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 http://www.sess.ie. 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.


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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 www.learningscientists.org

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.


In Praise of Discovery Learning

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no-one else can make for us, which no-one can spare us, for our wisdom  is the point of view from which we come at last to view the world.”

Marcel Proust.


How teaching happens matters!

National Council for Curriculum and Assessment

A quick look through the DSE inspectorate reports shows that the popularity of discovery learning is showing no signs of disappearing. One inspection report from March mentions discovery learning twice, recommending that science teachers “should increase the emphasis on discovery learning” and another published last month recommends they “encourage the use of discovery learning by students” and criticises lessons where “too much time was spent on teacher instruction that impacted on discovery learning and student motivation”. A geography inspection report recommends “limiting teacher inputs” .One mathematics inspection praises “a particular focus…inquiry-based learning” and another recommends that “the tasks set should involve more discovery learning and foster independent learning skills”.

This enthusiasm  ignores the growing body of evidence that, when it comes to teaching factual knowledge, discovery learning “ignores the structures of cognitive architecture” and is less effective than teacher-led explicit instruction.  The latest (2015) PISA report found that “teacher-directed instruction” was more effective than minimal guidance, particularly in science, as @greg_Ashman explains here better than I can.

However, there is one area of learning where I think we can embrace discovery learning. In fact, we can embrace it so much that we can all but erase the subject from the curriculum, minimise its impact on the timetable and stop preaching to the kids about it, all without damaging outcomes in this “area of learning”. This is the area of “wellbeing”. *

I have long held the view  that –  while the welfare and safety of children has to be an important concern of schools and teachers –  lessons, talks, activities and programmes that aim to “teach” traits like resilience and grit, or to explain to children the importance of  good habits of self-care, are a pointless waste of time. They are also possibly harmful to children.  Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes make this case cogently in their book  “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education”.

A book that’s very different to “The Dangerous Rise” but that touches tangentially on the same area is  Jonathan Haidt’s “The Happiness Hypothesis : Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the test of Modern Science”. Haidt explores how people managed before psychology and how some ideas about human happiness appear in remarkably similar forms in quite separate places and times.  The book, I think, works both ways: it puts the assumptions of modern psychology to the test of ancient wisdom.



Haidt famously conceived of the image of the “rider and the elephant” as a metaphor for the human mind. The rider can guide the elephant, but only as long as the elephant co-operates, and if the elephant ever does decide to do its own thing, there is very little the rider can do to stop it.  As teachers we focus on the rider, who is, after all, the brains of the operation. The elephant has a brain as well but its skill is in the force of its strength, not its intellectual capacity for reason. Are schools ignoring the elephant and thus failing to “holistically” educate?

I will say yes, and no more so than in the “area of learning” that is wellbeing. Proponents of Wellbeing might say that it is teaching children how to make their riders better control their elephants. Skills like managing  emotions, self-efficacy, how to be motivated, how to be nice are to be taught alongside – and even instead of – how to form the passé composé and calculate the side of a triangle. Discipline systems with even a hint of behaviourism are deemed inferior to restorative approaches that harness children’s cognitive conceptions of right and wrong.  Ironically the drive to teaching tacit knowledge explicitly co-incides with the turn towards teaching explicit knowledge through “discovery learning” where children [theoretically] work out the facts for themselves, acquiring them tacitly with minimal teacher explanation. Where the subjects don’t fit, they must be trimmed like the  ugly sisters’ feet, and where their content does not suit prescribed methods and aims, they must borrow content from areas that do. Following on from this, the time available for the subjects is itself trimmed and time is allocated to content that suits discovery learning but which previously was thought the responsibility of  parents rather than schools, or was understood to consist of the experience of life events and maturation. We end with nothing.

Haidt explains the folly of trying to take the rider off the elephant and educate him in isolation. He cites moral education, which will be familiar to anyone who has taught SPHE which has a module on “making good decisions”. The idea is that children can be trained in a decision-making procedure and then follow this procedure when faced with dilemmas like “how do I withstand the bystander effect when my best friend’s a bully?” and “should I smoke this spliff?”

