The Leaving Cert: not brutal, but not as fair as it could be either.

Back in the late eighties I remember my second-year English teacher (who now has rather a big job in Irish education) introducing us to the term “hyperbole”. No, Wordsworth did not actually see ten-thousand daffodils but the inclusion of this impressive number gives a sense of there being many, many daffodils. It’s a term I teach my own pupils today and one that sprang to mind when I read this Irish Times article and the many retweets it featured in. All of them seemed to accept that the Leaving Cert is “brutal but fair”. “Brutal” applied to the Leaving Cert is a nice example of hyperbole. It’s obviously inaccurate but a good rhetorical move that adds force to arguments a particular side of the Leaving Cert debate. The more of these tweets appeared I began to realise how many people don’t realise that describing the Leaving Cert as “brutal” is hyperbolic. Let’s not tell them about ISIS or the Khmer Rouge.

The Leaving Cert is hard and examinations can be stressful, but it is not brutal by any stretch of the imagination. It is simply the terminal examinations based on our well-rounded, knowledge-rich senior cycle curriculum. The papers themselves mostly require candidates to manipulate the material they have learned to answer not just short-order questions but longer ones that assess understanding. Many subjects now have a second component that can be prepared, and often even assessed, in advance.

The CAO system itself has not really changed since it was introduced in the 1980’s. There has been some tinkering in the form or bonus-points for Higher Level Maths (introduced, scrapped, re-introduced), changes to grade boundaries (originally 15% intervals, refined to gradations of 5%, now 10%) and the move from letters to numbers. But the central premise – grades are converted to points which then act as a currency and places in third-level are allocated in an online auction – remains the same. Each candidate has a single points score and cannot bid beyond this limit. The bids have been placed in advance of the examination, in the form of the CAO form. Candidates have to hope that the number of candidates with a higher score than theirs does not exceed the number of places on their desired course.

The points system has much to recommend it and was itself set up as a bulwark against corruption. To this end, it has been extremely effective. It doesn’t matter who you or your parents know, you are just a number and if you do not earn the required points the computer will just say “no”. But there are some aspects of the CAO that have corrupted the education system itself, from the inside. The first is the blunt nature of how the points are calculated. A H2 in Maths is worth 113 points. A H2 in Italian is worth 88 points. This is true even for a course such as TR670 (joint honours in modern languages in TCD). Apart from Maths, all subjects from geography to home economics to accounting to agricultural science to classics to English to physics earn the same number of points per grade. I won’t venture into the LCVP here. Some courses require specific subjects, almost always Maths and/or a science, but in general once you has your points you has your place. Common sense would tell us, and conversations with pupils bears this out, that choosing subjects for the Leaving Cert is often done with half an eye to which ones are “bankers” in terms of the overall points count. Capable students shy away from subjects they perceive as challenging for fear that the learning rewards will not be reflected in points earned. It is not unknown for candidates to take an extra subject, one in which they have no intellectual interest, purely in the expectation that it will bump up their score.

The single score also makes performance unfortunately and unhelpfully public. I believe in rigorous assessment and I believe in competition and especially in competitive entry to third level, but the points system can lead to candidates and others not seeing the wood for the trees. The answer to “how did you do?” or “how did your son/daughter do?” is a simple three digit number and an immediate scale on which candidates can be instantly and often erroneously compared with classmates, siblings and the neighbours’ children. Grades in individual subjects are lost in this discussion.

The single-score system is a major contributor to the aspect of the Leaving Cert that earns it the most oppoprium: the stress. Reforming the CAO so that bonus-points for Maths would only be applied for courses with a maths component (I’d allow for a generous definition here), and awarding bonus points for other subjects (such as languages) where those subjects are particularly relevant would go a long way to reducing this problem as there would no longer be a single answer. Instead the answer “how many points do you get?” would depend on the course in question. This is something that could be done easily and would still allow points to be counted and places allocated automatically and anonymously.

I don’t believe in stressing anyone out unnecessarily, as can be seen from the suggestion above, but I do find the stress-argument to be the weakest of all when it comes to Senior Cycle reform. Rates of mental illness, particulary anxiety-related disorders, are at worrying levels but we should be wary of self-report when it comes to the causes of these disorders. An anxious sixth-year will no doubt cite the Leaving Cert as an immediate cause of anxiety, but this does not mean that it causes or even exacerbates pathological anxiety. I have yet to see any convincing study that links assessment methods with poor mental-health outcomes. Rather, this rise in mental illness in adolescents and young adults seems to be ubiquitous in highly-developed societies and not correlated with Leaving Certificate style curricula or examinations.

It could be that rising levels of mental illness are happening despite the Leaving Cert and not because of it. The Leaving Cert is challenging, although certainly not brutal. Success requires work and dedication and the candidate must leave parents and teachers behind as they step into the exam hall, surrounded by their peers but supervised by a stranger. Waiting to be told to turn the paper over, waiting for the results and the offers to come out, knowing you have been judged anonymously to a standard set by people who have never met you: this is all stressful. It seems anachronistic in what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff describe as “the new culture of safetyism”. Yet, once they have come through it, students have benefited from the experience, including those who are disappointed in their individual outcome. The stress-argument for getting rid of the Leaving Cert exams also fails to take into account that any alternative will inevitably have its own stress-inducing elements.

Convincing alternatives to the Leaving Cert are thin on the ground. Continuous assessment is just what it says on the tin: a system where senior cycle students would never be more than a few weeks either side of a high-stakes assessment event. Allowing for more projects and coursework would magnify the advantages that those from homes with higher-educational capital already enjoy. A system involving personal statements and awarding credit for extra-curricular activities would also benefit those whose parents can supply or buy the necessary opportunities. It would school a generation in the ways of cynicism and instrumentalism where activities now undertaken because pupils enjoy them and/or see their inherent worth, would be reduced to mere boxes to be ticked.

It is a positive thing to see the content of our curriculum and our modes of assessment being seriously discussed in the media. The topic, and our young people, deserve this attention. We must, however, keep this to a real discussion rather than a drive for a cultural revolution where all that can be labelled “traditional” is marked for destruction and re-imagination. There is much that is good about our current senior cycle, as out-of-sync as it no doubt seems with the global trend towards what Zongyi Deng refers to as “the knowledge society that eschews knowledge in favour of generic competencies needed for the twenty-first century”. We have a sound knowledge-based curriculum and a rigorous, anonymised assessment system of which examinations are the main pillar. Let’s not lose either of these.

Summer Reads 2020

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Ah, but the summer isn’t over, you say. This was originally called “lockdown reads” but I can’t anymore. “New normal”, “blended learning”, “social distancing”… it’s all enough to make you want to escape to eighteenth-century Bath or early-nineteenth century Moscow. Even the persecutions of early Christians and the enforcement methods of Eastern European criminal gangs become distraction from the great uncertainty and the frazzling idiosyncrasies of the online learning platform. The merits and demerits of New York charter schools and the empirical evidence base of recent pedagogical trends serve now for entertainment more than CPD and it seems, for the moment at least, that the scores are in on “teachers vs tech”.

Here are eleven books I have enjoyed so far this year.


“Persuasion” Jane Austen

I had never read this novel before now. It’s a joy of perceptive characterisation and exquisite social satire. It is amazing how Austen builds such a strong narrative on a plot that is so spare and light, infusing events that are objectively inconsequential with drama and passion.

“The Mirror and the Light” Hilary Mantel

I haven’t baked banana bread, nurtured a sourdough starter or participated in either Zoom quizzes or online yoga. But I did join in on this lockdown staple, the final instalment in Mantel’s trilogy based on her imagining of the life of Thomas Cromwell. This felt a bit stretched in places with far too many flashbacks to Cromwell’s tough upbringing yet is still very cleverly accomplished. Cromwell isn’t as sympathetic as he is in the earlier volumes but just as the reader begins to slip from his side, Mantel unleashes the horror of his final days and we are back again almost inside his head as we were throughout much of “Wolf Hall”. I found myself hoping for a different ending, a sure sign of Mantel’s skill as a novelist.

