Students test each other in Ruairi's brave new world
The teacher will no longer be 'the sage on the stage' as the Junior Cert is replaced. Kim Bielenberg reports
Clare Ryan, principal of St Leo's College in Carlow, believes it is the biggest change in education in decades, and in her school it is already happening.
Over the next five years the Junior Cert will be phased out in second-level schools, and replaced with a new type of teaching and assessment.
The new Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA) will place much less emphasis on terminal state exams.
Instead, students will be tested and assessed mostly by their own teachers. And increasingly, they will learn from each other.
As well as doing exams they will collect portfolios of their work, sometimes in electronic formats.
The radical change starts in first year in September with English, which is one of only three subjects that will continue to have state exams.
Teachers have decidedly mixed feelings about the changes being pushed through by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
The president of the Teachers Union of Ireland Gerard Craughwell has described the new JCSA as "a dangerous experiment with children's lives and futures". He claims that it will lead to more dumbing down of the education system.
However, Mr Quinn says: "The ship has already left the harbour."
Already some schools across the country are piloting elements of the new second-level system. They offer pointers to how the new curriculum will be taught.
At St Leo's College, a girls' school with 920 pupils, teachers of first year students are already using the eight Key Skills of the JCSA. They include: literacy; numeracy; working with others; staying well; managing myself; communications; being creative; and managing information.
So far, it is the assessment of students that has attracted the most attention, and it has incurred the wrath of the teaching unions. But the approach to teaching will also be radically different.
Clare Ryan says: "In first year we can already see a change in the layout of classrooms.
"There are two whiteboards in each classroom. In each lesson, there wills be three headings on the board: a keyword; the homework; and the learning outcomes."
One of the most dramatic changes is the new emphasis on co-operation and teamwork.
Rather than having rows of desks, the students often work in groups of four or five, and are clustered into groups. Clare Ryan says: "The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage. The idea is that students own their own learning, and the teacher is more like a facilitator."
Some lessons, as described by those piloting the new JCSA, sound like episodes of The Apprentice (without the gruff presence of Alan Sugar) .
With a class commonly divided into groups, each student is assigned a separate task. One student might be the group leader for the task; one keeps a record of what is going on; and another might make a presentation.
Sheila Coady, one of the teachers at St Leo's who is helping to embed the key skills in the curriculum, says: "Student learn so much from co-operating with each other."
Some of the traditional methods of teaching are being turned upside down in the first year at St Leo's.
"We have always been a school that embraced innovations," says Clare Ryan.
"One of the most important developments will be that students teach each other. I saw this working recently in a Geography class in the school, where students were divided into groups, and prepared their own test. It's an entirely different approach."
In a typical exercise at St Leo's, a student is put in the "hot seat". They take on the role of a character, possibly from fiction or history, or from a foreign country. Students answer questions from the character's point of view.
At St Leo's, the principal placed heavy emphasis on embedding the key skills as soon as the students arrived at the start of the school year last autumn.
"We had three days of induction for the students, and had special activities to help them to get to know each other."
The students were each asked to list five things that they liked about themselves. It could be a hobby or a special characteristic.
The shape of each of their hands was cut out in paper with one character trait on each finger. These hands were used to create a poster.
One of the main changes in the JCSA is a new emphasis on oral presentation, as well as the more traditional reading and writing skills. This can be seen in the new English curriculum.
Students will learn how to ask for information, state an opinion, argue, persuade and criticise. (Many parents would contend that teenagers are already well versed in arguing and criticising by the time they reach second level.)
For the first time, oral skills in English will be included in the final assessment. At the end of second year, the student will make a presentation.
The new syllabus states: "Students are given an opportunity to choose a topic or issue that is of interest or importance to them and carry out an exploration over time.
"The development of basic research skills will be central here, eg searching for information, reading and note-making, organising material. . . developing a point of view, preparing a presentation, using props and handouts."
Please open your E-Portfolios
These presentation skills will be assessed by teachers in school.
Some schools are already using many of the teaching methods of the new JCSA in Science.
Nine schools under the patronage of Kildare and Wicklow Education Training Board are taking part in the Discover Sensors programme.
In the programme there is a strong emphasis on inquiry-based learning and experiments.
Students are already using electronic portfolios to record and collect their their work at the scifolio.ie. They can post text, photos and videos about experiments and field work. At the end of the term or year they can mark the posts that they want to showcase as "my best work".
They use sensor technology to record measurements such as temperature, electrical voltage, light and sound.
For the June 2014 exams, the State Examinations Commission has agreed to accept the 10pc portfolio element of Junior Cert Science electronically through Scifolio for these students.
Is it time for more compulsory gardening in schools? BBC garden guru Alan Titchmarsh believes "growing things" should be taught in every school.
Saying teenagers were well versed in issues of climate change, Titchmarsh argued it was more important for them to understand how the natural world works to stop them becoming "fearful".
In a speech reported in the Daily Telegraph he expressed fear that teenagers were "growing up with a great disconnection with the living world.
"It seems to be more important to learn a foreign language... Surely it's equally important to learn how to grow food, look after the environment and countryside."
He added: "Without plants, this planet would disappear."
Oh dear, that would be a shame.