Time to move on from rote learning and regurgitation

A student who recently received 580 points told me she would fail if she re-sat the Leaving. She had forgotten what was memorised

Students involved in group work as part of the reformed Junior Cycle.

Students involved in group work as part of the reformed Junior Cycle.


Just when we thought 2016 couldn’t end quickly enough, up popped our annual visitor, casting a long shadow: school feeder tables.

Not quite Trump or Farage, just old Groundhog. For many reasons league tables are the wrong answer to the wrong question. The right question: is our 14 years of schooling preparing young people for the challenges ahead?

We are accumulating an unholy cocktail for the next generation to resolve: politics in crisis, disconnection from one another and the natural world, massive economic inequality, unending wars, mass human migration, nihilistic terrorism, ecosystems’ degradation, species’ extinction, technological disruption, with the age of robotics and artificial intelligence about to begin in earnest.

A student who recently received a university award for the 580 points scored a few months back told me that if she re-sat the Leaving she wouldn’t get 200 points.

She has forgotten what was memorised. Typical school day: sit/look/listen, get good notes, learn by rote and regurgitate in exams; where teacher malfunctioned, she got grinds. Familiar?

She cracked it okay (the smart ones do). We all want our children to get the most points possible. But two key questions. How are these points achieved? And beyond points, what else, beyond learning “stuff”, do they get?

Our dominant (but not only) methodology is didactic: teacher tells – student listens, teacher active – student passive.

There is nothing wrong with didactic teaching. There are times when teacher has to give information. The problem arises when it happens all the time, with no requirement to do anything with information bar memorise, with no expectation of understanding.

We learn best through engagement, by doing something to, and with, information, when we are challenged mentally, engaged rather than occupied (think those awful primary workbooks).

We aim for the “aha!” moment, the penny drops and we can describe something in our own words, not in teacher’s.

Inherent in the didactic model is “trust us, we know best”. Haven’t we learned from our economic collapse and the recent rise of populism with its rubbishing of fact and expertise?

Young people need to learn to think critically, learn healthy scepticism, source reliable information, form and defend opinions and reject lies, fake news and prejudice.

Thankfully, alongside published league tables came some redemption in an article by Peter McGuire where he described factors, beyond league tables, to consider when evaluating schools.

There was one important omission, perhaps the most important factor: where is the school in relation to developing learning and teaching?

To prepare the next generation we must move from content transmission to learning by understanding and engagement.

This means adopting what are sometimes called 21st century methodologies, a term which can provoke a dismissive reaction, as if all our teaching expertise is now redundant.

In truth, there’s little new: the best teachers always demanded high standards, didn’t supply all the answers (nor all the questions), engaged in Socratic questioning (answered a question – in true Kerry fashion – with another), practised assessment for learning (long before the term was coined), created flipped-classrooms (ditto), demanded we rote learn basic building blocks, linked subject learning to other subjects, collaborated with colleagues, turned content into problems to be solved, cultivated curiosity and inspired a love of learning.

It’s not a binary choice between achieving good results and becoming engaged learners. Both are simultaneously possible.

Junior Cycle moves the focus from certification to learning and despite the myriad issues that have bedevilled its introduction, many schools have travelled significant distances in improving learning and teaching.

Urgently required Leaving Cert reform, involving better learning and teaching, cannot happen before Junior Cycle reform embeds. Though imperfect, Junior Cycle is a good starting point.

If opposition to its introduction is to continue (and perhaps even if it doesn’t), immediate consideration must be given to removing State certification and implementing it otherwise intact.

The world is changing in front of our eyes, more quickly than we can comprehend. We must urgently respond, without further faffing, and start building, with lots of outside-the-box thinking, an intelligent world-class education system, aspired to by our current minister, at the heart of which will be high quality learning and teaching.

Meantime, knowing that the ultimate determinant of a school’s worth is the quality of learning and teaching, we should be looking beyond league tables when evaluating schools – it’s time to allow the wearisome Groundhog an extended hibernation.

* Barry O’Callaghan is chair of the “leading for learning” advisory group at the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals.