Tuesday 25 June 2019

Eoin O'Malley: Preparing our children for life after the Leaving is not just the job of our schools

Students should be better prepared for the challenges of university - but it may not be just the fault of schools, writes Eoin O'Malley

HARD LESSONS: A new report suggests students think their secondary school education may not have equipped them for what they encountered at university. Picture posed by models
HARD LESSONS: A new report suggests students think their secondary school education may not have equipped them for what they encountered at university. Picture posed by models

Eoin O'Malley

Did Plato complain that Aristotle's generation had been dumbed down compared to his own? I expect that Plato had great respect for his pupil, but it seems like since then, every generation thinks the subsequent one is somehow deficient compared to its own.

It seems natural. Just as the next generation's music is ''noise'', we assume that their lives are much easier and they are not fit for a hard day's work.

As a university teacher, I'm pretty certain that this generation of students' quality of writing has gone down from what it was. As natural as it is to feel like this, it may well be rubbish. Perhaps basic grammar mistakes were ubiquitous when I was a student.

But a new report from the Institute of Education at Dublin City University suggests that even young people themselves think they might be just a bit rubbish. Their elders, no doubt, won't disagree.

Not rubbish exactly, just not very well prepared for university.

As the CAO offers are made in the coming weeks, tens of thousands will be entering third-level education for the first time. Especially if they don't have older siblings or parents who went to college, it can be a daunting time. The freedom that they suddenly find, to make their own choices whether or not to turn up, whether or not to study, when to start writing that essay or preparing for that project, means that most will inevitably make mistakes they come to regret.

Just as stuff you do in university should be a good preparation for life after university, the stuff that we do in school, should help us with college or wherever else we end up doing after school.

The DCU survey asks 300 first year DCU students whether they thought secondary school, and in particular the Leaving Cert, prepared them for what they encountered in university. A few warnings should spring out.

Asking people directly doesn't always yield the truth. You can ask me how I voted in the last election, but I honestly can't remember. If I could, you might ask me why I voted that way, and I might give you an answer, but it'll probably be made up on the spot. The students may not know whether the Leaving Cert was good preparation or not. We'd need to compare them to students who had different secondary school formations.

It is just 300 students - not that many to make findings, especially if we want to find out if the problems are specific to certain subject areas, certain schools, or of other background factors. There are only DCU students in the study, who may be, but probably aren't, different to other university students. And we're told nothing about how this group was sampled. They might be self-selecting and so quite different to the people who chose not to take part in the survey.

Those caveats aside, we can see that only between a quarter and a third felt the Leaving Cert programme prepared them well to use technology to improve their learning, to identify sources of information, to compare information from different sources, to interrogate and critically evaluate information or ideas, or to explore ideas from a number of different perspectives.

At a time when we are concerned about fake news, the ability to sense that stuff you read on the web or heard from a girl in your class, or guy in the pub may not be true, should be one of the things an education system does well.

Or as the line that went viral online last week goes - if one person tells you it's raining outside, and another person tells you it's dry, your job should not be to record both views, but instead to go outside and check the weather. We should all know how to get closer to the truth.

The secondary school curriculum in Ireland was never very good at that. It was designed in the early 20th Century by people who thought the 19th Century was a golden age of education. We were good at rote learning, or had to get good at it, but there wasn't much room for creativity.

With the Leaving Cert, we became fixated with the outcome of education, not the process. The final exam became the goal, and so everything school kids do along the way is not education, but preparation for the Leaving.

On the upside, this makes our young people focused and hard working, and the DCU survey shows that they see themselves as well-prepared to manage their time and cope with heavy workloads.

The curriculum has been updated and there is more continuous assessment, with projects now part of the examination process.

But it is a bit worrying that changes that have been made specifically to encourage Leaving Cert students to become more independent learners don't seem to have worked.

A problem might be that the school day is overloaded by ''great'' new ideas and by an expectation that school is the place for all childhood formation.

If we have any ideas about anything, they're thrown in to the school curriculum, squeezing out time for other stuff.

We worry about mental health; let's put in some mindfulness classes. Kids are getting fat; increase the amount of PE they do.

But the school day isn't long enough for everything, and should only supplement parenting, not become a substitute for it. Habits are formed outside the school's gate.

We, as parents, bear responsibility for what our kids are doing most of the time, their sporting activities, their time online, their time with friends, their time relaxing and what they eat.

The Leaving Cert might not be the problem after all. It could be lazy parenting.

Still, I'm pretty sure my students could be better prepared to write grammatical sentences. Kids these days!

Dr Eoin O'Malley is Director of MSc in Public Policy School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

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