“War and Peace” Leo Tolstoy

I can’t say I would have stuck with this one had the alternative not been ending my breaks early and returning to the next round of incoming work and queries on the [shudder] online learning platform. The greatest hurdle was familiarising myself with the Russian names and the web of familial ties connecting Countess Thiskosvosky and Prince Thatvalenko. I would also recommend reading  some details of Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia so as to not rely on the book for information. I found myself confused at times as to who had won the various battles, but then was relieved to discover that so were the armies that fought them.

“Girl, Woman, Other” Bernadine Evaristo

The multiple-perspective novel is having a moment and this is as fine an example as you will find. The stories of the twelve characters bounce and deflect off each other as the girls and women (and one other) find their way in a society where racism and  attitudes to gender and class often conspire against them.  Evaristo manages to treat all her characters with equal compassion and empathy, especially when the characters don’t show this to each other. “Girl, Woman, Other” shows us the error of judging the judgemental, while being itself full of  sharp observations and insights.


“Teachers vs Tech: The case for an ed-tech revolution” Daisy Christodoulou

This is just excellent. Whether you’re an edtech enthusiast or a sceptic like myself, your mind will be changed by reading “Teachers vs Tech”. Christodoulou takes a clear-eyed look at the use of technology for learning inside and outside the classroom. She debunks many of the inflated claims that edtech facilitates new ways of learning, explaining that learning still happens the way it always has and reminding us that education is just another market for the companies that seek to sell us their wares. Microsoft, Apple and Google are not humanitarian organisations. The book supports a general ban on mobile phones in school, citing a 2015 study showing that schools in England which had implemented such bans achieved higher exam results than comparable schools that allowed mobile phones. Christodoulou is no Luddite however, and pays equal attention to the ways edtech can be useful, from flashcard apps that enable personalised revision schedules, to assessment that counteracts teachers’ blind spots and to the effective production and sharing of digital resources. This last one will no doubt will be even more important in the coming school year. School closures have been a watershed moment and edtech is here to stay: this is a good place to start for teachers and school leaders seeking to maximise its benefits.

“How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice” Paul A. Kirschner & Carl Hendrick, illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli

This is a reference book rather than one to sit down and read in consecutive sessions. Kirschner and Hendrick cleverly bridge the gap that exists between the many interesting books on teaching that offer insight but skim over the nitty-gritty research on which their advice is based, and on the other side the kind of academic books and journal articles that teachers suspect is out there but don’t have the time or expertise to find and digest for themselves independently. The book takes twenty-eight seminal research studies and for each one reproduces the abstract, gives a summary of the main points, suggests implications for classroom practice and offers some further reading in the area. Clear, practical and informative, this is a useful resource for teachers at any stage in their career.

“Curriculum: Athena vs the Machine” Martin Robinson

However much people love to complain about the Irish examination system – the Leaving Cert and the now defunct Junior Cert that has been replaced with the abysmal Junior Cycle – they may be unaware how lucky and increasingly exceptional Ireland has been in escaping the Machine that grips many education systems, most notably that of our nearest neighbour. Imagine a world where results from class tests are not just entered in your own records, they are elevated to the status of data and thus entered on spreadsheets and subjected to analysis in order to track pupil progress and monitor teacher performance. That’s one aspect of the Machine we’ve – so far – evaded, but another aspect is gaining ever more ground. That is the turning away from education for knowledge and wisdom towards education as training in generic and soulless “skills”. To give one example, the word “literature” appears eighteen times in the NCCA background paper that formed the brief for Junior Cycle English Specification. “Digital [literacy]” appears sixty-six times in the same paper. This is a powerful read in which Robinson warns us to beware of the Machine and instead design a curriculum of which Athena, goddess of philosophy, wisdom and courage, might approve.

“How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice” Robert Pondiscio

Of all the books on this list, this was the one I most enjoyed the most (followed closely by “Girl, Woman, Other”) and it is the book I am recommending that everyone with even the slightest interest in education should read. It’s a fly-on-the-wall account of an academic year that Pondiscio spent observing inside the Bronx1 branch of the controversial US charter chain Success Academy. While admiring of much that he sees, Pondiscio is often critical and this is no puff-piece. Throughout the book he offers powerful observations and arguments about educational disadvantage and social justice, all the while acknowledging and teasing out thorny issues and ethical dilemmas.


“McMafia” Misha Glenny

“McMafia”‘s title refers to the macdonaldisation of organised crime and tracks its subject across continents showing how what was once isolated enterpreneurship is now a global network borrowing much of its organisation structures from standard business practice and facilitated by financial deregulation. Paradoxically, the more crime emulates legitimate business the more suffering its increased efficiency is capable of inflicting  on those who source the product, consume the product and in some cases even are the product. The book’s impressive span – from Bulgaria to China via Israel, India, Nigeria, South Africa, Canada and Colombia (to name but a few) – never overwhelms the cohesive narrative and the Glenny understands the need for characters to make such a story work. Published in 2008, the book is quite old now (the only older ones on this list are “Perusasion” and “War and Peace”) but the edition I have has an afterword from 2017.

“Dominion” Tom Holland

Firstly, thank you to Daisy Christdoulou for the recommendation. This is a great summer read…rich enough that I could feel my brain having to work a bit but still a break from academic reading. It’s a history of Christianity and its influence, with the subtitle “The making of the Western mind”. Holland argues that the West is so much a continuation of Christianity that we are blind to the Christian nature of beliefs and values we take to be secular : from monogamy to the unacceptability of slavery. There’s a strong narrative drive throughout the book and I cannot praise the writing style enough; it’s fresh and always entertaining however dark the subject matter becomes at times.

“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” Shoshana Zuboff

Even more of an essential read now that more and more of our lives have shifted inexorably online. Surveillance capitalism refers to what Zoboff calls “the Big Other”, the interconnected tech companies whose hip, public face with the primary colours and the progressive font belies a ruthless exploitation of the clues our online behaviour gives to our inner lives and probable future behaviour. Forget the cliché that if it’s free, you are the product. In a chilling analogy Zuboff argues that it is your data surplus that’s the product, much as an elephant’s tusks are its only lucrative feature, and your actual life –  the essence of who you are – is only the carcass left behind to rot under the sun.


Reading continues, and like a lot of the small things, I have never appreciated it more. I hope you are all well and safe and if you have any book recommendations, please let me know.

INOTE 2019

INOTE magThe Irish National Organisation of Teachers of English (INOTE) held our annual conference in Portlaoise on 12th October. This is always a good day to be an English teacher and this year’s conference was a vintage one. Fresh from the triumph that was the previous weekend’s ResearchED Dublin, Julian Girdham delivered an inspiring keynote address on the building blocks of English as a subject discipline. Also in the main conference room, Frances Rocks demystified the Leaving Cert marking scheme and Patrick Huff spoke on the importance of cultural capital and gave an impressive list of book and podcast recommendations. The indefatigable Norma Murray stepped down as chairperson and will be very much missed at the personal as well as the organisational level. The morning also saw the launch of the INOTE magazine.

Selena Wilkes and Claire Madden ran workshops – on creative writing and the CBA1 respectively – in the afternoon. I would have loved to attend both, but was taken up with my own talk on vocabulary. I will put the link to the presentation below. It owes a great debt to Alex Quigley’s “Closing the Vocabulary Gap” which definitely won the “most recommended book of the conference” award. There are also some examples of exercises based on Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s “Bringing Words to Life”.

The basic points of the presentation are:

  • Vocabulary is important.
  • It’s best to teach vocabulary from context so appropriate lexical challenge is a key factor in text choice.
  • Select the words you think are most useful and teach these explicitly.
  • It’s probably better to teach easily confused words separately rather than try to teach “the difference between….”.
  • Make up your own simple definitions rather than have students look up new words in a dictionary.
  • Having a dedicated vocabulary section in assessments helps students to recognise its importance.
  • Even though explicit vocabulary instruction is essential, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Independent reading holds much larger potential for vocabulary expansion. Teaching every child to read needs to be a priority for every school.


