Recently I attended a creativity in education workshop. One of the activities involved an instinctive-immediate reaction to some photos. One was a trio of young primary school girls, test-tubes at the ready, engaged in a science experiment. Among my reactions –
- They look like they are really engaged in this science task
- They seemed totally relaxed around each other
- There was no teacher hovering
- The sketches and visuals on the wall in the background
- That they were girls doing science and not boys
All of the above were on my list of my reactions. But my initial reaction was wondering where all that disappeared to. This apparently joyful collaborative experimenting with learning tools that is prominent in primary school has disappeared by the time students get to third level. Where has it disappeared to?
We read every day about falling interest in science among secondary school pupils. Despite much effort by various interest groups to stimulate interest in the sciences, students are turning away from it in droves. There is a perception of science being boring and complex. Where has that come from?
The finger of blame can lie in a number of places. The perception of “nerds” is one. Poor career guidance in schools is another. Parents passing the message that it’s almost a badge of honour to know nothing about science doesn’t help. Perception of poorly-paid jobs following graduation helps even less.
All of the above seem valid. However, a significant element in my opinion concerns education as a whole at second level. The emphasis on grades and leaving cert “points” is enough to kill off any enthusiasm youngsters might with them bring from primary school. How can the love for sheer playful experimentation survive this culture of grades grades grades?
The problem is how on earth can we reverse this grades grades grades emphasis and re-embrace love of experimental learning before it’s too late?
What are the problems –
- Poor literacy – I’m in two minds about this one. See post on language evolution in this blog. Yes, the proportion on students in our classrooms for whom English is a second or third language is on the rise. To what extent should we hold their lack of English against them? There are several well and widely recognized tests of English language (ielts, toefel) that foreign language students are required to take before entering a course. If they meet these standards we cannot reasonably expect a higher standard from them. Problems arise when they don’t meet these standards but enrol in the course anyhow.
- Plagiarism and cheating – I see two issues here. Foreign students come from cultures where cheating and plagiarism do not have the same status as they do here. We expect and advise such students along the lines of when-in-Rome……. but habits and cultures of a lifetime don’t disappear quickly. Weaker students who have a strong notion that they will fail can, far too often, resort to cheating. If they are not caught they have got away with it. If they are caught, then what have they lost, they have merely failed through a different route.
- Inability to think -The cut-and-paste-but-I-referenced-it- approach to learning is an insult to the word “learning”. Where is the joy of learning, trying things out, experimenting, having a taster just to see, contrasting and debating differing opinions, internalizing a subject to the extent of being able to clearly talk / write about it? The grades / points emphasis of the leaving cert has reduced this considerably. How might it be encouraged in a grades driven environment (if such an environment is not dismantled) is a whole other question
- A related problem is rote learning. This is not just creeping into higher education, It is permeating it to a great extent. The problem is this style of “learning” is not worth much. Coaching and grind schools in second level encourage it so as get the coveted points. But is there learning there – love of Shakespeare, love of numbers, independent learning, initiative to explore concepts and debate ideas, build up an integrated knowledge base from which to draw intelligently on when required? Rote memory and regurgitation on an exam paper is not learning. Ask the student the same exam questions a week after the exam and they cannot manage them. Rote memory shows excellent use of shorter term memory but it is not reflective of true learning.
Other bits and pieces that crossed my mind when reading those articles –
- The bell curve has lost its shape. Very few are average, most are above average (even if this is mathematically impossible). Students who genuinely score top marks are not being stretched and are in the same category with nothing to distinguish them from their weaker counterparts earning the same grade. The student reaction is along the lines of why should they bother working harder if they’re achieving high marks anyhow.
- The competition for students among third level educational institutions is larger than ever. The department of education say they want higher numbers in third level education. This is laudable but correspondingly there is a need to improve the career guidance at second level so that people don’t end up in the wrong courses. But who knows at 18 what they want to do for the rest of their working life?
- If more and more second level students are attending third level, then more and more assistance is required to get them through it. Do we have the resources to put into academic support and English language that is needed? Often, one to one support is needed but this is a considerable investment that cannot be justified from a resource perspective.
- How do genuinely able and motivated students feel about being placed in the same category as their less able / less motivated counterparts? Unless, they are strong personalities and are intrinsically motivated, it is likely they will risk being worn down by their counterparts who want a free ride or are permanent strugglers.
- Quality control is a significant part of our education system these days. But what quality is actually being measured. Having done some work in a past life on quality control for software systems, I can see how “Q” can turn into a tick-the-box exercise with little meaning. Ensuring validity and reliability of quality control in educational standards requires much work and effort.
- Mary Hanafin, the former education minister, has spoken frequently of ”world-class excellence” in the Irish third-level system. Batt O’Keeffe seems determined to continue this tone. But the statistics are speaking volumes. Statistics don’t lie, our interpretation of them might suffer from subjectivity and that’s where the difficulty lies. Unless the Batt O’Keeffes of the world sit up and listen and decide to do some proper investigation, we will continue to talk and muse and wonder but nothing will be done to address the issue.