independent

Sunday 17 February 2019

Do we concentrate too much on academic learning models?

The wait is over and the class of 2014 heads out into the world. Good luck and God bless all 56,990 of them. The results were published the day after the world learned of the death of Robin Williams.

I always associate Williams with the film Dead Poets' Society. It was brilliant and inspirational. To be able to inspire young people as his character John Keating did in that film surely is the magic that can make teaching so special.

Keating's teaching was considered 'unorthodox' in the conservative and posh school in Vermont. But he managed to get the students to think for themselves and inspired in them a genuine interest in learning and discovery.

I still find myself looking through the jobs' pages in the newspapers, checking if there is any school looking for a German/English teacher. And then it dawns on me that it makes no sense. I was 65 in April and my teaching days in the classroom are over, over forever. And that's a horrible thought.

I've done different things. Started off in teaching, indeed, probably spent most of my working years as a teacher but I also worked as a journalist and am still in gainful employment, working in a press office. On top of that I happen to be a Dominican priest. Maybe there is a closeness between teaching and journalism but the interaction between students and teacher makes teaching a special trade.

It's three years since I was last in a classroom and the Class of 2014 includes a small group of girls and boys to whom I taught English in first year in a school in West Kerry. They are now, along with their peers, about to embrace a new world of adventure. Teaching can never be taken as a chore.

Of course, like every job, humdrum daily routine sets in. We all have the potential to get lazy and sloppy. But the job of the teacher is always to inspire, to push the students so that they will get interested and excited about the subject they are learning. Always asking questions, wanting to find out more.

The good teacher is always someone who in the end finds themselves redundant - their students don't need them any longer. They might even know more than their teacher. Of course programmes have to be adhered to, courses have to be followed and taught.

Discipline, in all its forms and shapes, is an essential and intrinsic part of teaching. But is there enough excitement and sheer adventure surrounding teaching so that students can be fired and enthused to love the subject or topic they are learning?

It's more than likely the gifted student, the student who comes from a background where learning is appreciated, will always do fine. But what are we doing for all those who drop out of school, what are we doing for those who hate every minute of the school day? And there are too many who fall short, are unhappy in school and consider the experience a drudge from morning until the last class. Are we concentrating too much on an academic model to the detriment of other forms of learning? Probably. No society can ever afford to turn a blind eye on those who slip through the system.

According to an OECD survey carried out in October 2013 one in six Irish adults have literacy difficulties and one in four have problems with numeracy. Is that not the particular charism of the teacher, to make sure that that student, who thinks it's all a bore, is won over and realises that learning is an exciting adventure?

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