ResearchED Dublin 2019

ResearchED-A5-Booklet-1_Page_015th October saw the much-anticipated arrival of ResearchED to Irish shores. Thanks to a packed programme and the wonderful setting of St. Columba’s College the day more than lived up to expectations as teachers were challenged to, as my colleague Margaret Kent puts it, interrogate not just official policy but our own practice in the classroom. As with all ResearchED conferences, hard choices needed to be made when it came to picking which talks to attend. From Dianne Murphy on literacy to Conor Murphy on film to Sandrine Pac-Kenny on MFL to Leona Forde on her school’s approach to CPD, each talk was a research-informed treat, with complementary bookends provided by the legends that are Daisy Christodoulou and Carl Hendrick. Tom Bennett and Julian Girdham can be very proud of what is hopefully the first of many Irish ResearchEDs.  I was honoured – and quite terrified – to present on the day and am beyond grateful for all the kind words and much-needed support I received, including from senior management of my own school and from the #edchatie regulars whom it was great to finally meet in person.

As promised, slides from presentation are here. RDKate Barry

Summer Reads 2019

December 2019 was a busy time and I never got around to compiling a “Reads of 2018” post. This list is really more of a “reads of the last eighteen months”, although most of them are from summer 2019.

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“The Truth About Teaching” by Greg Ashman

A 2018 read sneaking in. You know the colleague who looks sometimes at the CPD library but claims (with justification) that they’re too busy to be reading books about education? This is the book to give them: a one-stop shop of myths, counter-myths, empirical evidence, simplified theory and practical advice.

“Being Various. New Irish Short Stories” edited by Lucy Caldwell

Perfect summer reading with short stories by Danielle McLoughlin, Paul McVeigh and Sally Rooney.

“Atomic Habits” by James Clear.

You knew I would have to get some pop-psychology in here somewhere. We would be far better off helping students develop good habits than vaguely encouraging them to reach for the stars and believe they can achieve it. In terms of the theory of habit formation there is little here that isn’t in books by Charles Duhigg and Kelly McGonigal among others, but where Clear scores is in getting into the detail of how to plan and focus on daily habits and on micro-goals. I saw a teacher on Twitter (can’t remember who it was, sorry!) use what seemed like a template from this book to help students plan their study. They had to specify the time, the place and the exact activity and come up with a suitable, immediate reward for their efforts. I’ll be trying the same thing this year.

“The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow” by Danny Denton.

This novel deserves to be much more well-known than it is. A riotous yet internally coherent ride through a dystopian Dublin, with a strong cast of well-imagined characters and an excellent feel for neologisms. Hindered slightly by the unconventional punctuation. I can see why Denton does this: new rules for his new universe but feel it may turn off readers and prevent this book reaching the wide readership it completely deserves.

“Making Kids Cleverer” by David Didau.

The title here is provocative. What about educating the whole child or recognising multiple intelligences like “intrapersonal” and “bodily-kinaesthetic”? And surely one’s level of clever is innate? Making kids cleverer by teaching them has come to be seen as akin to making them taller by forty minutes on the rack, but Didau reminds us that there’s a lot we can do to help each child develop their intellectual potential and – just as importantly – that that’s our actual job.

“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan

Edugyan, along with her husband Steven Price who also a historical novelist, was one of the many writers at the 2019 West Cork Literary Festival. I bought this book after the interview and it is my novel of the year so far.

“Simplicity Rules” by Jo Facer

I had the pleasure of meeting Jo at ResearchED ’18 in London. A recently appointed headteacher, she is full of both positivity and practicality. This book is an antidote to the ever-increasing pile of work-loading fads that plague education. The behaviour management section in particular is one of the most pragmatic I had read.

“Mind on Fire” by Arnold Thomas Fanning.

If you’re curious to know what psychosis feels like and don’t – unlike me – have first-hand experience, then this is the book to explain it to you. Fanning pulls off a considerable feat in rendering the incomprehensible and chaotic into clear and rationale prose. He is also critical, at the end of the book, of the modern tendency to interpret all of life’s challenges through the prism of mental health/illness. Sometimes life is just life, and I agree.

“The War that Ended Peace” by Margaret Macmillan.

A 2018 read that is sneaking its way in here. Essential reading for this age when almost all of us have only ever known peace and are far too presumptive of its continuation.

“Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

A follow-up to “Deep Work”, this makes a persuasive case for drastically reducing our everyday tech usage in favour of deliberate harnassing of its benefits so as to benefit, not degrade, our lives.

“The Hidden Lives of Learners” by Graham Nuthall

It is with shame that I admit I did not read this book until earlier this year. Every teacher should as it’ll make you think about teaching like few other books can. Cameras were placed in a classroom over a number of months and the pupils’ conversations (most notably during groupwork) recorded. The gap between what teachers think kids are taking in, and what they actually experience, is revealed.

“1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by James Shapiro.

One for all the English teachers. Even if you don’t have fifth years this is still illuminating and actually deals more with “Macbeth” than it does with “King Lear” itself. If you like audio-books Shapiro reads these books himself on Audible. I read this one but listened to Shapiro’s earlier book: “1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare”.



When I started writing this post I wondered if I’d end up doing a “Reads of 2019” at the end of the year. Even if I did, it would be short. But as ever the Autumn is seeing a wave of great titles, both educational and (for me) recreational. Reading continues.



Leaving Cert: the scandal of the exam that requires candidates to rely on memory.

“It’s this big volume of information that they have to cram into their heads which is a big source of the stress.” Dr. Denise Burns quoted in The Irish Examiner 

Today is Leaving Cert results day, and around 57,000 candidates – almost all of them school-leavers- will be opening that long-anticipated envelope with either joy or tears or something in between. The media will be out in force covering this event and there will be words from Minister Richard Bruton, whose department is currently working on changes to senior cycle curriculum and assessment.

In a prelude to today’s results, the Leaving Cert was also in the news last Monday when Dr. Denise Burns of DCU was interviewed on air and in the newspapers about a study which she led and which will be available to the general public next month. You can read it here, but it is behind a paywall.  You might ask why the story featured so heavily on Monday rather than next month when interested listeners or readers could access the information more easily, but in Ireland education tends to be a seasonal rather than a year-round news item.

The study has two parts, one that looked at the examination papers themselves and another that interviewed recent candidates, and this blog also has two parts: the study itself and the media coverage.I should say that in relation to the study itself, these are my own thoughts and initial reactions rather than a detailed critique of its methodology.

There is a degree of disparity between the study as published and the results as reported in the media, both by journalists and by the authors themselves in direct interviews. The most striking of these is the referral to “grind-schools” in all the articles and interviews even though the report itself does not mention grind-schools or the word “grind”. Articles and interviews also fail to distinguish between full-time “grind-schools” (which students attend instead of more conventional voluntary or ETB schools) and supplementary grinds in individual subjects. There is also a sense that this study proves that all anyone does in preparation for the Leaving Cert is to learn off paragraph-shaped chunks of notes and even whole essays (“students are learning off essays, textbooks and notes” Irish Examiner)  but it actually states:

“While the anecdotal reports would strongly suggest that preparation for the examination is dominated by a reliance on reproducing text verbatim, the evidence base for this assertion is limited.”

The analysis of the examination papers consisted of looking at “command verbs” in questions and inferring from these what kind of knowledge the question was assessing, and whether the skills involved in answering were “higher order skills”.

“In an in-depth document analysis of the examination papers, 14, 910 occurrences of command verbs were coded for the intellectual skill and knowledge domains required by the assessment task.” (abstract)

Now while to my uninitiated eyes this part of the study is rigorously designed and looked at a large number of exam papers, I am not sure it forms a secure basis for the claims being made in the newspapers. (I know over-simplification and hyperbole are factors common to all media reporting of all academic research as anyone who’s read Ben Goldacre’s excellent work in this area can testify). It rests on definitions and taxonomies of knowledge and skills that are “widely accepted” but not uncontested. An underlying premise is that “studies suggest that the general intellectual skills are essentially the same across disciplines” and the study deals with examination papers across the humanities, the sciences, maths, home economics and the arts treating them all to the same analysis. The only significant omission is languages other than English. This wide-range is laudably ambitious, but breadth is hard to achieve without some sacrifice of depth and so this is far from the definitive verdict on the Leaving Cert that you’d think from reports such as in the Irish Independent, where Katherine Donnelly writes “the findings present a case for radical change in the assessment process”. 