“After being exposed to hours of case studies, classroom discussions about moral dilemmas, and videos about people who faced dilemmas and made the right choices, the child learns how(not what) to think. Then class ends, the rider gets back on the elephant, and nothing changes…Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail.”

What if we have this all wrong? What if explicit knowledge was best taught explicitly and tacit knowledge was best acquired tacitly, through discovery learning where teachers and schools set up a formative learning environment rather than a wellbeing syllabus that will inevitably be largely delivered through chalk and talk  and for which the publishing companies are already producing textbooks?

Many of the  learning outcomes from the Wellbeing guidelines could be better learned through experience than taught didactically. When I say “learned through experience” I do not mean a teacher-devised and managed classroom activity that takes time away from building children’s knowledge base. I mean learned  via the broad experience of school life, including classes on the structure of the atom or the formation of ox-bow lakes, and equally through every human interaction they have on the premises whether with teachers or with peers. Many of the latter type of experience will be hidden from teachers’ eyes, and to a great extent immune to our manipulations,  but are no less formative. (In terms of their classroom experience, children’s maturity and well-being are fostered through habits of work, application and organisation, and through an atmosphere that insists on respectful communication. These can happen regardless of instructional methods, the choice of which should be guided by the content being covered. Attempts such as this one to raise children’s self-esteem through group-work put the self-conceptual cart before the attainment horse). There is also a case to be made for “service learning” through blocked social placement that has minimal impact on the timetable, or even better, through extra-curricular opportunities for volunteering.  And I also mean the experience of life beyond school, both physically and temporally. The end of third year cannot be seen as a deadline for achieving the kind of wisdom, common sense and “life skills” that most of us where still acquiring well into our twenties. You could argue that  very many people die at a ripe old age without achieving half  of what we expect fifteen year olds to master (“Use good communication skills to respond to criticism and conflict” for example). Some more examples are:

-express emotions in an appropriate way [who decides which ways are “appropriate??]

-help others to feel included in the group

-recognise how gender and sexuality is [sic] part of what it means to be human

-learn from their mistakes and move on

-appreciate the importance of respectful and inclusive behaviour.

-recognise their capacity to extend and receive friendship

-appreciate the importance of talking things over

-appreciate what it means to live with mental ill-health.[It amazes me that anyone, anywhere thinks that there is any classroom activity –  including listening to a guest speaker –  that could even begin to achieve this outcome]

-use coping skills for managing life’s challenges [surely a tautology?]



Haidt also warns against confusing people with machines, especially computers. It is tempting to see the modern educational obsession with coding as extending into the idea that children need to be programmed with the attributes we find desirable in adults. If the device comes with the software apparently missing, then some-one must install it. If parents can’t be trusted, it must then fall to schools to do the installation. There is no button (or combination of buttons) on a child that you can press to make her act like an adult. But everything she needs to be one is already there. Adolescence is a complex, biological and social process, that is barely understood by the very young science of developmental psychology. We tinker with it at our peril and the peril of the children themselves, who are not machines, but animals who are infinitely more resilient than machines, and harder to break, but conversely more challenging to repair.

Another of the book’s warnings is about over-protection. By making “staying well” an actual learning outcome, we are encouraging children to live life inside the confines of the white-picket fence. We risk trying to make teenagers into emotional self-managers who put their own comfort and welfare ahead of any cause or any ambition.  This is seen in the annual hand-wringing fest that decries the State Examinations as damaging to the mental health of candidates. The Junior Cert, in particular, was a pressurised yet ultimately low-stakes event that did more to foster resilience and confidence than any Wellbeing syllabus yet to be devised. The stakes are higher at Leaving Cert, but – as its name implies – these young people are leaving childhood behind and setting out into an adult world that will contain challenges at least as hard and often harder than sitting an exam for which there is a well-defined curriculum and marking scheme, focused tuition for the two-year lead-up and, for most candidates, is sat at a time of very few commitments or responsibilities.  We wouldn’t put ten year olds through the process (a madness currently proposed in an education system not too far away), but switching to softer, more gameable assessments could deny our teenagers what is for most of them an admittedly very stressful yet formative experience.  Haidt writes, drawing on the work of wisdom researcher Robert Sternberg,

“Shelter your children when young, but if the sheltering goes on through the child’s teens and twenties, it may keep out wisdom and growth as well as pain.”

