09 July 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

Different education systems in different liberal democracies tackle common problems in different ways. Broadly speaking, across the range of common objectives, they achieve comparable levels of success. If one system makes gains in a given area which is not managed by another, that is usually balanced by shortfall in another. I'm not inclined to believe that any one system is, overall, "better" or "worse" than another.

I am, however, inclined to believe that common shifts in philosophical bases for education systems across the liberal democracies can make a difference to long term educational drifts ... and have done so. Some of those drifts are (to my own mind, at least) good; some are unfortunate; some may be neutral; some may be mixed. Among those which are, in my own personal opinion, retrograde is the increasing trend towards earlier and earlier specialisation.

Children are natural sponges, programmed by biology to learn. They are also naturally inclined to make and pursue interconnections within that learning. Curiosity is a live and potent force within them, and acknowledges no boundaries. A boundary between specialisms, by interrupting their hot pursuit of a curiosity driven line of thought, damages their enthusiasm for knowledge. (As a new secondary student miserably told me, ten years ago, “last year, maths was real ... like designing an Olympic stadium ... but now it’s just A, B and C filling a bath with a teaspoon while D empties it with an egg-cup and nobody tries to stop him ...”)

Ruairí Quinn, Minister for Education in the republic of Eire, like his opposite numbers elsewhere, is faced with a need to improve literacy and numeracy. This is a real need; the only question is how to meet it. Like many others, his approach is to increase the amount of time focused on this particular need. His strategy of increasing daily teaching time allocations hypothecated to literacy and numeracy closely mirrors, just for example, that which has already been followed across the Irish Sea in the United Kingdom.

I have no disagreement with that, in principle. The problem, for me, lies in the fact that in systems which specialise, increase in time for one specialism inevitably reduces time available for breadth of study overall.

In Eire, post primary education is organised into Junior Certificate (Teastas Sóisearach) subjects, tested by examination (with a couple of exceptions) in the mid teens. Six subjects make up a mandatory core curriculum, additional subjects being selected from a menu of options. Despite many differences of detail, it's a system easily related to, for example, the British GCSE or US Junior High School models.

But here's the thing ... and I'm using Eire only as an example; the systemic principles would apply to most equivalent systems elsewhere. Given a fixed number of school hours per week, the extra time taken from the timetable for teaching discrete literacy and numeracy (roughly totalling between five and ten hours per school week, depending on how you count and calculate) means that one of three things must happen.

  1. The time spent on each existing subject can be reduced, to make time for the new literacy and numeracy time.
  2. Literacy and numeracy can be taught through integration with the existing subjects.
  3. Existing subjects can be dropped to make way for the new literacy and numeracy time.

The first runs immediately into the brick wall of examination requirements. No administrator nor politician dares risk stealing time from an examination subject and perhaps being blamed for subsequent fall in success rates in that subject. It would also raise (amongst parents, voters, and employers) questions of comparability between new graduates from the system and those in the past.

The second would be in immediate opposition to the declared intention of visibly giving additional time "exclusively for the teaching of" basic skills.

And so Mr Quinn has, inevitably, taken the third course: removing subjects. From this coming September intake, secondary students will have their choice of subjects capped at a maximum of eight.

By the time mandatory subjects are allowed for, this means a reduction of between 11% and 33% in the total diversity of a typical student's academic encounter range. For options, once mandatory subjects are counted in, the reduction in real choice clocks in at between 33% and 67%. And, since the number of students estimated to be “experiencing serious [literacy and numeracy] problems” is one in ten, this reduction is being applied to a majority of students who will not gain from the intended benefits. (I do not argue that last point too strongly; I believe that all students, however able and brilliant, would benefit from increased focus on literacy and numeracy competence if it were delivered to them in an appropriate way.)

So what would I suggest as an alternative? Well ... realistically, I have to admit that Mr Quinn is caught between the well known rock and hard place for the reasons above; the harsh environment gives him no choices at all unless he is willing to throw away his career on a gamble. He is, like Eire itself, doing his best in an impossible world and I do not criticise him, nor his country, nor any of the others struggling with similar vicious circles elsewhere in the world. But my answer, from the safety of a seat where I have neither to implement my beliefs nor pay for them, is that numeracy and literacy needs would be far more effectively tackled by integrating the new emphasis into broader study. The chosen approach not only restricts the value of education in general, it undercuts the whole (valuable) intent behind the reform itself.

When I am dictator of the world, I will unify secondary study by abolishing boundaries between subjects. Students will learn through integrated "themes", as they did in primary school, allowing their interest to range (and their minds, and their skills, to grow) across the full gamut of human knowledge – or, at least, across that part of it which can realistically be encompassed by a school's day and resources. Literacy and numeracy will then become part of everything the student does, growing organically in most and nurtured in those who need it.

I will also abolish examinations altogether; but that's another story, and I don't want to frighten the voters who must make me dictator before any of this can happen, so best keep that bit quiet for now...

  • Irish Times, "Minister orders cap on exam subjects". Saturday, July 8th, 2011.

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