“Get Off That See-Saw.” How Junior Cycle Reform and the English Specification Fail to Solve the Pip/Bruno Problem

“Knowledge is…important, because it’s a prerequisite for imagination, or at least for the sort of imagination that leads to problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity.”  Daniel Willingham

“It is wrong to conceive of knowledge and skill as polar opposites.” Daisy Christodoulou

Junior Cycle Reform is on the agenda today, the second day of the 2016 ASTI convention. Here is my take, as an English teacher, on why the alleged goals of the reform will not be met. It will succeed only in dumbing down a generation and in saving a modest amount of cash for the Department of Education and Skills. The aims themselves are mistaken, and so from there, the proposed reforms are will lower standards and increase inequality of outcomes.

“At the heart of junior cycle reform lies the need to build on our understanding of education, to provide students with quality learning opportunities that strike a balance between learning knowledge and developing a wide range of skills and thinking abilities.” Framework for Junior Cycle Reform, Department of Education and Skills, 2015

Where is the evidence for a balance between subject knowledge and skills? Why are “thinking abilities” aligned with skills rather than knowledge? As American cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham explains, it is knowledge that makes us able to think critically. Even the idea of the balance itself is faulty; it presents us with the image of a scales or a seesaw. This image implies that when knowledge is high, skills go down, and that if we wish to focus on building skill, we will have to counter this by putting less stress on knowledge.

The balance analogy is completely false. In his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Willingham writes “to think is a transitive verb. You need something to think about.” [italics author’s own] and that “Factual knowledge must precede skill”. He goes on “Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable; thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care most about – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving –are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

An alternative to the balance analogy is the “double helix” advocated by Joe Kirby. This makes a lot of sense. If we accept that knowledge must precede skills, should we just get students to accumulate the maximum of knowledge at Junior Cycle before turning towards Skills in Senior Cycle? The problem is that if knowledge is not thought about and used, it may start to fade from long-term memory. Building in some skill-based work, where the focus is on pupils using their new knowledge rather than expanding it, helps retention in the long-term. The important points are that skills are not in opposition to knowledge and that there is not a hierarchy of higher-order skills over “mere” knowledge. Skills cannot be weighted equally with knowledge in the balance, but are – at best – the visible tip of a deep, knowledge ice-berg.

Image from Joe Kirby’s blog. https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/

The skills v knowledge see-saw lies “at the heart of Junior Cycle reform” .In its very core of inception there is a false analogy and a mistaken understanding of learning. It believes that schoolchildren can behave like experts, once they are given the opportunity. They can “engage in research, investigation and experimentation”, “critically respond to texts”, “synthesise information” and “be entrepreneurial and innovative”. Not just pretend to be, or emulate or replicate, but actually do all these things in a meaningful and worthwhile way.

This false separation of skills and knowledge – what Kirby calls “unzipping” – is evident in the Junior Cycle English specification. The specification is written entirely in learning outcomes, using verbs. The learners will X. The learners will Y. There is no specific body of knowledge. This was a problem with the Junior Cert syllabus, which gave teachers great and welcome freedom but which posed a problem when it came to assessment. Instead of  the problem of generic questions being fixed, it has been exacerbated. English teachers were pleased with the idea of a prescribed list of texts. We thought this would bring the new course in line with the Leaving Cert, with questions akin to the Single Text section. It would solve the Pip/Bruno problem. The Pip/Bruno problem was how, on the old paper, candidates can be asked to write about a novel they have studied in which a young person learns an important lesson, or that features a young person, or something similar. A candidate who bases the answer on Bruno from “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” theoretically stands the same chance of achieving an A grade as a candidate who writes about Pip from “Great Expectations”.

