I am a fan of Ronald Heifetz who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
One of the best pieces of advice he gives to leaders, or anyone working in complex situations, is that sometimes, you need to step off the dance floor and get on to the balcony. This ‘balcony view’ offers a better perspective on what is going on, where the alliances are being made and where battles are being fought, won and lost.
I have spent the last two months on ‘the balcony’ of education research, able to view from afar, not just the complexities of Irish education, but the various systems across Australia, and in the Asia-Pacific region. Like all Irish abroad, I am fascinated by what others think of and about Ireland. ABC radio news covered our recent budget, our rugby victory over South Africa made the front pages, and the water charges controversy is the subject of comment and some humour in a state where I have had to learn that they treat a rainy day the way we treat a sunny one.
Australians know about our education system from young teachers who have come here to find work, and from the many Irish working, living and holidaying ‘down under’. What they know and who they meet, generally impress. An education system, particularly a school system, is a cultural artefact. Schooling may be constructed by rules and policies, legislation, investment (and cutbacks) and guidelines and circulars. But a country’s school system is also a product of values, attitudes, expectations and traditions. I had known about the contribution of Irish religious congregations to schooling in Australia, but it’s only when you drive around Queensland, past the sunny campus called Edmund Rice, or St. Patrick’s School or McAuley College that the scale of the impact is apparent. These schools have their foundations in Irish history, but their focus is on the Australian future.
Schooling is always caught between the rock of heritage and the certain past and the hard place of hope and the uncertain future. We can learn from systems like Finland, or from Singapore, or from Canada, or Australia. Part of my work here is to share with Australian colleagues what we are doing in Ireland. We must learn and understand what other school systems do well and how they do it. But we can never be the same. Australia can never be Ireland. We can never be Finland. Nor should we try. We need to be ourselves.
The Queensland Teachers Union has a strong position on assessment: The QTU opposes assessment models which are norm-referenced, external to the school, standardised or national and endorses models which are criteria-based, standards-referenced, school-based, continuous and developmental, dependent on a range of assessment techniques and relate to students as individuals (S.12.3 QTU Curriculum Policy 2013). For Queensland teachers, assessment goes to the heart of professional status and identity. Here, right to the end of second-level where assessment counts towards third-level entrance, teachers are at the heart of the process, not just in marking student work, but in designing their own assessments including their own exams. The system is not without its controversies; the introduction of a number of centrally rather than teacher designed tasks is being considered as part of school assessment for final reporting, a proposal viewed warily by the QTU concerned to maintain the focus on the professional assessment work of teachers. Queensland’s teachers have been doing this work for almost 40 years; there have been calls for intensive CPD to ensure that teachers’ assessment and moderation skills continue to develop.
It’s clear that we in Ireland are not Queensland. Our systems may have much by way of common origins, many of our schools may share the same names, but they have developed in different places, and in different cultures. Water is chemically the same in Ireland and Australia. But as a cultural artefact, it is very different.
It strikes me that in Ireland we are at one of those moments in education where we get to decide the direction of the system for the next three or four generations. Junior cycle reform has been something of a dance marathon running steadily for almost thirty years, since the proposals for a wide range of assessment tasks as part of the introduction of the Junior Certificate were abandoned in the face of teacher opposition.
In the years since then much has been discovered about how young people learn, and how best to support them. Assessment is no longer seen as simply a measure of achievement, but as a means to understand how a learner is progressing, providing important evidence on the next steps to take. This research has informed Ireland’s early childhood and primary education system and is influencing the kinds of assignments and tasks undertaken at College level. Little of this research has made its way into Irish post-primary assessment which remains focused on terminal examinations. Not simply because teachers want it this way, but because this has been the Irish way. We all went through this system. Those who became teachers succeeded in it. Newspapers love to report it and produce supplements to sustain it. The rhythm of Irish family life is shaped by exam preparation and schedules focused on those weeks in June. Teacher union policy on assessment – whether in Ireland or in Queensland – is also a cultural artefact, shaped by all of these factors and more.
Attention is now focused on the dance-floor moves of teachers and their opposition to the compromise proposals presented by Minister O’ Sullivan – for a system that will be uniquely Irish, that keeps some of what we have and adds a proportion of school-based assessment. However it’s important to remember that any move away from familiar examinations will require a new tune from all with an interest in education. We can’t expect new moves to old music, new assessment and old expectations. Teachers will not be able to work new assessment system if the old culture and old mindset stay in place. They will need ongoing and sustained support from a system that doesn’t have a great track record in system change. A cultural change for the whole system will be needed to create, support and develop any new assessment system.
Or, we will return to familiar tunes and dances for the next thirty years and assess student learning as we do now, while the rest of the world continues to develop and use innovative ways to assess and support student learning. We won’t be Finland. Or Queensland. We will be ourselves, explaining to our students and the rest of the world that we weighed research evidence against tradition, and stayed with how things have always been done. For the sake of the dances we know.
Dr Anne Looney, CEO, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment Ireland and Professorial Research Fellow, at the Learning Sciences Institute Australia at Australian Catholic University, Brisbane.