We can't change the classroom until our outdated exam system is revised
Curriculum debate is important. It is, however, both understandable and regrettable that the current debate is, yet again, almost exclusively focused on student assessment.
The mode of assessment dictates the nature of the educational experience – and it is unquestionable that classroom practices will not change if assessment practices remain unchanged.
The OECD's TALIS study found that Irish post-primary teachers favour the transmission of knowledge approach more than teachers in most other countries. This is understandable in a system dominated by external examinations that reward the recall and comprehension of knowledge at the expense of higher-order thinking. Unfortunately, such examinations cannot measure many of the laudable goals of our syllabuses.
There is a growing consensus internationally that the main purpose of student assessment is to promote independent, lifelong learning. Junior Cycle is the ideal time to prioritise assessment for learning over assessment of learning. This cannot happen while teachers remain 'coaches for examinations' rather than facilitators of learning who support and acknowledge student achievement and diagnose learning difficulties.
Teachers are best placed to evaluate their students' learning. Yet, at the end of junior cycle, students wait months for results in the form of letter grades. These indicate how each student ranks against their peers. They have no other meaning and don't provide feedback on learning. Surely the nature of the assessment report is more important than the provenance of the certificate.
Many well-developed societies do not depend on external examinations. For example, school-based assessment has been working perfectly well in Queensland, Australia, with its mix of urban and rural schools, for over 40 years. Fellow professionals from other schools critically review or moderate samples of teachers' assessments. The system is widely supported by teachers, who regard it as fair and reliable. It caters for the range of learning styles, prepares students for further education, encourages higher-order thinking and promotes teacher professionalism and collaboration.
Assessment of student learning in Northern Ireland is entirely school-based during the first three years of secondary schooling. The focus is on a broad range of generic skills that cannot be measured in external examinations. Students' grades are cross-moderated by teachers from other schools.
If this works in Newry and Charleville, Western Queensland, why can't it work in Dundalk and Charleville, north Cork?
The discourse of the current debate is extremely revealing. We hear that teachers are 'on the side of the student, against the examination system', that the role of the teacher is one of 'advocate rather than judge'.
An advocate (Scottish term for barrister) intercedes on behalf of a client. Such adversarial language portrays the education process as some sort of trial, ordeal or contest. It suggests dependency, at a stage when students should be taking responsibility for their own learning, exploring and imagining possibilities, and developing their values as active and informed citizens.
Opponents of school-based assessment raise understandable concerns regarding equity of student treatment. Such fears can be alleviated by a rigorous cross-moderation system, such as in Queensland.
The antidote to education inequality is far more complex than the retention of junior cycle state examinations – and the present system clearly works to the advantage of children from relatively privileged backgrounds. Indeed it is ironic to find the union that represents teachers in the private fee-paying sector playing the equity card.
Teachers' calls for adequate investment in relevant professional development and for a robust system of cross-moderation are entirely justified.
At the end of the day, the Minister must recognise that, regardless of the merit of the current proposals, 'you can't mandate what matters'. And the proposed reforms do matter greatly.
- Dr Jim Gleeson is Professor of Curriculum and Identity at Australian Catholic University. He is a former senior lecturer in Education at the University of Limerick