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Eurovision fest time

I’ve been watching Eurovision for approx.30 years (giving away my age here), and yes it has changed over the years.  If it hadn’t moved with the times, would we all stop watching it – yes, that includes you too.

Eurovision is one of those strange phenomena that some of us in this country (and the UK also) like to be rather snooty and superiour towards.  Why? Are we bad losers and rubbish a competition unless we perform well in it?   Is our range of musical tastes so narrow we can’t appreciate something different?  Do we have issues with Eastern Europe?  Do we…………..?  Can we not just get over ourselves and enjoy the Eurovision?

Eurovision has become more than just a song contest.  In my view, there are three aspects required for a successful entry – the song, the singer, and the performance presentation on the night.  All three have to be working well for an entry to do well.  When we insulted Europe and ourselves by sending Dustin the Turkey we scored zero points on all three.  If we send rubbish why are we expecting gold?  Watching the national finals this year, our entrant had a reasonable song, poor-ish singers but singers who could be relied on to present a good showing on the stage.  What happened in the Dusseldorf semis on Thursday night – Jedward pulled off a surprisingly good job on the singing (good on them, I felt rather proud of them), and their stage presentation was excellent (kudos to the designer of the electronic backdrop, by the way).  The odds on Ireland shortened considerably.

A thing that I love about the Eurovision is the variety of genres on show.  A winner needs to be the best representation of its genre in each of the three aspects above.  Whether a given viewer likes a particular genre or not is irrelevant given the sheer size of the audience numbers watching. There is an audience for just about everything.  Take Lordi (representing Finland a short number of years back) – they, their song and their stage presentation were excellent in the hard rock genre.  To the non-hard rock brigade anything in this category sounds like pre-historic monsters growing at each other. Does this matter?  No.  There were enough supporters of this category to appreciate what Lordi had to offer.  With only minor exceptions, this has been a consistent feature of Eurovision over the years.  The best song, singer, performance representative of a particular genre comes out on top.

This year, the French have sent a song and singer in the classical-pop cross-over genre.  Anyone, having a gander through my ipod is in no doubt as to where my taste in music is.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGfxvasqqVE&feature=related has been played several times on this laptop.  In my mind, the French entry is head and shoulders over everything else I have heard.  Admittedly, I haven’t seen the entrants from the first semi. Nor have a I heard the Italian, German or Spanish entries. I have no idea how the French will present on the stage tonight.   Nonetheless, from what I have heard, my top 5 are: France, Ireland, Austria, UK, Sweden.

Now, whose commentary do I listen to – Mary Whelan or Graham Norton?  Decisions Decisions!

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Bizarre World

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I feel strongly about education.  My students doing well means a lot to me. I’m constantly looking for ways and means to increase their performance and achieve their potential.  I’ve found that some things work with some students some of the time, but nothing is permanent and achievements constantly need to be monitored and built on.

Seeing the policies adopted in other countries and cultures is always a useful insight. However, sometimes they are just too bizarre. What do you make of these two –

  • In the Uk, parents are jailed if their young ones consistently play truant. Scenario – difficult teen refuses to attend an institution that clearly makes him/her unhappy, that’s not doing anything for his/her self-esteem, and bringing out the worst in him/her. The penalty is to take away the key person(s) in the child’s life and lock them up for a month. Result – already having difficulty relating to adult figures in school, the child now is deprived of their primary carer and has no adult figure in their lives. If they are from a one-parent family, what happens to them while the parent is in jail? The parent risks losing their job because of the incarceration, and acquires a social stigma they could do without.
  • Even more bizarre is the scenario in Tanzania. According to this BBC report, primary school teachers who were late for class, or didn’t show up for work, or didn’t teach the official syllabus were in serious trouble if their charges under-performed. The penalty – the teachers were caned by a police officer in front of their pupils. How completely, totally and utterly inhumane and bizarre. What message is that sending easily-swayed children?

The world is indeed a strange dangerous place.

For better or worse, it’s happening…

Are our students getting smarter? IS teaching and instruction improving? Are we using (or making better use of) the teaching and learning tools are our disposal? Has there been a revolution for the better in education over recent years?

