Wednesday 16 January 2019

An updated economics syllabus after 44 years would be an asset

Last week in this paper, Katherine Donnelly reported UCD's Dr Kevin Denny's discovery of errors in the Leaving Certificate economics exam. Dr Denny's analysis found issues with 14 of the 17 questions on the 2012 higher paper, and ignited a controversy over the Leaving Certificate economics paper which brought to light some rather disturbing aspects of the curriculum as it is currently taught. Beyond simple '2+2=5' type errors, it was clear from Dr Denny's analysis the syllabus was totally out of date.

Importantly, subsequent reporting by Donnelly revealed other academics had raised similar questions with the body responsible for setting the exams in the past, but they were ignored. The state exam commission seems determined to ignore Dr Denny as well, saying last week his findings do not merit a review of any kind.

So: we have an outsider with no axe to grind raising an important issue and being ignored by those inside the structure. Readers: Does that remind you of anyone or anything in our recent history?

Dr Denny has many criticisms of the paper's structure and content. I'd like to focus on two and suggest a positive and constructive way forward.

The first relates to errors. There has to be a more robust error checking process before the marking scheme is made public, because next year's teachers, students and textbook writers will all focus on this crucial document.

Second: the syllabus needs to be updated. People remember 1969 for the Moon landing, for the Beatles taking their iconic 'zebra crossing' photo across Abbey Road; for the ascension of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to power; and for the riots in Northern Ireland. That year is also the last time the economics syllabus was updated for the Irish Leaving Certificate. Forty-four years. Quite a lot has happened to the Irish economy, and to economics as a subject, since then.

I think every reader will agree 44 years is a bit too long for a syllabus to remain unchanged. Best practice would see a root and branch review every five to seven years or so.

A redesign was attempted in 2005 by the national council for curriculum and assessment, but that syllabus remains on the shelf. Crucially, this syllabus is now also out of date, but could be updated quite easily.

About 4,000 students a year take Leaving Certificate economics. The students are taught by hard-working teachers who are struggling to teach an outdated syllabus to mixed ability classes. Dr Denny's analysis must have come as quite a blow to economics teachers. The best teachers will be demoralised by these findings, and perhaps annoyed by a perception third-level lecturers can simply point out flaws in a process teachers don't control but are affected by, and walk away.

Economics teachers will rightly point out everyone is constrained by the syllabus. The examiners cannot examine beyond it. The teachers have to teach it. The textbooks must be written with reference to it. So the solution is to update the syllabus.

Third-level lecturers like to believe everyone loves their subject like they do. This isn't the case of course, but we in third level literally profess to know something about the latest in economic thinking. Second-level teachers understand the 'on-the-ground' issues and more than likely have been innovating around the syllabus as best they can for decades now. The potential exists for a new model of second-level and third-level interaction.

The solution seems, at least to me, that we create a third-level/second-level forum through the Business Studies Teachers' Association of Ireland to update the 2005 syllabus and roll it out with in-service training for second-level teachers in third-level institutions next year. This is something I'd like to be involved in.

A move away from learning off diagrams and lists towards critical thinking about when markets work, when they don't, how bubbles form, and the effects of their bursting on society, the roles of history, psychology, and politics as determining factors on economic outcomes – these are important elements of any economics curriculum for 2014 and onwards. A new syllabus is possible in a short space of time if enough academics and second-level teachers work on it.

In other countries such as the UK and Australia, their 'Leaving Certificate' economics exams are set by third-level academics but checked by second-level teachers relative to an agreed set of desired learning outcomes. Academics have their reputations on the line, and so will be highly incentivised not to make '2+2=5' type mistakes which will be caught by second-level checkers. The syllabi are updated in five-year tranches.

A proper dialogue between second level and third level is what's needed here. Both sides have a valuable contribution to make in service of thousands of students of economics.

Or we could wait another 44 years.

Stephen Kinsella, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Limerick.

Irish Independent

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