Worryingly, the study seems to see knowledge not just as “lower order” but as actually inimical to the development of higher order skills. Here again we see the see-saw analogy that characterised the Junior Cycle reform: the fashionable idea that the reason many of our students struggle to be creative or to construct cohesive intellectual arguments is that they know too much, and it’s the fault of the pesky teachers who are expecting them to learn too much information. Following this line of thinking, the first thing we have to do if we want to foster higher order thinking is to reduce the amount of content that we expect young people to learn. We must also avoid at all cost the dreaded “rote-learning” and presumably focus more on inquiry methods and osmosis. The phrase “rote-learning” appears in all the media reports I have seen on this story and is taken to refer not just to learning essays by heart but to all attempts to memorise factual knowledge. The report criticises Biology in particular

“The very heavy focus on “factual knowledge” (73%) in Biology would raise questions as to the appropriateness of the subject as a basis for pursuing third level programmes in life sciences which emphasise the use of the scientific method”.

Elsewhere there is a nod to postmodernism that sees young people’s intellectual development as inevitably including “an awareness of relativism….knowledge is not certain, absolute truth but is contextualised and uncertain”. This distrust of factual knowledge and the desire instead to focus on generic skills of analysis and evaluation is described by Daisy Christodoulou as “educational formalism” and she writes in “Seven Myths about Education”

“…many of the myths work on the assumption that form is more important than substance. If I had to come up with an intellectual trend that underpins them, then I would choose postmodernism…Postmodernism is sceptical about the value of truth and knowledge, and many of these myths have their heart a deep scepticism about the value of knowledge.”

This “scepticism about the value of knowledge” runs through the Burns et al study and through the media reports, showing the growing prevalence of the myth that is one of Christodoulou’s top seven: facts prevent understanding.  This myth could not be further from the truth. I think most teachers – even if unfamiliar with the ED Hirsch or Daniel Willingham –  know intuitively that the opposite is true: far from being lower-order, the ability to recall, organise and utilise factual information is crucial to meaningful intellectual endeavour.  Paul Kirschner and John Sweller, in their well-known paper on the inadequacies of discovery learning are unequivocal that the consensus among cognitive scientists is that “long-term memory is now viewed as the central dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear and think about is critically dependent on our long-term memory”. As Peps McCrea writes in this recent paper for the UK-based Institute of Teaching, “The more we know, the better we can think, and the better we think, the more we can know”.


The second section of the Burns et al study involves qualitative analysis of interviews with recent candidates. Two months after the exam the candidates were presented again with the paper and asked to talk through what they could remember of their thought process in the actual exam. This is an interesting and potentially fruitful way of carrying out the research. However, the evidence from these interviews is being wildly inflated and portrayed as definitive proof of teaching methods at senior cycle, and weaponised in an attack on the current examination system.

The sample size of the interviewees was 30 and they were drawn from a total of 10 schools.  The students were a “convenience sample drawn through research contacts within the 10 schools.” Were the students randomly selected from the school rolls, or hand-picked by teachers known to the researchers? The researchers themselves freely admit

“with 19 of the 30 students from urban middle-class schools, there is a bias in the sample, which raises the question of how representative they were of the whole group of students who had just completed the leaving Certificate.” [italics mine]

They don’t give a date for when these interviews took place, but I am guessing it was after 2010 which would mean that the papers discussed in the interviews were not drawn from the same sample as the papers subjected to linguistic analysis.

The kind of analysis done in the study of the exam papers is a good start, but the papers themselves are only part of the process and the marking schemes are arguably more revealing, as are the Chief Examiners reports. Likewise, “stimulated recall” interviews could also be carried out with examiners and advising examiners, to get an idea of their thoughts when applying the schemes. While there is nothing new in the revelation that some candidates learn off essays in the hope of shoe-horning them in on the day, the study does not provide evidence that this is the most common method of preparation nor that it is endorsed and encouraged by teachers. And it offers no evidence that this method of revising leads to high grades: yes it is anecdotally associated with grind-schools, whose pupils often earn high grades, but there are many other variables around these candidates and it is possible that their exam success is in spite of rather than due to these methods. What about the vast majority of candidates – those who attend “normal” schools – and their preparation techniques and the relation of these techniques to the grades they achieve? We are not told how the candidate who learned off the 30 essays fared in the English exam, and this is a question I would need to see answered before I would join in any calls for the Leaving Cert to be abolished.

Candidates interpreted the “evaluate” questions as less rigorous, which is strange if they’re supposed to be higher-order. The implication was that you couldn’t be wrong if the majority of the marks were given for how well you made your case, and anecdotally I have often found that Leaving Cert English students often labour under the illusion that there are “no wrong answers” in English, even though there are such as the example of saying Boxer represents the bourgeoisie.

One area where there might appear to be no wrong answers is English Paper I. This exam paper comes in for considerable praise from the writers of the report. It’s creative. Candidates can demonstrate their higher order thinking skills on topics of their choosing, such as their own life. They can write short stories, somehow using no knowledge of literature whatsoever. It’s enjoyable and candidates are free of the anxiety of recalling quotations or trying to remember if Gertrude is married to Claudius or Polonius.

In the Irish Times article on the report Dr Burns explains that “They [the candidates] enjoyed when they could be creative for example in English Paper 1 when they are given instruction to write an essay. They expressed anxiety when they had to learn off and retain a huge body of text, which is a requirement for biology or geography.” This juxtaposition betrays two false assumptions about exams and assessment in general. The first is that experiential enjoyment is a desirable factor in assessment, and the second is that the anxiety felt by candidates who fear they might not have learned enough is a negative feature. I would say enjoyment is a neutral factor: exams should not be designed for the candidates’ pleasure, but neither should they be unnecessarily and deliberately discomforting. But the issue of anxiety is essential to exams: if you know for certain that you will succeed regardless of your mastery of the material then that’s not an exam, that’s a worksheet.

These are reported comments interviewees made in relation to Leaving Cert English.

“I really enjoyed writing that story with a ghostly presence.”

“I really enjoyed that…writing about moments of uncertainty in my life”

“I really liked writing my own thoughts in that essay. That’s why I like English so much more than other subjects”.

The authors note that these comments are “positive and confident” but these exam questions are not the best examples of the kind of higher order thinking of which that we wish our school-leavers to be capable. Take the candidate who wrote about “moments of uncertainty in his/her life”. Where is the required evidence that this candidate has learned anything useful in his/her time at school? These questions are seen as nice, in contrast to nasty exams that leave candidates “very concerned with being “wrong”” in a way that reminded me of a recent, excellent blog post that compares schooling to dentistry. We might praise a dentist because she does not inflict pain, but this does not necessarily make her an excellent dentist, and we might have been better off undergoing an unpleasant procedure elsewhere.

“It is worth noting that the exercise of a higher order skills (“evaluate”) is expressed as a positive experience by students.” An exam question involving “evaluation” is seen as being less likely to expose gaps in knowledge, misunderstandings and misinterpretations. They are, quite frankly, “bullshitable”. And bullshitting meets many of the characteristics of a higher-order skill, but again, is this the primary purpose of our education system?

A candidate who has rote-learned 30 essays is well-prepared only when the questions are vague, when these essays can be replicated no adjustments (or only minor ones) and when they are then are rewarded with higher marks than essays written using the candidate’s knowledge of the subject domain.  The Leaving Cert Paper II Single Text questions have been headed in this direction for some time, although the Studied Poetry section continues to be quite specific.  Then there is the Comparative Study section which is the epitome of Christodoulou’s point about the valuing of form over substance. Candidates have to compare three texts and marks are awarded for their skills in creating an answer that manages to weave the three into a coherent essay on the basis of a necessarily generic question. While this is no mean feat and few do it well, there is no room in the marking scheme to reward an answer that shows good understanding of  Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” over one that a similar level of understanding of  Stephen Chobsky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”.  Both of these are “texts” and as such merely vehicles for the fetished higher-order skills of evaluation and comparison.