So I would suggest a re-balancing. When it comes to Wellbeing we need to put more emphasis on the elephant through the practices and habits of daily life in school, while  allowing students to cope with challenging situations where the rider can discover the tacit skills of elephant communication. We need to realise that interventions that exclusively target the rider (such as providing factual information about personal safety) are limited in scope and are more than catered for in the time already allowed for SPHE; there is no need for an increase. Rather, the vast bulk of our time in the class room should be focused not on things children can work out for themselves but on things for which they need schools, and for which they need teachers to teach them.


*When I say “wellbeing” I don’t include Physical Education, even though that subject is now included under the Wellbeing umbrella. I refer instead to the psychosocial aspects of SPHE and CSPE and all learning outcomes relating to attitudes, character, mental health and “awareness”.

Anyone’s Equal. The Michaela Way


Is Michaela Marmite? To me it’s more like the seasonal box of Roses. Lots of lovely parts, some bits that are truly yummy, and yes, more than one coffee crème. I could sit here for two hours typing out the  elements of the Michaela way with which I disagree, the parts I think they get away with only because they’ve started from scratch and those which I can see work for them but are irreplicable within an Irish context. But why would I do that?

There is much to be admired about Michaela and much to be learned from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”-  a collection of twenty essays, written mostly by teachers – which was launched in November at this live-streamed event.

Funnily, when I talk to colleagues about Michaela a common reaction is “That’s what we have here! That’s what we have and we’re getting rid of!” In many ways that is true. Irish secondary schools, particularly the voluntary sector in which I work, have long operated on the understanding that a strong, academic education delivered in an atmosphere of discipline and pastoral support is the best way we can serve both our pupils and the wider community. Much of that legacy is sadly being swept away by a wave of reforms that are explicitly less knowledge-driven and manage to be both progressively child-centred and grimly utilitarian.

So while my reading of Barry Smith’s account of the motivational speech he gives to Michaela pupils was accompanied by some eye-rolling and a fair few FFS, I was reminded of what a past-pupil of our school once told me. She had left the school in the eighties and had not had the opportunities there are there now to go to third level. Yet she said that on leaving school, this quiet girl from a large family on a small farm in North Cork felt she had learned as much as if she had attended an exclusive, private school. She told me: “I left school feeling like an educated person. I was anyone’s equal. I’ve never met anyone, in any situation, that I haven’t felt confident holding a conversation with.” This is the spirit I see in every page of “BHOTTT”: that every child they teach is anyone’s equal. Not just the equal of any other child within the education system, but the equal of any adult in the land regardless of that adult’s status or wealth. They want their children to grow into adults who can hold a conversation with anyone without being patronised or feeling inadequate, and who can not only gain admittance to the world’s most elite universities but thrive once they get there. And they do this by not treating children like adults (adults with our autonomy, our ingrained habits and our adherence to our chosen or accidental groove), but as children made up of no part bigger than potential. Katie Ashford, Michaela’s Head of Inclusion (roughly equivalent to SenCo) writes “By treating every child like they are aiming for Oxbridge, by harnessing the fire and ambition to succeed that everyone has within them, and by never allowing them to settle for anything other than their strongest effort, we are helping our children to overcome the barriers that some say are insurmountable.”

