Time to abandon Irish and religious education

Today’s Irish Times editorial reflects on the serious decline in standards in the Irish education system. Irish pupils reading, maths and science scores have dropped sharply in the last 10 years to the point where they are at or below average. A not-so-subtle undertone is that our levels before 2000 were artificially higher than other OECD countries because of an essentially mono-cultural classroom.

In the last few years, several sacred cows of Irish society have been challenged – everything from the excessive expenditure at FAS right down to giving cars to former Taoisigh and civil servants half an hour to cash an electronic cheque. This is all done, in the great phrase of the 1980’s, in the national interest, which allows change to be pushed through for the greater good. In the week of teacher conferences, I would argue that something to seize upon in the current reconfiguring of our society is to abandon the concept of teaching Irish and religion in our education system.

The teaching of Irish and religion is an enormously expensive exercise, in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of time. Earlier this year, The Irish Times reported that trainee teachers spend four times as long on religion as science and that 30% of teaching is on Irish and religion.When the Board of National Education was set up in 1831, one of its core values was to separate the teaching of secular and religious education. It is a testament to the power of the churches that this changed over time, and religion became a core part of the syllabus, in church-run schools.

It’s time to change. Irish should be considered in the same context as old-English, a subject left to third-level, where it would be a niche, but enthusiastically studied discipline. Religion should be left for the religious to teach, outside the school walls, and outside school time. The huge amount of teaching time and money left in their wake could be devoted to science, politics, Irish culture, computing, ethics, civics…

Cad é an mhaith dom eagla a bheith orm? Ní shaorfadh eagla duine ón mbás, dar ndóigh.

Peig Sayers

The thorny issue of HE teaching qualifications

The Hunt Report contains the following statement:

It is not sufficient for academics to be experts in their disciplinary area; they also need to know how best to teach that discipline. They need to have an understanding of learning theories, and to know how to apply these theories to their practice. They need to appreciate what teaching and learning approaches work best for different students in different situations and learning environments…

Teachers at other levels of the education system, from primary to further education, are required to have a professional qualification. Professions such as medicine, dentistry, law and engineering have rigorous entry standards and a requirement for continuing professional development. Internationally, there is increased recognition of the need for higher education to meet similar standards… They provide that all institutions ‘satisfy themselves that staff involved with the teaching of students are qualified and competent to do so’… Institutions should provide poor teachers with opportunities to improve their skills to an acceptable level and should have the means to remove them from their teaching duties if they continue to be demonstrably ineffective. [National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, 59 – 60]

There is no messing around here – little room for different perspectives. Hunt gives a kick in the teeth when he mentions the other professions (I read that as asking “well are you professional like a doctor or not?”) and then there’s a nice punch in the stomach with the last sentence, which is just populist. However, when I first read this section of the report, I was pleased with the general thrust as I am, and continue to be, a proponent of a professional qualification for lecturing. However, I’m not sure if it is as black and white as this in the real world.

Who is disagreeing?

There’s a lovely paper written in 1929 on predicting the scores of chemistry students, considering various background factors. The authors concluded that it was “possible to predict the performance of the best and of the poorest students”, and to be honest, there is not much in the literature to suggest that this has changed since.

When professors of medicine dismiss problem-based learning or professors of law pour cold water on innovative methods for teaching large classes, I can understand their viewpoint. If students are going to college with high points (I am suggesting 475+), they could teach in Latin and their students would still do well, as they will probably conscientiously translate and learn it all anyway. When lecturers say with a grimace, that it wasn’t like that in their day, they are quite right. Because in their day, a much smaller proportion of the population went to college, so teaching quality wasn’t as much of an issue (although Engleby is a good read to continue that debate). Furthermore, academic staff, by their nature, were probably among the best students in their own student days, so will have a different perspective to the many of the larger student body in today’s system. Therefore there is a need to address these concerns among staff and in so doing, explain that innovative teaching methods does not mean dumbing down or spoon-feeding.

Compulsory training?

Looking at Hunt’s recommendations, one could argue that at the very least, new staff in HE would undergo a formal programme in teaching and learning, with a scheme expanding to incorporate retrofit training to existing staff. There is an appeal to this – it keeps the administrators happy, so that box can be ticked. By hook or crook, a large proportion of academic staff would be engaged in the discourse of academic teaching and learning (we’d move beyond discussing whether PowerPoint or not should be used), and discussions about curriculum design would begin to incorporate models of good practice. The model every academic applies to research – what is the best way to do something and how can I use/improve on it – could become a mechanism for consideration of teaching practice. It sounds perfect, but I wonder about the effects of shoving large numbers of disgruntled academic staff into courses which by their nature involve discussion and collaboration – things may not go to plan. Also, making things compulsory tends to start things off on the wrong foot – there would be undertones that people would be attending courses with the assumption that they “can’t teach” and once they’ve done the course, they “can teach”.

