It’s a long way from the chalk-and-talk approach where the teacher always knew best. Irish primary education is stepping into a new era, where pupils will have a big say in how they learn.
They will be able to suggest to the teacher ‘how about doing it this way?’ – and expect a positive response.
The new curriculum involves significant changes, such as grouping inter-connected subjects into thematic areas and new time allocations, including flexible time for schools to use as they wish.
These structural reforms are easy to identify, although they will need time, training and resources to embed successfully.
What’s less obvious – but has the potential to be the most innovative and exciting aspect of the changes – is the role it gives to pupils to direct their own learning.
The possibilities are endless and limited only by the imaginations of children
The official word for it is ‘agency’: a person’s capacity to make decisions and to act. It’s about choice and flexibility.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states children have a right to be active participants in all matters affecting their lives.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which has developed the new curriculum, puts a strong focus on the importance of child agency.
“Everyone in the education system, particularly children, teachers and school leaders need to be made aware that they have agency, and feel empowered to exercise their agency,” it states.
Giving children agency in their learning sits with the imperative to equip them for the changing and challenging world in which they live.
The curriculum advisory body notes that “children’s lives beyond their schooling will necessitate them having a strong sense of their agency”.
It points to many changes they will face, including climate change and social justice, adding that “having a sense of agency should enable children and adults to act decisively, with due regard to the rights of other people”.
So, what will child agency in the primary classroom look like? The possibilities are endless and limited only by the imaginations of children.
They could choose different activities or materials through which to advance their learning
At any one time, there are more than 500,000 pupils moving through the primary system, so there really are no bounds.
It’s not about children deciding what time of the day they will study Irish or anything else, but tapping into the interests and curiosity they bring to the classroom and using those as learning opportunities.
Crucially, the pupils themselves– buoyed by a sense of child agency that will be central to this new framework – will have a say in how they learn and how they will demonstrate their learning. They could choose different activities or materials through which to advance their learning.
Pupils might be involved in a local initiative, or a sports club, which could inspire a piece of art, a dramatisation, a blog or a video produced by the pupils themselves.
A raft of international research reports indicate that when schools allow children some agency and control, they are well capable of initiating their own learning.