It might seem ridiculous to talk about “treating every child like they are aiming for Oxbridge”. Surely they know that this an unrealistic goal for any but their brightest pupils? The answer may be that they share the view expressed in this post by Tom Bennett in which he explains how he tells all his pupils that his target for them is to get an “A”. Not because he thinks they’re all going to get an “A”, but because he understands what the word target means. It means the thing that you aim for. I tried archery once, and I wasn’t very good at it. If an arrow landed on the board, I was pleased. If one landed on the coloured part, I was delighted. I was, of course, aiming at the bullseye the whole time, because if I’d just aimed for  “hitting blue, and possibly red if I’m lucky” my arrows would have fallen short or gone astray. Michaela are aiming high for all their pupils because they feel that’s the best way to maximise attainment all round. Another justification for such aspirations brings me back to the woman quoted above who for financial and circumstantial reasons didn’t make it to university but still feels like “an educated person”. If we see challenging, traditional academic content only as preparatory groundwork for university and not for every child, then we will end up with a societal educational cliff, where there is a huge gap between those with degrees, and those who we decided at twelve would never need to know even the basics of history, poetry or physics.

If there’s one aspect of life at Michaela that I’m most jealous of, it’s the amount of class time given to subjects. They have a whopping five hours of English a week, compared to our 2.6 hours in first year and 3.33 hours in second and third year. This allows for a full one-hour class of grammar a week, leaving four hours for tackling challenging texts like “Julius Caesar” [read at an age when ours are still in primary], “Frankenstein” and “Oliver Twist”. Very cleverly – and this is something I think is possible anywhere – they “select subject knowledge to dovetail cohesively across and between subjects”. This works especially well between History, English and Religion, but also manages to bring in Science.  They have cut the curriculum down to focus on key subjects. I think this idea was also present at the inception of Junior Cycle reform. Previously it was not uncommon for candidates to take twelve or thirteen subjects, leading to a crammed school day of short classes and a rushed pace that saw some fall behind and didn’t leave time for discussion and deep understanding. Reducing the number of subjects and enforcing longer classes was a good idea but these gains are being negated by not allocating the saved time to the subjects that are left. Instead that time came, somehow, to look like “empty time” that has since been filled with short-courses (often with little academic content) and well-being. Frustratingly, the move to longer classes and the requirement to include new “areas of learning” have for many classes meant a net decrease in contact-time per week. The phrase “time is our most precious resource” appears numerous times in “BHOTTH” and it’s a phrase that should echo through every school and every education system. We cannot improve outcomes without giving teachers the time and the space in which to teach.

It is worth remembering that Michaela is operating in the context of a system that is currently being outperformed by our own (depending how much credence we give PISA). There are many reasons for this, one probable one being our small population, with countries/systems of around 5m inhabitants tending to do well in international tests. Another possible reason is that in Ireland teaching continues to attract well-qualified graduates and school-leavers and – for the time being at least –  our retention rates are good. There is one area in which Michaela almost looks like it could have taken lessons from Irish schools, and that is in Jess Lund’s chapter on teacher workload and burnout. For on the list of things they eschew that are common practice in other UK schools, there are many items that we never did here to start with, and which don’t seem to have hurt progress. In particular, we don’t waste time converting class test results into “data” and entering these into meaningless spreadsheets. Neither do we live in the dread of internal, high-stakes graded observations.

There’s been an awful lot of discussion around discipline at Michaela. It has unsurprisingly been the focus of media coverage of the school, given that this aspect of school life is emotive and highly visible. They do, as Jonathan Porter writes, “sweat the small stuff” and if the many visitor blogs that I have read about the school can be believed, their system of strong support and narration around expectations mean that warm relationships are not mutually exclusive to consistently applied consequences like detention.

