The Leaving Cert exam is a bygone relic and it is leaving us trapped in the past. Well, so goes one conventional narrative, but it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
Agility can be hard when a curriculum is too rigid, says Ruth Freeman, director of strategy and communications at Science Foundation Ireland, because teachers have to be trained to deliver it. So how much flexibility should we have?
"It is positive that we are combining traditional teaching methods with online learning because we don't want to train children to think of Google as their sole source of information," says Freeman. "But the type of skills that we need to teach people are problem-solving, parsing information, understanding whether that information is valid and stress-testing what people tell you. They are generic skills but they are also lifelong skills."
There are many areas where our education system is particularly innovative. The transition year programme is one of them, says Freeman, and the new short courses at junior cycle level, where students will get credit for around 100 hours of learning, are another.
“The short courses are a positive example of how we can move things forward, recognising the need for flexibility and breadth. Coder Dojo started in Ireland, and we also have the BT Young Scientists and the SciFest as engagement programmes. These do link to the classroom even if they are not part of the core curriculum. The Government can support and catalyse these activities, which are ones that don’t necessarily happen in the classroom but that students and teachers can engage with. Not everything has to be delivered through formal education.”
Flexibility and freedom
When the new primary school curriculum was introduced in 1999, there were initial concerns that it was too overloaded, but it has proven to be very successful, and this is because it still allows for flexibility and freedom, says Fiona Collins, principal of Francis Street CBS in Dublin.
Collins is also an adviser to Ashoka, which runs the Changemaker schools network, a global network of innovative schools who are transforming education. Francis Street CBS is one of these schools. Ashoka’s mission is to provide young people with the opportunity to develop a skillset that enables them to meet their full potential and help change the world for the better.
“The curriculum should be a sounding board; sticking rigidly to it can stifle creativity, innovation and imagination. That said, there is a sense that the Irish primary school system does have that flexibility and freedom. Education needs to be tailored to a child’s environment and strengths, bearing in mind that the experience of a child in Dublin 8 is very different from a child in Cork.”
At her school Collins looks at the strengths of needs of the boys in her charge.
“Literacy is about developing a love of books and book clubs, while our numeracy lessons will look at local architecture and shapes. Chalk and talk is gone; kids need to move, feel and touch in order to really learn.
“This month we’ve done storytelling through movement with the children and their parents. It’s about the kids learning in different ways, including kinaesthetically, verbally and visually, and it adds a different flavour and dimension.”
Steven Daly is manager at Camara, an organisation that works to improve education for disadvantaged communities around the world, including here in Ireland.
“The content of the curriculum is not outdated. What is outdated, especially at senior cycle, is how it is delivered. There is a need for a base level of knowledge, especially around literacy and numeracy, and we shouldn’t move away from that. However, we’re not preparing students for third-level or the reality of the workforce. We are not giving them enough skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. It is a big gap, and it means that people are coming into the workforce with underdeveloped abilities to think.”
The national digital strategy for schools is a good document, says Daly, particularly in how it has provided grants not just for hardware such as computers and projectors, but also for software, external training and online platforms like eportfolios. But he says that there should be more support for principals in schools.
We tend to look at what works well outside the Republic of Ireland, with the education systems of Finland, Queensland (Australia), Scotland and Northern Ireland among those that are regularly scrutinised. Daly thinks we may be missing a very good example of innovative teaching that is much closer to home.
Youth club sector
“There are around 380,000-400,000 people engaged in the youth club sector every year. It is somewhat unusual in Ireland in that the position of the youth sector is codified in legislation and all the youth workers must have a third-level qualification. We tend to think of youth clubs only as places that keep young people off the streets but, in doing that, we lose some of what the formal education system can learn from it.”
Camara runs a programme called TechSpace, which trains youth workers to use technology to carry out their work.
“We train them in filmmaking, photography, a coding project or robotics, so they acquire these skills as a way of delivering other skills. In making a film, for instance, young people learn about working in a team, giving critical feedback, creativity through storyboarding, and critical thinking. The film is the means to the end. There are many ways that we can respect the curriculum and still give young people the skills they need to survive, thrive and succeed in life.”
EXAMPLES OF INNOVATION IN THE CURRICULUM
Delivering a school curriculum, whether at primary or secondary level, can place heavy demands on teachers. But there are many resources that can help them to deliver it innovatively.
– The science, technology, engineering and maths review group, headed by DCU president Briain Mac Craith, put forward ideas for improving teaching and learning, and one of the main suggestions was improving continuous professional development for teachers. Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) runs the Discover Science and Maths programme for primary schools, which trains teachers to use STEM subjects for inquiry-based learning. “There is a shift towards this at primary level, and the flipped classroom, where students do basic readings and research at home and then focus on project work in class, is becoming more commonplace,” says Ruth Freeman of SFI.
– As part of DCU's 21st century learning design (DCU 21CLD) project, Dr Deirdre Butler worked with Microsoft in different schools around Ireland to see what the skills are and what they look like. "We take teachers through these skills and help them to examine their own classroom practice. We use different computational tools, including Lego, to help them develop their skills," says Butler. DCU's collaboration with Lego has led to the creation of a dedicated and flexible space with wireless connectivity where children from local schools can work collaboratively to build and programme robotic creations. It's an innovative way of developing problem-solving skills; projects like these are key to developing the skills we need, but how can it translate to the classroom and to the curriculum? "If you look at the Lego work, it ties in with many aspects of the science curriculum. One of the projects looked at sustainability, and it touched on friction, design and make, flooding, climate, gearing, motion sensors and so much more. So, the curriculum can still be delivered but in more imaginative ways."
– In addition to this DCU has used Minecraft – an exceptionally popular children’s game – for a project called MindRising.ie, asking children to pick an event, place or person, either 100 years in the past or the future, and make a two or three minute video.