The main problem I have is not with the study itself, which looks at important aspects of senior cycle and freely admits its own short-comings. I disagree with its conclusions but the authors themselves assert that their results are “rooted in interpretation” and therefore open to alternative readings. I  agree with the authors that t over-reliance on pre-prepared answers is undesirable and that exams need to extend somewhat beyond purely Q&A responses (which most of the exams already do), but the remedy I see for this is not less memorisation but more of it, specifically a lot more of it at Junior Cycle and possibly also in primary.

What I see as the bigger issue here is how yet another limited study has been reported in the Irish media as conclusive proof that the Leaving Cert is broken. At least this one only half-relies on self-report, unlike last week’s offering (again from DCU). This narrative of a cruel, ineffective and out-dated senior cycle is already being repeated on a loop with the natural result that when the DES makes their plans for Senior Cycle reform public they will be welcomed as at the very least an improvement on what went before.  We are being softened up and all the main media outlets are colluding in this process rather than interrogating the official line.  Only when the last person who knows that you need factual knowledge to understand and interpret the world around you has retired, will we realise that you can’t critically think about nothing.


Junior Cycle English exam “puts students at the centre”.

“Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject.”

Carl Hendrick


Question 9

A film version is being made of the Shakespearean play you have studied.  What would you include on a poster advertising the film, to represent what you think is important in the play and to create a sense of anticipation for its upcoming release?  Explain your decisions with reference to the play.

Junior Cycle English Examination 2017 Higher Level, State Examinations Commission.


This week saw the publication of the first Chief Examiner’s Report on the Junior Cycle English exam. This two-hour exam replaces the  five-hour Junior Certificate exam that was sat over two papers and aimed to assess the breadth of candidates’ achievements across the syllabus. (The vast majority of these candidates are third year pupils, roughly fifteen years of age.) The new exam is not based on a syllabus, but is “linked to” the Junior Cycle English Specification: a document which the Examiner’s report tells us “aims to put students at the centre of the educational experience”.  The Specification, despite its name, specifies very little in the way of particular English subject-specific knowledge: it’s not what you learn that matters, it’s “the quality of learning.”

I am not here to weep over the corpse of the old Junior Cert exam, which certainly had its issues.What I will lament is that the old exam – flawed as it undoubtedly was – was broadly predictable in format and assessed all of the key areas of the syllabus. Candidates had to write an essay, do a bit of functional writing and Paper II covered Drama, Poetry and Fiction always in the same order and with equal marks awarded to each section. This predictability minimised the class time necessary for dealing with exam format and timing.  Now, there were problems, as I’ve said: there were a lot of questions to be done and the most able candidates sometimes ran out of time. The ratio of unseen: studied was 50:50, weighted too much towards the former, and another problem was that candidates could use any play in the drama section and so some students were deprived of the experience of studying a Shakespearean play. We will not speak about Media Studies.

All of these issues pale like distant stars against the glare from the new Junior Cycle exam. The Report mentions twice that this is a “no-choice examination”, despite a course that is so open-ended it can hardly be described as such. This makes the exam an effective lottery. Some candidates will be lucky and more of the questions will match what they have learned and the texts they have studied. Others will be less lucky, but that isn’t supposed to matter. The format of the exam will change from year to year so that candidates cannot be advised in advance when it comes to timing. As to what may come up it could be Shakespeare and poetry (like this year), fiction and film, some kind of media studies, functional writing, or any combination of the above. Candidates in 2017 studied two novels from a list that includes “Jane Eyre”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Animal Farm” and there was no fiction question on the exam. Their learning in this area was not thought important enough to assess, although there were two questions about posters.

“Measuring Up: what educational testing really tells us.” by Daniel Koretz,  Harvard Professor of Education

In his book “Measuring Up” Daniel Koretz outlines two problems with assessment design and validity , both of which are thrown up by the new Junior Cycle exam. The first of these is “construct under-representation”.  This is “a failure to measure what we want to measure…..This harks back to the  notion of a test as sample from a domain. To measure the intended construct well- – vocabulary, proficiency in algebra,, whatever – we have to sample adequately from the domain implied by that construct” [italics mine] . Koretz mentions extended writing as an example, and indeed there is no essay-style question on the Junior Cycle English paper. Even the longest answer demanded is no more than a standard A4 page in length. (At the in-service I attended, queries around this omission were answered by pointing out that the CBA2 (a type of portfolio) is now “the home of extended writing”.  But this CBA2 is assessed only by the teacher and is not completed under exam conditions. It is still fair to say that extended writing is not meaningfully assessed before the Leaving Cert). In terms of sampling from across the areas of English, the exam format deliberately leaves out large, discrete sections of the subject domain. It is quite possible that Junior Cycle candidates in 2018 will not be asked a question about a play, even though the Specification demands that Higher Level candidates study at least one Shakespearean play in its entirety. It is also possible that there will be no question related to poetry. But there might be an infographic to interpret.

The second problem that Koretz raises around design and validity is “construct-irrelevant variance”. This is “variation in the performance [of candidates] that is irrelevant to the construct intended”. The Report states that the intentionally unpredictable format means that “incorrect reading of the instructions and rubrics led to confusion for some candidates” and that “good examination technique and effective time management are critical”. This admits that the confusing nature of the exam impedes certain candidates, particularly at Ordinary Level, from demonstrating the knowledge and skills they have gained in their three years studying English at secondary school. Surely this is what we want to assess, not whether candidates can interpret arbitrary instructions for carrying out a task that most of them will never repeat. My own feeling is that the prioritising of Carrying Out Instructions over Demonstrating Knowledge is part of an overall drive to reduce our education system from one of opening minds to one of training workers. We are in danger of returning to Pearse’s murder machine, where the “sleek..obsequous..and dexterous” candidate writes inside the lines while watching the clock and is rewarded accordingly.

We will in time have to explain how copying numbers from infographics and subjecting posters advertising children’s films to critical analysis was the highest attainment we aimed for young people in our subject. The Report remarks glowingly on the appearance of posters in two sections writing of Q9 “which asked candidates to nominate material for a poster advertising a film version of the play they had studied.”

“Having completed question two earlier in the examination paper, some candidates modelled their responses on what they had learned from their critical analysis of the cinema poster for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, thus demonstrating effective examination technique and transferrable critical thinking skills.”

This is  one of the most worrying parts of the report. It demonstrates how much the educational establishment of the DES, the NCCA and the SEC are in thrall to the progressive ideological narrative – as, in fairness, promoted by the OECD – that schools need to think a lot less about what knowledge children are acquiring and much more about nebulous “transferrable” skills such as critical thinking. The Junior Cycle framework is itself based around “key skills” and we see here the damage this thinking has on assessment. Exams are no longer about assessing what candidates know, they’re aiming to assess how well they think .  Having the cop on to discuss material presented on one part of the paper in an answer on a later section somehow counts for more than being able to answer the question using a knowledge of Shakespeare’s themes and language. It’s not hard to see this leading to the worst excesses of “teaching to the test”, where teachers coach students in these kind of tricks rather than ensuring they have a secure knowledge-base to tackle rigorous and targeted questions of the kind we haven’t seen at this level since the Inter Cert.

Critical thinking is quite rightly a primary aim of education, but it is not a “transferrable skill”. Thinking about anything properly requires knowledge of that thing, as Daniel Willingham writes in this widely-accepted article, and elsewhere in books such as “Why Don’t Students Like School?”. It is knowledge we have to work on as attempting to build children’s thinking capacity as a skill in itself is counterproductive. Carl Hendrick writes here how this leads to shallow teaching and even shallower assessment (the Junior Cycle English exam being an example).  He calls instead for a subject-specific approach, which in English would include texts of established literary merit along with knowledge of their authors and, where appropriate, their historical context.

The Specification and its assessment – including the final exam – are currently under review by the NCCA. It is desirable but highly unlikely that English will be restored as a two-paper exam. Even we had to live with a two-hour exam and the lottery of not knowing which elements will be examined, I think teachers could get over that if the questions asked were fair, and honestly challenged candidates to write extended answers where they have to use and manipulate their knowledge of the texts they have studied as well as display the language skills so many of them work so hard to acquire. 