But there is much more to “BHOTTT” than a general call for a stricter discipline and a knowledge-rich curriculum. The book is also an insight into “the Michaela Way” of school improvement, which centres on collaboration, ethical experimentation and constant fine-tuning of their practice. One of the most interesting passages is in “Homework as Revision” by Joe Kirby. I had seen the promo for the school in which Katie Ashford declared with confidence that the children read every night. A reliable way to check that pupils are engaging in independent reading would be the Holy Grail for English teachers. Had Michaela found it? It turns out that they hadn’t, but the rigour and imagination with which they went about this quest are impressive in themselves. They tried “reading logs, MCQs, open-answer questions, sanctions, vocabulary logs and incentives-only with no sanctions”. None of these methods proved entirely satisfactory but each trial yielded insights that informed later teaching and planning.

“Homework as Revision” will never make headlines the way that “Girl Gets Detention for Dropped Pencil-Case” or “Boy Gets Free Sandwich” can. Yet the book is full of these unshowy, well-thought out strategies that might not work for every class in every school, but are well worth trying. I’ve been banging on to the kids for years about the value of self-quizzing and retrieval practice, even showing them PPT slides of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, but since November I’ve been quieter on the subject because they now do self-quizzing for homework. It takes minutes to check the following day, they like it, and it seems to be effective.

I have touched only briefly on some excerpts from some chapters of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.  It is a remarkable book put together by a remarkable group of people. I doubt there is a teacher anywhere who would nod along in agreement with everything they say, but it’s a book that made me think and that made me look at things I would have taken for granted in a new light. Buy it. Read it. Think about it.





Reads of 2016


“The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers” edited by Katharine Birbalsingh

The education book of the year. I plan, over the holidays, to write a post on this book so won’t say a lot here beyond that you should buy it. Every-one should buy it. I’m reading it for the second time, this time systematically cover-to-cover taking notes, while the first time I went straight for the well-known favorites/ enticing chapter titles. That’s why books win over chocolates, every time.

“What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology” by David Didau and Nick Rose.

I can remember only one thing from my psychology lectures on the HDip. This was that the lecturer used the OHP, but covered the bottom half with a modesty sheet, so that we couldn’t read ahead. There was a textbook (which I still have somewhere) and I learned off useful phrases like “scaffolding in the ZPD” with little understanding of how these could be practically applied. We could have done with Didau and Rose’s book comprehensive and user-friendly book that puts together al the important findings of cognitive, social behavioural psychology as they are relevant to the classroom. It is all aimed towards the daily reality of teaching real material to real children,  never descending into lists of “tips and tricks” and crucially, differentiates from what we “know” and what we “suspect is probably true”.

“The Language Teachers’ Toolkit” by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti

Absent from photo as has gone on its Chrismas holidays to my French department colleague’s house. The book is a very practical manual for all language teachers, including I would think, teachers of Irish. For a long time, while confident in the English classroom, I floundered as a French teacher, thinking I must be doing “the communicative method” all wrong, as they weren’t just picking it up, wrote in what I can only call “verb soup” and games n’ group work led to early success followed by subsequent incomprehension. Two things have changed this: one is coming across @BarryNSmith79 on Twitter and his personal, very kind and useful advice, the other was Gianfranco Conti’s blog which picks apart many of the misconceptions around language teaching and argues for more evidence-based approaches. Conti and Smith collaborate here on a treasure-trove of useful methods and the concepts behind them.  There really are, it turns out “plus d’une façon d’accommoder un lapin” .

“Reading Reconsidered” by Doug Lemov

A fabulous resource that’s not just for English teachers. Reading is something we secondary teachers take for granted far too much of the time. Not only that, we downgrade it so that reading from the textbook is the last thing you’d do if being inspected and reading the class text in English class is often seen as something to wade through before “the teaching bit”. Here Lemov successfully raises the status of reading to its proper primordial place. All pupils can gain if we prioritise it more; from the very weakest who still struggle to decode, to the pupil on the path to university who will there encounter “a challenging text – sometimes at the margins of his comfort level – that he must read and master, alone”.  Lemov believes, as I do, that if we want to improve reading we must  select books that challenge and stretch our pupils, and eschew those texts they might well read on their own.