Or… did we mark to harshly in years gone by, did we set the bar far too high back then? Are we now at “realistic” levels of expectation?

Or… are we dumbing down, lowering our requirements for student achievements and performances?  Are we making assessment easier? Are we awarding higher grades for the same level of work now than we used to?

I’ve been spending time over at http://www.stopgradeinflation.ie and have been reading some of the published work linked from the site.

The Facts (taken directly from the sources given) –

“Bringing up grades by dumbing down equals failure” – Sunday Independent, 1 June 2008 –

  • Political correctness taken to extremes – an American example is given of US teachers not allowed to tell students their work needs work or not being able to fail them for shoddy work in case it damages the students’ self esteem.
  • Another example of political correctness, also American – a masters-level dissertation marker is to told by his university authorities that he can’t fail said dissertation in case the student sues for discrimination: she’s black. Yet, the students cannot spell, punctuate, or construct a sentence, much less make a literary case and follow through a literary argument. To obtain her masters she is now following a remedial level English course which, interestingly, was not needed for her under-graduate degree.
  • Closer to home, describing the Irish education system the author (Emer O’Kelly) says the system seems almost to have been designed to ensure illiteracy. It’s satisfaction without effort, a pappy mess digested without the effort and joy of tasting, analysing and swallowing. Spelling and grammar are hardly taught — how can they be, when most of the teachers wouldn’t recognise a well-constructed, properly spelled, classically syntactical sentence if they saw it?
  • We’re still perpetuating the myth that we have the “best-educated young people” in Europe. And how are we doing it? We’re doing it by dumbing down our education standards.
  • The numbers of Leaving Certificate students gaining A and B grades have nearly doubled since 1991. Yet the most recent OECD/PISA study across Europe has found that there has been no detectable improvement in mathematics, English, or science among Irish 15-year-olds between 2000 and 2006.
  • In less than a quarter of a century, we’ve reduced our education standards and requirements by 50 per cent
  • We’re already suffering because of our lack of educational depth. And I suspect we’ll suffer more when we’re found out internationally.

“Degrees are ‘losing their value”, Irish Independent, November 18 2008

  • Degrees are likely to become a “devalued currency” because colleges are awarding too many honours qualifications
  • If “grade inflation” continues at its current level, all graduates from the university sector will have first class honours by 2030.
  • In 1994, 7pc of graduates in the university sector had degrees with a first class honours. In 2005, that jumped to 17pc while between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of “firsts” in the institutes of technology sector increased by 78pc.
  • The percentage of A grades at Leaving Certificate in Higher Level Irish and English has increased threefold between 1991 and 2008, three consecutive OECD reports had shown no real improvement in reading in science and maths.
  • Grade inflation degrades education as a measure of competence and employers will eventually doubt the quality of grades.
  • While it should not necessarily be made tougher to get into college or made harder to obtain top qualifications, there should be a clear differentiation between really good grades, mediocre and poor ones
  • “If you examine the percentage of males in the medical field back in 1963, you find that 70pc of them had less than 300 points. In law 80pc had less than 300 points and in commerce 70pc had under 300 points.” Professor Aine Hyland, emeritus professor of education and former UCC vice president

“Lecturers ‘pressed to boost grade results'” – (UK) Independent – Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London –

  • Degree standards in many British universities are in danger of collapsing because lecturers are under pressure to “mark positively” and turn a blind eye to plagiarism
  • “League table culture” has led to an explosion in the number of firsts awarded. Latest figures show they have gone up by more than 100 per cent over the past decade from 16,708 to 36,645 – at a time when the undergraduate population has risen by just over 40 per cent.
  • Universities have been particularly lenient with overseas students because they rely on them so heavily for fee income – so much so that they turn a blind eye to plagiarism and cheating.
  • Standards of English literacy at UK universities are often poor. To compensate for this, lecturers are pressured to ‘mark positively’
  • “I have heard it seriously argued that international students who plagiarise should be treated more leniently than British students because of ‘differential cultural norms’. It is indeed rare, nowadays, for habitual plagiarists to be expelled from their universities.”
  • A spokesman for Universities UK, the body which represents university vice-chancellors, said: “The UK model for assuring quality and standards in higher education is sound and well-established. It is also well respected internationally and has informed and influenced parallel developments worldwide. All courses are subject to regular internal monitoring and review by the university, including through the external examiner system, and the university’s processes and mechanisms are, in turn, subject to additional external scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.” Professor Alderman – these new inspection systems concentrate on whether lecturers have followed procedures correctly – rather than questioning grade boundaries and the quality of marking.
  • Jonathan Bate, professor of English at Warwick University – “There are universities where instructions go round to staff reminding them [that] awarding more top-class degrees will push their institution up both the national and international league tables.”
  • A Higher Education Academy and Joint Information Systems Committee research found widespread variations in the way plagiarism was tackled by different universities. Plagiarism was twice as common in less-selective universities than the smaller more-popular universities. It was also higher than among members of the Russell Group – which represents the top 20 research institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge.
  • In the past decade, only one of the UK’s top universities – Cambridge – has reduced the proportion of firsts and 2:1s.