Neither “Great Expectations”* nor “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” is on the new list, but  the problem persists as teachers can choose freely from a list where “Jane Eyre” and “Animal Farm” jostle with children’s books like “Trash”, “Chalkline” and “The Dare”. The new, skills-based approach means that as long as pupils are hitting their learning outcomes such as “Read their texts for understanding and appreciation of character, setting, story and action” and “use an appropriate critical vocabulary” it does not matter if they have acquired any literary or historical knowledge. The Pip/Bruno problem is embedded in the new Specification, although there is room to improve this when the current list of prescribed texts comes up for renewal in 2020.

At least the skills mentioned above are appropriate to this level, and could be worth developing once the texts themselves are sufficiently rich and challenging. Other Learning Outcomes show evidence of the novice-as-expert fallacy. For example “Identify, appreciate and compare the ways in which different literary, digital and visual genres and sub-genres shape texts and shape the reader’s experience of them.” This is what we expect from children who we also accept cannot read at an adult level, despite having almost reached the end of compulsory education. “Write a grammatically correct sentence” does not appear in the specification. Grammar is mentioned here and there; one sensible outcome is “Use and apply their knowledge of language structures, for example sentence structure, paragraphing, grammar, to make their writing a richer experience for themselves and the reader.” (At least the first half is sensible, the second half could be omitted and entirely misses the point that correct grammar makes meaning clearer, regardless of whether or not the reader finds a second year poetry answer “a rich experience”). It is hard to see where the time (see Conor Murphy’s analysis) to teach the most fundamental skill of coherent expression will be found amid exploring digital sub-genres and “engaging in extended and constructive discussion of their own and other students’ work”. Yet the authors of the Specification are so confident in the expertise of the learners that they also specify that the children will be “creative with syntax”. You know, like James Joyce or William Faulkner. Or Yoda.

Leap-frogging over the demanding work of learning grammar and of studying full-length challenging texts (with sufficient time to explore the cultural context of these texts) will incur a substantial opportunity cost for pupils. This will be exacerbated by the large amounts of class-time necessarily given over to preparing and evaluating oral assessments, and worst of all, by the inclusion of non-domain specific content such as multi-modal texts and film studies. Now, I have nothing against film studies but what kind of madness is it that will have children watching “School of Rock” when they could be studying all of “Much Ado About Nothing” instead of reducing the play to “key moments”?

As Peter Lydon tweeted last week “We cannot improve education outcomes by asking students to learn less”. Yet this is exactly what the Framework for Junior Cycle reform sets out to do. It decouples skills from the knowledge needed for those skills to be used in a meaningful way, it aims to engage children by having them act as experts in fields where they are novices, thereby diminishing their chances of ever becoming actual experts in anything, it wastes the time gained by reducing the number of subjects by allowing this time to be spent on “short courses” taught by non-specialists, it favours knowledge-lite content, it overloads teachers with long lists of learning-outcomes and encourages gaming as they only way I can see how anyone could tick all the 39 boxes of the English Specification is by sticking to short novels and poems with a low reading age.

Learning is hard. There are no skills-based shortcuts that will transform first-year pupils into expert practitioners of anything – literary criticism, historical research, scientific enquiry – without the slow, arduous but rewarding task of building a base of subject-specific, meaningful knowledge.



*Thanks to Gary Abrahamian for correction here. Previously the post said “Great Expectations” was on the new list. My mistake.














Accommodating Difference

“I welcome the aspects of the proposed curriculum that will allow schools something that they currently do not have. It will allow schools flexibility to design their own Junior Cycle programme. This will empower schools to meet the interests, and the needs, and indeed the curiosity of their students. This is how we can accommodate difference in our society. This is how we will begin to address the question of inequality in our society.”

Thus spoke Ruairí Quinn addressing an NCCA conference in 2012. It’s a vision that’s still alive and is reiterated in last week’s Circular to Schools.

The document contradicts itself. It speaks of subject specifications (which are replacing syllabi) as being “designed to be as universal and inclusive as feasible, providing meaningful and valuable learning opportunities for students from all cultural and social backgrounds and from a wide variety of individual circumstances”. But what does this actually mean? The document goes on to say that while subjects and short courses may be designed to be universally appropriate to students, schools are to feel free to decide for themselves that they’re not really suitable for their student body, based on the children’s “backgrounds, interests and abilities”.