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport

Not an education book, or aimed at teachers, nevertheless this gets one of my books of the year award. Newport is an IT professor at Georgetown University and author of books with such emetic titles as “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “How to Become a  Straight-A Student”. It’s breezily written and has lots of those anecdotes beloved of American self-help authors. Yet it’s also full of common sense and useful advice on how to get things done. Newport is a social media refusnik. He’s not even on Twitter. (This is where we diverge somewhat. Twitter is the best CPD out there for teachers). He recommends flipping the idea of scheduling “breaks from distraction” and instead taking “breaks from focus”, so that focus becomes the default. Another idea that he writes about in the book, which was new to me, is to differentiate between “lead measures” and “lag measures”.  This could be potentially interesting in these days of SSE. Exam results are a good example of lag measures; by the time we find out how a particular cohort has gotten on, our ability to affect that measure is over. That’s not to say that’s not our end goal, but we could also come up with “lead measures”: smaller, precise measurements taken along the way that inform us how to tweak our approach.

“Grit” by Angela Duckworth

Surprisingly, not really an education book at all. Teaching appears only as a subsection in the chapter on how to “parent for grit”. Nevertheless the educational world has leapt on Duckworth’s work and grit is the biggest thing since “growth mindset” (if possibly a little woollier, if grit can be woolly). This is, in essence, a really interesting and enjoyable read about the author’s research area, and how most of us could do with developing our strengths of resilience and perseverance. She offers sensibly tentative advice on how we might help the younger people in our lives develop these strengths, and elsewhere has laudably come out against putting character traits on the curriculum or using psychometric tests for assessment purposes in schools.

“Cleverlands” by Lucy Crehan

Also absent from photo as I bought the Kindle version. I’m half way through this and it is remarkable. Just the other day the Irish Times featured yet another article about how our curriculum (primary this time) is being remodelled along Finnish lines. We hear this all the time and any objections are met with “but Finland”. Crehan writes of her travels not only to  Finland but also Japan, Singapore and Canada and she looks at their education systems in spirit of genuine inquiry and curiosity. There is, unsurprisingly, lots to learn and not, equally unsurprisingly, any easily imported, universally effective educational panacea.


My 2016 resolution to read more classic fiction has provided hours of pleasure and enlightenment and is being carried over to 2017. I read “Bleak House”, reread “Dombey and Son” and “Frankenstein”, started and gave up “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and finally got around to Dostoyevsky. “Crime and Punishment” was a slow start as each character is known by several names, but once I got going it was a rattling read and the third year pupil I lent it to afterwards agrees. I can’t say the same of “The Brothers Karamazov” which was slow going for quite long stretches and I just about managed to finish in time for Christmas. Modern fiction that impressed me along the way included Patrick DeWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers”, Kate Tempest’s “The Bricks that Built the Houses” and the short story collection “Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin.

Happy 2017 🙂


Well-being isn’t just about health. It’s about everything.


Consultation closes tomorrow on Junior Cycle Wellbeing . The only way I was aware of this consultation was its appearance in my Twitter feed. The document is an interesting read and I urge to you to have a look and respond.

I’m in favour of academic learning, but the document is quick to reassure me that this doesn’t mean I can’t also be in favour of Wellbeing with a capital W. This is both a new “area of learning”, allotted a whopping 400 hours of school time (to put this in context Maths and English get 240 hours each), and a set of guidelines on how schools should be run. The introduction quotes from Katherine Weare’s 2000 book “Promoting Mental, Emotional and Social Health: A Whole School Approach”.

“It is vital that those who seek to promote high academic standards and those who see to promote mental, emotional and social health realise that they are on the same side, and that social and affective education can support academic learning, not simply take time away from it. There is overwhelming evidence that students learn more effectively, including their academic subjects , if they are happy in their work, believe in themselves, their teacher and feel school is supporting them.”