“Failures of the Leaving Cert”, Sunday Business Post, 19/08/2007

  • The Leaving Cert does not work properly, as it is merely a test of memory and learning, and not a proper reflection of a student’s ability or suitability for university.
  • If changes in the leaving cert structure improve the intake to third level, the average degree level at graduation should improve. If the Leaving Cert is not improving the academic potential of the intake, the average quality of degree should fall as the numbers in third level rise (because it is reasonable to assume that, in a competitive system, increasing the intake permits ‘less clever’ people to get in).
  • The average points level and the minimum necessary points level among university entrants rose steadily because university places expanded more slowly than the numbers taking the Leaving Cert.
  • Questions – How come fail rates and drop-out rates have not fallen at our universities?  How come there is a widespread view among university teaching staff that average ability, particularly in the humanities area, has been falling, a view based on literacy and numeracy standards among the students?   If the Leaving Cert is doing such a good job, why does the educational research establishment argue that it needs to be restructured to reduce the importance of exams in favour of increasing the importance of ‘practicals’ or ‘continuous assessment’?
  • The number obtaining over 450 points in the Leaving Cert has increased significantly. However, in critical areas (maths and science) failure rates are high, while the numbers taking honours level courses are down. The implication is that higher points reflect in part a shift to ‘softer’ subjects at the honours level.
  • Mathematical ability – as measured by performance in the Leaving Cert – is the best statistical predictor of performance at third level.  Poor and falling mathematical ability in the third-level entry cohort and simultaneous improvements in the quality of degree being awarded suggest one of two conclusions.  There has been a truly remarkable improvement in the way in which university staff enlighten the Bebo generation.   There has been grade inflation at third level that complements the grade inflation (or dumbing down, if you prefer) of the Leaving Cert.
  • The latter conclusion is supported by the uneven performance of the universities in awarding degrees.
  • The leaving cert – Jumping through mental hoops replaces the ability to demonstrate analytical skills. Rote learning replaces inquiry. Covering the course replaces reading into a subject.
  • Doing well in this particular mode of learning does not equip you per se to do well at university. . . unless, of course, universities start to follow the same structure of learning. This, alas, is exactly what is happening as third level becomes part of mass education.
  • Faced with a decline in the knowledge base of the student population, the response has been a growing emphasis on ‘remediation’ and ‘progression’ rather than encouragement of excellence and a tailoring of degree awards to accommodate the reduced ability of students and the increased demand of students, funders and university administrators for ‘good results’.

“Rise in proportion of firsts to 13% renews inflation debate”, The Times – 17 January 2008

  • One in eight students now obtains a first-class degree
  • In 2006-07, 13 per cent of students who passed received a first, the highest classification possible, representing an increase of one percentage point on the previous year. This compares with 8 per cent of students who achieved a first in 1996-97. Nearly half – 48 per cent – obtained an upper second, up from 47 per cent the previous year.
  • Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said: “If we leave it long enough, everyone will be getting a first and the degree system will have abolished itself.”
  • In 2006-07, a total of 319,260 degrees were awarded at UK higher education institutions. Of these, 36,645 were firsts, 138,745 upper seconds, 92,795 were lower seconds, 23,195 thirds, and 27,880 candidates failed their degrees with an unclassified result.