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. 




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.


worst foto        FullSizeRendersd

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

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

Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia

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

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

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

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

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


Daniel Willingham’s FAQ on Learning Styles


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

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.













Accommodating Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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