I would like to challenge the notion that we are “on the same side”. I have not read Weare’s book so cannot comment on the “overwhelming evidence”, but let’s start by conceding that it’s true, or at least that it’s not implausible. Children do learn better when they’re “happy in their work”, have self-belief and feel supported by staff and the overall school. Let’s say I accept all that is true. But it does not follow that I am thus “on the same side” as those advocating and planning to devote swathes of class contact time to mental, emotional and social health promotion. I’d say I was on the opposite side, because what there doesn’t seem to be “overwhelming evidence” for is that directly teaching and promoting mental health leads to children who are “happy in their work”. In fact, I’d say the prerequisite for having children who are happy in their work is that they have actual work to engage in and being the passive recipients of awareness-raising and promotional activities is not work.

The aims of happy, confident children who feel supported on a personal and institutional level are worthy aims of any school. How well these are met comes down largely to the personal relationship between a child and his teachers, and between the child and the overall way his school is run. The extent to which these relationships can be engineered through remote departmental policy is limited. And  calling these aims an “area of learning” and setting up a pseudo-subject, complete with learning objectives and assessment criteria, is not supporting children in their learning and will do nothing for their self-belief, confidence or happiness.

What the consultative policy document actually does is provide a charter for “progressive education”. It is incredibly far-reaching, covering topics such as discipline, assessment, pedagogical approaches, student voice, staff development, sustainable development and timetabling. It is quite clear in insisting “the Well-being indicators should inform all planning.” By gathering the progressive ends of thinking in these areas together, the Junior Cycle team are attempting to legitimise them as being beneficial to children’s health, particularly their mental health. It is hard to see how this is justified unless there are teaching methods and forms of assessment that do pose a threat to mental health. There are people who believe learning facts and taking tests damages the brain but such fears do not stand up to scrutiny.

The consultation document advocates that school should endeavour to be “a more democratic learning environment in which students have a voice” and that children be consulted when “policies are being developed, implemented ore reviewed”. It recommends that

“students and teachers engage in ongoing dialogue about learning, teaching and assessment. These conversations can have significant benefits for student wellbeing. By engaging in authentic listening to students at both whole school and classroom level, the school is recognising students as experts in their own learning and hearing what it is like to be a student in the school.” [italics mine]

It goes on “Teaching and learning that is supportive of student well-being is democratic…engages students through the use of a variety of approaches including active, co-operative and peer learning, takes account of the diverse needs and learning approaches of students.” [italics mine] This implies that if, as a teacher, you do not take account of the “diverse learning approaches of students” you are failing to protect their well-being. They will be unhappy in whatever little work they might actually do doing, feel unsupported and make begin to doubt themselves.

On assessment, there is no specific mention of AfL, but the authors seem fairly definite that formative assessment is not just a miracle when it comes to learning, it is also has hitherto unseen health benefits. The one thing assessment must avoid doing is any kind of measurement of what students have learned. And we must be careful not to test them too much: “it is important to consider the volume of assessment activities that students are faced with. This can act as a considerable source of stress, especially when assessment is almost exclusively associated with testing, marking and grading”. Never mind the considerable evidence for the benefits of frequent, low-stakes testing to learning, or the reality, as Carl Hendrick writes here, that this kind of stress is not harmful to anyone’s mental health.

Now you might think that one aspect of making pupils feel supported by their school would be a strong behaviour policy with high expectations and the reinforcement of adult authority. School principals recognise this: “The policy that school leaders tend to identify as being most important for student wellbeing is the behaviour policy”. This makes sense, as the behaviour policy goes a long way towards pupils feeling safe in school, and towards enabling a classroom atmosphere of work and concentration. How can children feel “happy in their work” if that work is being disrupted by their peers?

