“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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