Reads of 2017

A9D15415-7162-422B-B513-312FBED08976These are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading this year. A bit short on fiction and non-fiction, but it has been a bumper year for books on education: a happy co-incidence with my school’s wise decision to invest in a staffroom CPD library.

“The Silk Roads: An New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan.

Published in 2015, this was my summer read and non-fiction/non-education book of the year. Every year I make the pilgrimage to the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas where Frankopan’s  engaging talk based on this book was one of the highlights this year. As well-written as it is scholarly, this book covers more than two-thousand years of the region around “the silk road” and its relationship with the rest of the world, but never loses its narrative drive or pace.

“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney

No claims to originality in my fiction book of the year; Sally Rooney’s debut deserves all the acclaim it earned throughout 2017. Witty and touching, it deals with the common experience of a student from the country staying in Dublin for the summer, adding in adultery and rich friends with houses in France, all dealt with in an uncommon ear for the human conversations of the title.

“What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?” by Carl Hendrick and Robin McPherson

My education book of the year. Featuring headline acts like Dylan Wiliam and Paul Kirschner, the book is immensely practical with every page answering the question with “well, it looks something like this specific thing….”. As the subheading says, this book is about bridging the gap. The gap referred to is between research and practice, but could equally refer to the gap between those of us happy to spend our free time reading books and blogs about education and following the edutwitterati, and teachers who don’t have the time or inclination but are nonetheless interested.  Oliver Caviglioni’s excellent graphics and the easy-to-dip-into interview format also contribute to what makes an excellent first purchase for a staffroom  book-shelf.

“Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning” by Daisy Christodoulou

The book that finally made sense of the befuddling Assessment module I had to take during the HDip.  Even while sitting the exam, I was unclear about what “formative assessment” was supposed to actually be, and I doubt I was alone in my confusion.  Later CPD on “AfL” was no help at all. Here, Christodoulou lays out simply and clearly the features and functions of summative and formative assessment. She then goes further and offers advice on AFL in particular, drawing extensively from Ericsson’s book below. I’m not sure how familiar Christodoulou is with reforms that are happening in Ireland. Parts of this book seem to address our current follies directly, but this could be because so many of them are imported from progressive systems elsewhere.

“Peak” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

“The hallmark of purposeful or deliberative practice is that you try to do something you cannot do – that takes you out of your comfort zone – and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better” (“Peak”, p 157).  In “Making Good Progress”, and in this talk which I was lucky enough to attend, Daisy Christodolou links the concepts of AFL with the “deliberative practice” of this book: how rather than always writing essays or long exam-style questions, we are often better off focusing on small elements and practising these over and over. “Peak” also has lots to say about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and how we might encourage more students to engage in the kind of extended, voluntary practice that we know pays off in the long-term.

“Dumbing Down our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add” by Charles J. Sykes

This was one of @oldandrew ‘s Twitter recommendations.  This serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when an education system takes its role as psychotherapeutic coach and bolsterer of self-esteem more seriously than the task of  handing on knowledge to the next generation. Of particular interest is the section on Outcomes-based Education (sound familiar?) and the dangers of over-using action verbs to the detriment of “know”. Sykes warns of “lip-synching”:  “By emphasising “demonstrations” and “behaviors”, educationists insist that it is enough for students to do what scientists, historians and other scholars do without actually having to ahve all of their knowledge, discipline or skills” (DDOK, p 235)

“Why Knowledge Matters” by E.D. Hirsch

I finally got around to reading this. It is a sad state of affairs when anyone has to write a book saying why knowledge-aquisition needs to be a central and fundamental goal of all educations systems, but this is where we are at. The chapter I found most interesting was Hirsch’s take on “the educational fall of France”.  French educational reforms instigated in 1989 have much in common with later, Irish ones (in terms of seeing a standardised curriculum and rigorous assessment as inimical to social equality) and I suspect Ruairí Quinn was more than a little influenced by figures like Pierre Bourdieu.

“Urban Myths about Education” by Pedro de Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirshner and Casper D. Hulshof

This handy reference book systematically tackles some of the most prevalent myths in education from the relatively trivial – “Babies become cleverer if they listen to classical music” –  to the endemic –  “People have Different Styles of Learning” –  to big questions affecting national educational policies – “Class Size Doesn’t Matter”.

“The Writing Revolution” by Judith C. Hochmann and Natalie Wexler

I can’t find this! It must be in school where it is getting lots of use as one of the more valuable additions to the CPD library. The “revolution” of the title is moving away from essay length, or even paragraph length, answers and back to seeing sentences as a unit of writing and sentence-structure as a focus of teaching. Especially useful with junior and learning-support classes.

“Making Every English Lesson Count” by Andy Tharby

A companion to one of last year’s ROTY “Making Every Lesson Count”, the subject specifity of this book means it surpasses its parent when it comes to utility. It is incredibly useful and packed with good advice on choosing class texts ( sufficient “lexical challenge” is the first criterion) to practising writing (where the class simultaneously works in “silent flow”). One useful resource is the list of question templates. I’m adapting this for each of the main texts I teach (this year it’s “Of Mice and Men”, “Jane Eyre”, “Animal Farm”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Macbeth” and “Wuthering Heights”) and the initial investment of time is paying dividends in terms of never having to think up a question on the spot. It also saves time and confusion as the kids have the list themselves.

“Memorable Teaching” by Peps McCrea

Another book for teachers who say they don’t have time to read books about teaching. This one could be read and digested in forty minutes (although it does benefit from revisiting). A lot in this book makes sense when you think about it: classroom displays usually do more harm than good, why we shouldn’t have clocks in classrooms. One small change I’ve made since reading this book is being much stricter about interruptions to classes, often saying “sorry, not right now” . A bigger change is starting every lesson with review: for example this year while studying war poetry and Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation”, third years started each class with a five-minute “do-now” based on “Much Ado About Nothing”, the play they studied last year.

“Black-Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed

A recent read, this is a thought-provoking (if at times glib) book about how openness to admitting error can lead to more robust organisations. We now live in a world where watchyourbackism is a professional necessity; this book might help to counter the worst effects of that reality.

“The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt’s  “The Happiness Hypothesis”, one of last year’s Reads of the Year, was based on a central metaphor (the elephant and the rider) and likewise The Righteous Mind deploys an analogy between our morality and our sense of taste. Haidt puts forward that just as our tongue has buds for five discernable flavours, so does our moral reasoning. Concentrating too much on one flavour can distort reality and lead to unintended consequences. I think we can see this in education where “care” has risen to a place of pre-eminence among values.

Even more interesting is Haidt’s conception of humans as 90% chimp and 10% bee.  Joe Kirby has written here of the possible applications of this to schooling. I think we saw in Irish society for a long time an extreme version of this thinking – where the health of institutions and of official Ireland itself were what mattered most. Its proponents might not have used the word “hive” but there was an acceptance of the suffering of individuals so that “the common good” could be protected. We are now supremely individualistic and our education system seeks to be ever more personalised, with Minister Richard Bruton even referring to it as “the education service.”. The pendulum has swung, but there is hope I think that it could land eventually in a happier place where we aim to  enable children to act as a collective, harmonious group (“you can’t help the bees by harming the hive”) while valuing them as individuals.

That’s it. Happy New Year and all the best for 2018 🙂


Flat Earth Learning

worst foto

“Welcome to the science lab, boys and girls. Today’s Learning Outcome is on the board: by the end of the lesson you will all be able to appreciate the shape of the Earth and analyse various theories as to how this shape was formed. I’m going to be the sage on the stage for thirty seconds and then we’ll do some discovery learning whereby you’ll walk around the school, in groups, and report back what gradient measures you have taken, as well as your qualitative analysis, and what these might tell us about the shape of the Earth.

As you all know,  the Earth is a big, flat circle, with scary sea-monsters near the edge bits. The sun travels around the Earth, giving us night and day…..”

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? You’d be worried if your child came home from school relating that the science teacher told them that the moon was made of cheese, or that evolution was a dubious theory. What if their SPHE teacher gave them a questionnaire to help them determine their dominant humour, and asked them to form groups with other members of their “humour” style and discuss how this was affecting their health and learning? It’s unlikely your response would be: “You got Sanguine? That is so cool. Did you know that I’m a Sanguine too? Not like your Dad, though. He’s more Phlegmatic. Totally different….”

