Now is the time for revolution in the classroom


As the teacher union conferences get under way, more focus needs to be given to the future of Irish education, writes ELAINE BYRNE

THE ANNUAL teacher union conferences are currently under way and much of the focus over the next week will centre on their response to the public service reform deal recently brokered at Croke Park.

The motions on the various programmes reflect deep concern among teachers about the security of their jobs, pay and pensions.

The cohesiveness of the trade union movement will also come under scrutiny given the growing crevices between the expectations of union leadership and membership from that negotiation process. Understandably, these issues will dominate internal debate at the various conferences.

Perhaps not enough discussion will occur on the future direction of Irish education. Teachers have an enormous moral influence on their students, and an unrealised power of the ability to shape the minds of a generation. Those that regard teaching as a vocation appreciate its potential to challenge the intrinsic belief systems of a country by analytically engaging students and facilitating independent thinking.

I learnt as a tutor at the University of Limerick and as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin that the perception of educational success is dependent on what your beliefs about education are. The confidence to motivate critical thinking within the classroom has a profound impact on the relationship between education, civil society and democracy.

The reinvigoration and transformation of Irish society will only be achieved through the generation of self-actualising individuals from our classrooms. Recently, on these pages, Prof Michael Cronin (DCU) advocated the introduction of philosophy as core subject in the Irish educational system, as is the case with many of our European neighbours.

The present structure of access to third-level education rewards students who learn rather than understand. The points race replaced creative inquiry with exam-oriented teaching. The consequences of this, as any lecturer with responsibilities for first-year teaching will admit, is the best part of a year spent deprogramming students and educating them to think for themselves.

An intellectual audit of the roots of our current malaise may conclude that a predisposition towards short-termism, deference and a fear of asking awkward questions were responsible for why the depth of our crisis is greater than in other countries, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Maybe the Sex Pistols had the answer to Ireland’s crisis of political, economic and ethical authority. “Goodbye authority/The ones who think that they know it all . . . Just take a look at the world they’ve made” are the punk lyrics of one of their more anonymous songs, Revolution in the Classroom. Ireland is a nation defined by the educational reforms of the 1908 Irish Universities Act, the 1967 Free Education Act and the 1995 abolition of university fees, which coincided with greater political and economic freedoms. As a consequence, more people had the possibility of accessing education and contributing to Irish public life.

A new education revolution would examine not just access to education, but reassess the way in which it is delivered.

Donogh O’Malley’s historic decision to introduce free post-primary education in 1967 was made on the basis of a policy document initiated by Patrick Hillery called Investment in Education, the research for which was derived from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD published a set of internationally comparable indicators last year on 30 education systems in the developed world. The purpose of Education at a Glance is to provide objective suggestions for educational policy reform.

The OECD report recommends that the effectiveness and efficiency of teachers can be improved through performance appraisals and incentives for continuous improvement. Ireland has the weakest evaluation structures within the OECD, where 39 per cent of secondary teachers have been without any form of school evaluation over five years.

Along with Hungary and Malta, Ireland is ranked as having the greatest “predominance of structuring practices” where teaching is based on the principles of explicit learning goals, revision and homework review.

Student-oriented teaching practices are more pronounced in Denmark, and encourage a flexible learning environment with a greater emphasis on student autonomy. This is exercised through student self-evaluation and participation in classroom planning and individually adapted tasks. The Icelandic and Norwegian education systems encourage active citizenship through enhanced activities which promote creativity, such as working on projects and debating.

Perhaps now more than ever there is a duty to rethink the necessity, structure and purpose of the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations. Demographic trends provide us with a fantastic opportunity to fundamentally reshape the attitudes and outlook of a new generation.

By 2015, Ireland’s 5-14 year-old population will rise by more than 15 per cent. Within the OECD, only Spain and Israel share such high demographic trends.

In February, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) published Innovation and Identity: Ideas for a New Junior Cycle, which presented a set of ideas about what a junior cycle of the future might look like. It emphasised a teaching context which promoted attributes of ethical behaviour, leadership, innovation and personal and social development.

Can you imagine an Ireland with leadership qualities like that?

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