huge number of students are doing maths only because they have to. They may have signed up to a business degree only to realise they have to do maths as part of it.”

Likewise, crash courses in basic physics and chemistry have become necessary for some first-year students in Irish universities. One reason given for this gap is unqualified teachers covering maths, physics or chemistry at Leaving Cert level. “At the moment physics and chemistry are being taught in some schools by people who didn’t do them as a primary degree, which is shocking,” says Leo Enright of Discover Science and Engineering.

However, Michael Minnock, principal of CBS Synge Street (which recently won the BT Young Scientist Technology overall competition for an unprecedented third time) believes this is unfair.

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how a secondary school is staffed,” he says. “The key skill at secondary level is versatility. Schools at our scale dont have room for the best physics teachers in the world. We have a 22-hour timetable, which means we could offer a physics teacher 10 periods a week – no one would accept that position. The school would have to have at least 1,000 pupils before you could have a dedicated biology, physics and chemistry teacher.”

CBS Synge Street’s record in the BT Young Scientist Exhibition is largely as a result of the dedication of one maths and physics teacher, Jim Cooke, who has retired but is still involved with the school’s science programme. Cooke was a student in the school, did his HDip there, graduated in 1966 and began teaching. “He has a phenomenal mind and a big interest in Irish mathematicians, which he has instilled in our students,” says Minnock. “To get someone of Jim Cooke’s calibre will be increasingly difficult in the future. Ironically, we may one day have to dispense with chemistry, physics and even biology.”

If the demand to study or teach subjects such as science and maths is dwindling, new initiatives to increase interest must be found. The UK Institute of Physics recently began a new scholarship programme for physics teacher training. It has been a success with the numbers in the training programme up 30 per cent from 2010 when the initiative began.

Incentives for Finnish science and maths teachers have also proven successful. “There’s an enormous emphasis on training and continuous professional development of science teachers in Finland to ensure they get the best scientists and then become the best teachers,” says Enright. “People who are good at science here don’t teach. That has a lot to do with respect for the position, which is lacking in Ireland.”

Increasing the number of well-trained maths and science teachers, however, must coincide with curriculum overhaul. “At the moment, both at second and third level, we are locked into a system of predictable exams that you can navigate just by relying on rote learning,” says Dr Nolan of DCU. “This will not engender innovative abilities.”

“Physics and maths are predetermined courses for the Leaving Cert,” says Minnock. “There’s no room to be innovative. In fact it is a direct problem when it comes to marking. When you have quirky students who look at problems in a different way – the people companies such as Intel and Google look for – they’re punished by examiners. But if an examiner acknowledges a stroke of genius, they’ll be apprehended. An element of continuous assessment is needed in order for innovation and lateral thinking to be acknowledged.

“At primary-school level, there’s far more room for creativity,” he adds. “They don’t have the straitjackets of exams, or a set timetable. If you have a marvellous conversation going in a second-level class and it really gets going after about 35 minutes, five minutes later the bell rings and you’re done. In a primary setting you can keep that going.”

First-year students at St Colman’s College in Claremorris, Co Mayo, were the lucky recipients of iPads at the beginning of the 2011/2012 school year. The voluntary scheme involved 60 students, whose parents were invited to buy iPads for their children for approximately €700 with a loan scheme in place with the local credit union. “Out of 60 students, six opted out,” says Jimmy Finn, the principal of St Colman’s. “Convincing the students to use them was not the problem. Getting the teachers on board was more difficult. But all the teachers have them now. It’s too early to say, but it has been a success so far. I’ve had phone calls from other schools, the HSE, credit unions, special needs schools, parents and universities, all asking how we did it.”

More widespread initiatives have been announced recently. The roll-out of industrial broadband to all secondary schools is expected to be complete by 2014. Why the roll-out isn’t happening at both primary and secondary level all at once is down to funding. “We dont have the money,” says the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn. “Besides, all of the primary schools are online anyway and a lot of what they are doing wouldn’t need the industrial megabyte capacity being introduced to secondary schools.”

Along with this, the Minister has three key changes he wants to make to improve teaching methods. “Each student will have what I refer to as an ‘educational passport’ which measures their ongoing progress at fixed stages right through into second year in a formal structured way. The results will be made available to parents.”

Teacher training will be addressed too. “We don’t have a problem at primary level,” he says. “Primary-school teachers are properly trained. They know how to teach children, while secondary-school teachers know how to teach subjects. They are generally not as well trained in the pedagogical side of teaching.”

More emphasis on pedagogical skills will be included in both the primary teaching degree and secondary HDip by extending both by one year. “All educational literature suggests great teachers make great pupils shine,” he says. “We need to empower teachers to be better at what they’re doing.”

Thirdly, the Teaching Council will finally have some teeth. “Every teacher now has to be registered with the Teaching Council in order to be paid,” he states. “So like the medical, legal or architectural professions, teaching will be a profession run by teachers themselves in terms of standards. In order to maintain your licence to teach, you will have to show evidence of having done continuous professional development (CPD). Some already do this but not all teachers do. In order to keep your job you have to be registered and in order to register you have to show you have done so many CPD courses.”

Are the unions on board? “The unions have nothing to do with this,” he says. “This is the Teaching Council. They have representatives on the Teaching Council, as do others. But this is about the teachers themselves.”

Big changes at third level may also be on the way. Technological university status for interested Irish institutions is now a real possibility. The criteria for eligibility, however, are far from easy. “A number of institutes have indicated that they are interested in applying before they have even seen the criteria,” says the Minister. “Once they see them, they may change their view. There are approximately 15,000 universities in the world. Ireland’s seven universities and DIT would rank anywhere in the first 300, depending on how you measure it. The reputation of Irish universities can’t be seen to be devalued.”