You wouldn’t think it was cool, because you recognise an out-dated theory when you see one. How would you feel about this test, and this activity?


These pages are from a brand-new textbook, intended to be used when teaching SPHE as part of the new Wellbeing programme.  Here a similar example from another new textbook

mentor WB II

And more, from a third publishing company

forot         FullSizeRenders

The problem with these images is that the information they contain is completely false. The theory of “learning styles” has been described by Professor Paul Kirschner as nothing more than an “urban legend”, and in this letter to the Guardian leading scientists have argued for its complete removal from schooling. It could be that offerings from the other educational companies feature similar content, so I won’t say here who publishes these books.  Neither do I want to imply that the publishers did not carry out due diligence in ensuring that the content of their textbooks reflects the curriculum; it would be unfair to blame the publishers when the source of their information is the Department of Education itself.

The source of the Learning Style quiz is the Departmental website It is found in materials that were presented to school leaders at a conference in 2009. Now, in educational terms, 2009 is a long time ago and many of the people believed in learning styles at that time no longer do. Nevertheless these materials are still present on their website and have been used, entirely reasonably,  as resources by the authors of the textbooks.

Here is the Learning Styles questionnaire that forms the basis of that found in three of the textbooks I looked at.  Here is advice for teachers on  how to help children with special educational needs. “Establish the student’s preferred learning style” is number 3 on the list. These are from the SESS website: there is a link to the questionnaire on the Junior Cycle website that is dated April 2015. The PDST also feature learning styles in some of their material, such as here and here, even though they do caution about their use here. The section of the PDST responsible for technology recommends increased use of ICT in classrooms because it “can offer an opportunity to accommodate differing learning styles” . The department-sponsored Scoilnet website offers a learning-styles quiz resource that was uploaded in April 2017, and the Departmental website itself promotes the LCA programme as being suitable  “for those whose needs, aptitudes and learning styles are not fully catered for by the other two Leaving Certificate programmes.”  (The LCA is a useful and scandalously under-resourced programme, but the link with learning styles is entirely spurious.)

The most recent reference to learning styles in the Junior Cycle Irish Specification, a document published only months ago and which first years of 2017-2018 will be the first cohort to undergo. As pupils progress through the specification:  “They gradually become familiar with their own learning strategies and personal style of learning.”

This is Irish education policy in 2017. One of the most discredited fads of the twentieth century is a central tenet of reforms on which we are only just embarking. Even leaving out the subjection of children to the ludicrous VAK sorting-hat, the notion of personal learning styles – of each child learning in a particular way – and of the benefits of personalised instruction and personalised study strategies runs right through the Junior Cycle Framework.  For example, the theory has been used to justify portfolio-based assessment “Portfolios provide benefits for students with different preferred learning styles and capacity for oral feedback from teachers.” [italics mine] One of the guidance-related learning outcomes from the Wellbeing specification states that children must be able to “recognise their own ways of learning and their learning habits, interests, strengths and weaknesses”. [italics mine] Elsewhere is this document teachers are exhorted to  “[take] account of the diverse needs and learning approaches of students.” [italics mine] and reminded that schools should “[recognise] students as experts in their own learning”.

The photo below on the left shows where thinking of children as “experts in their own learning” might lead us. The one on the right shows us what can happen when a curriculum specifies that children will reflect on their learning, not what it is that they are actually required to learn.


worst foto        FullSizeRendersd

The photos above  are not relics. They are from new books, published in 2017, and intended for the new programmes that are being rolled out and will be taught to children just leaving primary school and those coming up through primary school. Teacher and psychologist Nick Rose describes learning styles “lack validity” and “provide no pedagogic value whatsoever”. They contradict what cognitive science tells us:

“Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn”

Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia

This neuromyth not just harmless nonsense.It promotes ineffective study methods that introduce and/or widen attainment gaps. One textbook advises “kinaesthetic learners” to “take frequent breaks from study”. Breaks from study are a good idea, but you don’t learn anything during them, and the child who schedules extra breaks because she thinks they’re some kind of strategy is likely to learn less than the child who takes a break at average intervals. It also promotes the false idea that learning should be easy, enjoyable and at the very least feel “natural”. Prematurely asking children to categorise themselves is always a dangerous and counterproductive classroom activity and ironically promotes the antithesis of the “growth mindset” also mentioned in the Wellbeing specification. Most worryingly of all, attempts to assess children’s learning styles seem most prevalent in special needs education within mainstream settings, where they both provide a plausible but false explanation for low attainment, and also promote the adoption of strategies unlikely to lead to real progress.

That a pseudoscientific and completely debunked theory can be printed in  textbooks and taught to children as factual knowledge should worry everyone, including parents. It really is like a science diagram showing a flat Earth and the sun’s orbit around us. It could even be argued to be worse as this false information in one area – SPHE – has the potential to corrupt learning in every single subject from Spanish to Science to Geography. As to how this came to happen, a good place to start might be the Department of Education’s own lack of understanding of – and at times disdain for – knowledge.  We have a curriculum that does not include syllabi that specify the content that children must master. Instead we have broad frameworks that imply content matters less than whether teachers are employing approved progressive methods and children are developing “transferable skills”.

This is what happens when you downgrade knowledge and fail to specify the facts and subject content which with children should be familiar at each stage of their education. A vacuum is created, into which can rush all kinds of nonsense. When there is little culture of using evidence to inform practice, this nonsense is easily found in the materials provided by the department itself. When the time allocated for teaching academic subjects –  wherein there is a vast storehouse of accumulated knowledge built up through centuries –  is cut in favour of nascent “areas of learning”, this makes the vacuum bigger. And when this area of learning is designed to be delivered not by subject experts with degrees in the course content, but by teachers who hold any qualification at all, then you decrease the likelihood that teachers will themselves spot the fake facts and misinformation.

Purging the textbooks of false information is easy. Educating teachers about the pitfalls of neuromyths is more onerous, yet is doable: look for example at the stellar work of Tom Bennett and the ResearchEd movement. The hard part is contemplating the looming disaster of a secondary system that may speak about “high expectations” for all, but by eschewing rigour, evidence and knowledge in favour of engagement, skills and the “learner experience”, risks creating schools that resemble day-care for teenagers. It won’t seem to matter if children spend less time in real lessons than they do floating along in a tide of pseudolearning and obsession with their own subjective viewpoints. Our young people may well leave such schools knowing barely more about the wider world than they did when they entered. And it will be a tragic waste.

For more information on how learning  styles don’t exist, these are a good place to start:

Daniel Willingham’s FAQ on Learning Styles


For information about effective study skills that are based on reputable research and work for everyone, check out The Learning Scientists at

Visit to Michaela


Last Friday I paid a visit to Michaela Community School, the controversial London school that is pioneering a traditional, yet innovative, approach to teaching and learning. I had heard a lot about the school, mainly through the many excellent blogs written by the teaching staff, and had read their book with interest. How would it look in real life?

I arrived  mid-morning and was buzzed in at both the gate and the door. The reception are is a calm, adults-only space where friendly staff welcomed me and gave me a Visitor badge and a set of rules. There were two other teachers on my tour, both from English schools. The day of our visit was a big one for the school. The results of their Ofsted inspection [like a WSE with higher stakes] had just been published, with the school ranked “outstanding” in every area.

One of our tour guides from Year 9, another from Year 7. [In age, year 9s are comparable to second years, but it’s their third year in secondary school.] These pupils were impeccably mannered and well-prepared, anticipating questions.  I could see that the tour guide role is itself a learning opportunity. The teachers I met during the day (special mention to Joe Kirby, Jess Lund, Michael Taylor and Damien Phelan) were extremely welcoming, keen to discuss their methods and enthusiastic about finding out how things are done elsewhere.

Our tour took us over the six floors of the school, which is in a converted office block.  Classrooms are either side of long, narrowish corridors with stairs at one end only. Ceilings are low and there’s proportionally a lot of glazing, which meant every degree of the mid-June heat was felt by all. One side of the building overlooks the rail tracks where trains rattled by every few minutes. Impressively, the more established teachers seem to teach on this side of the building.