The Framework document itself is also clear on this point: “The greater degree of flexibility afforded by the Framework will allow schools to take account of the  school’s local context and the backgrounds, interests, and abilities of their students when planning their junior cycle programme.” [italics mine] A principal is free to decide that, given his students’ backgrounds, they mightn’t have much “interest” in studying history. They might also decide not to offer geography to lower-ability students. The document implies that there are schools where the general ability level of the students is so much lower than average that this will influence curricular decisions. Or perhaps the converse is true, and principals may decide that the pupils’ cultural and social background calls for a short course on Chaucer or particle physics.

Common courses in all subjects apart from the big three will pose a problem as the bar below which children are deemed unable to study academic subjects will be raised. I have very successfully taught Ordinary Level Junior Cycle History to a small group; I was able to do that because of the support of management and the SencCo in my school, who recognised that knowledge of our country’s past should not be the preserve of an intellectual elite. Those pupils would have struggled with a common course and would most likely opt instead for learning how to care for a notional pet.

I’ll return now to Quinn’s speech and its idea of “empowering schools to meet the curiosity of their students”. “Empowering” is a lovely word, isn’t it? But perhaps we should talk less about empowering schools and more about empowering children with powerful knowledge. The kind of knowledge they might not be curious about, but which will serve them in life, and serve us all by having a knowledgeable citizenry. “Curiosity” is another lovely word, bringing to mind miniature Ken Robinsons, little light-bulbs over their adorable heads, enraptured by individualised projects and driven by the love – the sheer joy- of learning and discovery. Except we tend to be curious about things we already know quite a lot about. Knowledge drives curiosity, not vice versa. Children who have been to France tend to be more curious to learn French, children whose parents discuss politics with them tend to be more interested in history. Middle-class children with university-educated parents will quite likely be curious about things that will help them achieve academically. Disadvantaged children may not only be less curious about science and geography; they might never even have been to Stratford-upon-Avon.

The difference in interests and aspirations that arises from difference in social background should be something the education system seeks to combat, not reinforce. Surely a child’s chance of studying the Renaissance, or German, or the structure of a plant cell, should not be eliminated before she even reaches first year, on the basis that the curriculum in her local school has been “tailored” to exclude subjects thought unlikely to interest some-one of “her background”? The framework for Junior Cycle still states explicitly that the range of subjects to be offered in the junior cycle programme “will vary in accordance with the teaching resources in the school and the needs and interests of the students.” Differences will not be challenged; they will be “accommodated”. Once the curriculum is established within a school it will be difficult to steer it in a more academic direction, if that doesn’t fit well with “the teaching resources”. Students from different backgrounds do not have different learning needs and there is nothing wrong in coercing children into studying subjects that do not pique their passing interests.  References to “the local context” do not make sense when we remember that, as Michael Fordham  (@mfordhamhistory) expresses  eloquently,  “teachers are there to lift children up into a global conversation about the reality in which we live.”

“This is how we will begin to address the question of inequality in our society.” This quote from Quinn is a bit dated now, and you might wonder why I rely on it. I’m including it because I think this vision for accommodating and enshrining educational inequity remains central to Junior Cycle reform. Inequality is a huge challenge within the system. So is motivation. It is tempting to imagine that the behaviour crisis felt in certain schools will be resolved once the learners are engaged in relevant, “real-life”, skills-based learning. It is tempting to throw up our hands and pragmatically decide that as long as enough schools opt to tailor their curriculum along academic lines, and continue to offer the maximum number of real subjects and the minimum of short courses, then the country will not run short of educated professionals. It is tempting to pretend that it’s unfair to impose an academic curriculum on children whose parents aren’t already steering them on the path to third-level education. It is a temptation we must resist. The Department should remove all reference to interests and social background from the Junior Cycle Framework and instead insist on all mainstream schools providing a curriculum based on breadth and balance.