The document is full of impressive footnotes but the most outrageous assertion of all is supported only by the preface “Research shows”, with no citation whatsoever. “Research shows that in schools where student wellbeing is optimised, supportive rather than punitive approaches to behaviour are adopted.” Firstly, the opposition between “supportive” and “punitive” is completely false, unless they’re suggesting children be supported to behave badly. Sanctions for poor behaviour are an essential part of any workable behaviour policy, although they are of course, only a part and not the whole. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale. Or be an educationalist. Even when it comes to behaviour management, adult authority is undermined as the policy checklist includes “Do students have a voice?” It says “Policy development, in support of wellbeing, should be a collaborative, inclusive and democratic process.” It goes on to say such policies “might be easier to implement”. Of course they would, if the student referendum on detention swings towards “Out”. But it won’t make the job of teachers any easier, or protect pupils at risk of bullying, or promote the right of all in the school community to a safe and dignified environment.

I have focused here more on the practical implications of the consultation document – how it aligns teaching, assessment and discipline with progressive ideology – and its lack of appreciation for the role of adult authority in making schools safe, productive places of learning. The introduction of “Wellbeing” will indeed, take time away from the classroom contact time that pupils need to develop as learners and to gain academic confidence. It will replace SPHE, CSPE and PE. The combined time allocation for these is currently c. 280 hours. Well-being will take up a mandatory 400 hours. If you are an English teacher, or a Maths teacher, think how even twenty of those 120 hours would make covering the new, longer courses a more efficient and enriching experience. If you teach a modern foreign language, ask how you feel about this non-subject being allocated exactly twice the time you have been given to open children’s minds to a new culture and to help them  acquire oral and written proficiency in its language.

There are deeper issues at play here around the adoption this represents of “therapeutic education”, that is the acceptance that there is an epidemic of mental illness, that all teenagers are vulnerable when it comes to mental health, and that it is necessary to requisition the education system to provide (often prophylactic) classroom-based psychotherapy, even if that means young people leaving school knowing less. I am not denying that there are schoolchildren, particularly at second level, who are struggling with mental health problems. How schools support liaise with CAMHS and support these students on a personal level, is a worthy subject for discussion. I support the reinstatement of guidance counselling hours. Guidance counsellors provide an essential service as informal listening within a non-clinical setting is often enough to relieve what can seem to a naïve teenager to be an unsurmountable issue, and with less access to this (combined with ever-increasing “awareness”) more and more children are joining the long queue for intervention. However, we should remember that the business of schools remains education, that the job of the teacher is to impart knowledge and that while adolescence can be fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, most children derive no benefit from “the curriculum of the self” and may even be harmed by it.

The phrase “the curriculum of the self” comes from Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes’ excellent 2009 book “The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education”. Far from developing resilience, Ecclestone and Hayes argue that classes where children focus on their own emotional well-being encourages them “to come to terms with being a feeble, vulnerable subject and then to allow the state to coach the appropriate dispositions and attitudes of the emotionally well citizen.” They propose instead a radical, humanist curriculum where pupils are encouraged to look outward to the wider world (including the world of the past) beyond their immediate experience.

It seems just another cheesy educational quote, but Sydney J Harris was correct when he said that “The purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows”. Turning their own well-being and their own preoccupations into a quasi-subject is letting our pupils down. It invites those who are already (often painfully) self-absorbed to look into full-length, wrap-around mirrors and includes the magnifying lens of asking teenagers to assess their own well-being, “mindsets” and coping skills. The document does not put forward evidence that increasing classroom instruction on “learning about well-being” will result in better health outcomes, on any measure. Rather it is justified on the basis of “making commitment to well-being visible”. If you are a child (or the child’s parent) and the main indication that your school cares about your well-being is that it’s written on your timetable, then I’m not sure you know that they care.

Let’s embed children’s well-being and welfare at the heart of our school culture. Let’s think about how we can foster good working relationships with pupils, remembering that such relationships are enhanced when adults are not afraid to exercise authority. Let’s focus on teaching well so pupils feel a sense of achievement and control. But let’s not bow to the lifestyle-supplement Zeitgeist that puts looking into mental and physical mirrors above learning, creating and connecting. Let’s keep opening windows and inviting young people to look out at what awaits them.



The link to the consultation document is here, and it is open “until the end of June”.


“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.