Breda O’Brien: Junior Cert debate conceals a bigger problem about education

Should education be about creating a compliant workforce or good citizens?

‘They are the ones most affected by cutbacks in resources, or services such as guidance counselling. Yet the Government continues to deny the effects of such cutbacks.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘They are the ones most affected by cutbacks in resources, or services such as guidance counselling. Yet the Government continues to deny the effects of such cutbacks.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

The current debate about the Junior Cert conceals a far deeper problem. We have not had a serious public discussion about the aims of education.

It used to be relatively simple. Education was about the transmission of the accumulated wisdom of one generation to the next, with each generation broadening and deepening that wisdom.

This has largely fallen out of favour, in part because of a suspicion that the past contains little of value, and partly because of the current emphasis that what is now needed are skills that allow you to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

But if education is not primarily about transmission of knowledge, is it mostly about creating a workforce which can adapt to economic change rapidly and therefore help the economy to grow?

Is it about promoting a love of learning for its own sake, and developing the ability to think for oneself in a confusing and information-dense world?

Is it about helping students to become good citizens, with a strong social conscience and a commitment to respecting others as well as themselves?

While lip service is paid to the second two objectives, in practice the first shapes educational policy most of the time. Becoming an independent thinker, much less a good citizen, takes a great deal of hard work. Thinking itself is hard work. As Daniel Kahneman says in his fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow, most of us operate most of the time using what he terms system one, a lightning fast evaluation of cues in order to recognise patterns. System two is much slower, and really effortful.

(System one and two, as Kahneman explains, are metaphors, not actual brain components, but useful metaphors, nonetheless.)

There is a sub-text in a lot of current educational policy that education should always be entertaining and engaging.

However, learning to think in a disciplined, logical and methodical way is a demanding task, as is learning to recognise one’s own biases.

Thinking skills are not acquired in the abstract, but through effortful engagement with a body of knowledge. The aim is to become so proficient that judgments become as swift as the processes of system one, but also highly accurate.

Becoming proficient

OutliersMalcolm Gladwell

This view of education is often dismissed as elitist, and out of touch with the needs of children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is no doubt that educational methods must take account of the needs of the children.

However, school is often the only orderly, safe place in a chaotic world for such children. Achievement, no matter how modest, means a huge amount to them. They are the ones most affected by cutbacks in resources, or services such as guidance counselling. Yet the Government continues to deny the effects of such cutbacks.

Prof William Reville caused some controversy this week by suggesting “old-fashioned” methods such as whole class teaching, with a recognised body of knowledge and extensive use of questioning in a disciplined environment, worked better than modern methods of “discovery” learning.

Long-term memory

Instead, it is an absolutely vital part of thinking, because as Kirschner states, “everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory”. In other words, “we are skilful in an area because our long-term memory contains huge amounts of information concerning the area”. However, even experts can be subject to biases in their thinking, such as the “halo effect”, that is, if you like one aspect of something, you’ll have a positive predisposition toward everything about it, and vice versa.

There can be “halo effects” about educational results achieved by particular cultures, without looking at other factors in the society that may influence outcomes.

Unlike Reville, I don’t necessarily think whole class teaching is the be-all and end-all. Group and pair work have their place, as does problem-based learning and other educational methodologies. But I suspect we agree on one thing – trying to artificially divide knowledge from skills is like trying to unscramble scrambled eggs, and education should be about helping people develop all their talents, not just their value as economic units.

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