As we passed the computer room, we learned that there are no ICT lessons in Michaela because “it’s not academic”. The computers are there for children who do not have access to the internet at home; some of the homework must be completed online. We were then brought into a series of lessons, having been asked which subjects we were most interested in seeing. Between the end of the tour and lunchtime we had some free time to wander in and out of lessons ourselves. Then it was lunch: a choreographed, highly scripted event. We then joined the pupils in the yard for their half an hour free time, and got to chat to the many staff on duty.

These are some of the general observations I made on the day:Cbfb3bDWEAAM5jR


The curriculum is unabashedly knowledge-based. At a system-wide level I think this is the biggest lesson Ireland could take from Michaela. Every single lesson saw children getting to grips with challenging content. This is not mere “rote-learning”: teaching sequences and assessment are designed for long-term memory. My guides were very proud to tell me that their learning is not confined to examinable specifications: instead they see the value of knowledge itself and they strive to be educated adults. They’ll still sit their exams, and I expect they will do very well in them.

By the end of their third year in secondary school, Michaela pupils have studied five Shakespeare plays. If I remember correctly they were “Julius Caesar”, “The Merchant of Venice”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. None of these are for the GCSE exam (the English department plans on studying “The Tempest”). You can do this with five hours of English a week.

The curriculum prioritises depth over breadth. More time is devoted to fewer subjects. In French, for example, pupils benefit from three hours of tuition a week.

The most common class activity was reading, followed closely by writing. I saw children reading and writing in every lesson. I did not see any group work. I did not see anyone watching a film. I did not see any children making posters or Powerpoint presentations. Maybe I called on the wrong day? 😉

Every lesson was content-driven and teacher-led. I saw nothing that could be classified as the development of generic skills such as comprehension strategies.  The last thirty minutes of the day is form time, and tutors read with their pupils.  I saw Maths teacher, Dani Quinn, reading a history book with her form group, sending a powerful non-utilitarian message about learning.

I was told pair work does happen on occasion (pupils have lab partners in science, for example), but did not see any while I was there. This does not mean pupils were silent all the time; they read aloud, they chanted, they answered questions both individually and chorally. Children also asked questions and were quite confident in looking for clarification.


The half hour form time at the end of every day contains a strong element of pastoral care, but apart from this no class time is sacrificed to Wellbeing. (They do PE –  unfortunately having to go off-site to do so –  but I don’t count this as wellbeing with a big W) Instead, as one teacher told me, wellbeing drips down through everything they do; every single lesson is an opportunity to develop resilience and perseverance. Deputy head, Joe Kirby, argued in one of their events for “embedding character education in school culture rather than putting it on the timetable” and this is the approach taken to all aspects of pupils’ wellbeing. Personal development does not sit apart from intellectual development.

Despite giving no, or very little, instruction time to social and emotional development, inspectors scored the school as highly in this area as in others, awarding it the top descriptor of “outstanding”:

The school’s work to promote pupils’ personal development and welfare is outstanding….Pupils know how to be successful learners because leaders and teaching staff actively encourage pupils’ social and emotional development. Pupils typically said that they understand how hard work now will help to prepare them very well for the next stages of their education….Pupils’ self-confidence matures rapidly.                    Ofsted, 23 May 2017

Constant adult supervision during the school day  helps make the school “a safe zone”. Kindness and inclusion are both modelled and expected. The daily, post-lunch expressions of appreciation that are one of the school’s hallmarks are intended to boost the children’s happiness, and I think they succeed better than vague exhortations to “think positive”would. Encouraging children to look for small good things that have been done for them – even the presence or acceptance of a friend – acknowledges that this noticing is not always automatic or easy.

There is very little on the walls of the classrooms, and only permanent displays on the corridors. Every classroom featured identical posters relating to expected behaviour. Their most famous one is below. I really love this poster and the obvious effort being made by the climber as he scales the slopes of the behaviour mountain.


The school really loves pyramids, and famously encourages children to aspire to be “top of the pyramid people”. On the one hand, I can see why they do this: élite groups of decision-makers and influencers almost always contain an unfair proportion of privately-educated people and one of Michaela’s long-term goals is to address this. They are honest with pupils that hard-won qualifications are in some ways only a start in a world where they may face discrimination and will need to have a tough, competitive spirit to succeed. I would worry slightly, however, about presenting a vision of society that’s the same geometric shape as a food-chain or the feudal system, as sometimes it’s more complicated. Focusing on personal advancement can sometimes conflict with doing solid work that makes a contribution, and I hope that the emphasis on kindness develops with the school so that when pupils do go on and succeed, those who find themselves in leadership roles will display the values of service and justice that I think Katharine Birbalsingh and her staff hold dear.



Michaela has been called “the strictest school in Britain” but the atmosphere is not oppressive. Michaela teachers are tough: they are strict and firm, but they are not cross. I did not hear a child criticised, or ridiculed, or made to feel in any way less than their peers. Pupils were rebuked and their misbehaviour narrated in terms of its impact on learning,  but voices were not raised. Even the most minor of infringements resulted in a demerit being issued. I did not see one instance of a pupil speaking out of turn or speaking to another pupil in class or while moving between classes.

Interestingly, despite its policy of “no excuses”, I saw a demerit being rescinded on the production of an excuse. How this happened was itself remarkable; a pupil received a demerit and seemed to accept it entirely, a few minutes later while the class (including him) was engaged in a task and the teacher passed his desk he said a few words I could not hear, and she  – almost as quietly – accepted what he said but warned him not to let the situation happen again. Does this blow the “no excuses” line out of the water? Far from it. The pupil’s initial response, ability to exert self-control when he felt he’d been treated unfairly, respect for everyone else’s time, respect for his own time, and confidence that he’d be listened to, were testament to a water-tight discipline system that the children experience as fair.

Merits and demerits system are logged by teachers on the attendance software, and there is absolute consistency between teachers about how they are given out. Detentions are centralised; at lunch a list of children doing a detention was called out, and just before the end of the school day, a member of the admin staff came to the classroom with a list so that the form tutor could remind those who were down for after school detention.  This consistency must go a long way to reduce pupils’ stress. Everything is fair and transparent, and no mental energy is expended on figuring out who’s a “soft touch”.

Punishment is only one side of the behaviour-management coin. Along with the list of afternoon detainees, came some postcards home. Teachers who want to particularly praise a pupil leave these in the office and they are handed out publicly. There are reward events for pupils with a positive merit v demerit balance.

All the pupils were working and they all seemed to know what school is for. Very many of them were brimming with enthusiasm and greeted me on the corridors with a cheerful “hello Miss”. One of my lunch companions expressed gratitude for how doing detentions has improved his habits. The degree to which pupils themselves buy in to The Michaela Way is one area that has met with scepticism among people I know who’ve read about the school.  Children are children and while behaviour is uniformly excellent in the school I wouldn’t say every single pupil is the archetypal Michaela student. Children differ, but the school does not drop its standards for any of them.  They trust in their robust system and in the constant cheerleading and reinforcement that bathes the pupils in encouragement to make the most out of school.


I’ve organised these observations under headings, but these divisions are artificial. The commitment to the children’s personal development, and the refusal to give up on any of them, are inextricably tied to the strict discipline system which creates the environment for focused hard work in the classroom.

During our tour we observed a few minutes of a Year 7 history lesson. The children were writing a short piece based on a question that was projected on the whiteboard “What was the greatest threat to the authority of the king in medieval England?” (or something like that).  We only stayed for a few minutes and, as we made our way to our next stop, one of the other visitors asked our guide how would she answer that question, having studied the same topic two years ago. For a long moment, she seemed flummoxed. There was no rapid-fire answer that would have proven the Michaela system worked. Had I come that far to witness a mirage? But then the hmms transformed into an articulate response wherein she explained how and why both the Church and the barons were hugely powerful in the Middle Ages and how they could use this power against the king. Therefore the question was debatable, but I think she came down on the side of the barons being the single greatest threat. Here was not only knowledge, but understanding, analysis and the ability to express a coherent thought orally. The proof really is in the pudding.