Middle ground?

I’ve sometimes been in the uncomfortable position where academics fully versed in the language of teaching and learning have stated to those who have not done formal courses that doing such a course is a pre-requisite to involvement in programme design, or indeed any aspect of teaching and learning. I don’t think this is the case. I am a proponent of academic staff completing these courses, albeit voluntarily, because I believe it will improve the general level of discourse about teaching and learning in the HE sector. This is not to say that someone who has not done a formal course cannot be knowledgeable on the topic, and there are several cases of award winning innovative teachers in all institutions and nationally who have no formal training in education. Instead, they went to the bother of finding a model of good practice, implementing it in their own teaching and evaluated that implementation. Organisations like NAIRTL have justifiably rewarded lecturers for approaching teaching in this manner. Therefore I would propose that the outcome required of getting academics to complete a teaching and learning programme is that they think more about their teaching methods and consider models of good practice. It may be possible to offer alternative pathways to achieve this outcome. Formal courses are one mechanism, but staff who have worked off their own steam in trying out a teaching innovation should have available to them some form of acknowledgement too. This changes the emphasis on the “requirement” – it shifts from requiring people to complete a course to requiring people to show how they have considered their teaching practice in light of best practice and made changes (or not) based on that practice. I think this practice-based emphasis will be more palatable, and will hopefully prompt more informal, informed discipline based discussions on teaching and learning methods in the staff coffee rooms.

The winners, ultimately will be students (will someone please think of the children?!). The high achievers comfortable in processing large amounts of material and deducing complex problems on their own might get exposed to group work or situations outside the familiar territory of hard individual private work and have a learning experience there, valuable to their post graduation employment. People who underperformed at Leaving Certificate may find some novel approaches to teaching and incorporated supports mean they can achieve more than they might from a traditional lecture. And the middle group – the large proportion of students in Irish higher education, could break away from the chains of past performance identified by Smith in 1929 and really excel in an innovative teaching and learning environment.

Faulks, S. (2007) Engleby, Hutchinson.

Smith, O. M., & Trimble, H. M. (1929). The prediction of future performance of students from the past records. Journal of Chemical Education, 6(1), 93 – 97.

Academic Workload

Continuing his Marshall Attack, Prof Higginbotham moved his bishop to b3. He pushed himself up from the large couch and stretched in front of the fire. Time for a lecture. Grabbing some notes from a small table beside the sherry, he went to the window of his ivory tower. A few students were already waiting below, he could see a few more scuttling across the quad. Late, as usual. He opened the window and cast the papers containing the day’s knowledge down to his charges, who eagerly caught them, some chasing the papers in the light breeze. Closing the window, he returned, leaving one sheet he held onto on the small table by the sherry, where Marjorie, the departmental secretary would collect it and photocopy it for next year. He refilled his sherry glass, and moved to resume the game. What a busy day! It would be time for lunch soon.

Academic workload is a contentious topic at the moment, after the recent Public Accounts Committee grilling of the University Presidents, and their FAS moment. At one stage of this committee hearing, Roisin Shorthall TD requested to know how many hours an academic worked. I think the question of number of hours is over-simplified. I can understand the need for accountability, but higher education is a very complex system, and a counting of hours does not reflect anything except the making of an easy bar chart. Face-time with students is one component, (and unfortunately an ever-dwindling component) of what an academic actually does. The question should not be on the number of hours spent by an academic on a job – there are lots of studies to show it far exceeds a typical working week – but rather the quality of that time. There are two factors to consider here – amount of time spent by academics on administration and the fallacy of requiring accountability.

Ned Costello (of the IUA) recently commented at a PAC that a typical (university) lecturer spent roughly 40:40:20 on teaching:research:administration. Now it’s impossible to come up with a generic ratio like this, and even though Ned said something not very nice about us in the Institutes, I can imagine he was pressed for a number. 40-40-20 is always a good one, having a nice 4-4-2 ring to it that appeals to former sports-people turned commentators.  The HE sector has a top-heavy administration sector, meaning there are more administrators than lecturers (imagine that happening in health – we’d go mad…) So as well as having half the staff on non-teaching duties, teaching staff are required to spend their time on administration duties. The problem for practitioners on the ground is that this 20% is constantly pushing and bloating, reducing the time that can be spent on jobs that academics should be doing – teaching (which involves formal lecturing, lab/workshop teaching and informal aspects not recorded but  of equal or more value – talking with students, continuous assessment, feedback) and engaged in research/consultancy/etc.

This is especially so in the area of research. Most academics can talk of research grant applications that require descriptions written at length telling the funding agency what results will be obtained, having to keep research student log books to prove you met students while completing the research and complicated research account statements to prove you spent the money wisely. Then there are the several forms and requirements for getting a student to a viva voce. The system is self-fuelling, administrators want their stamp on everything, so there are more forms to fill out, more time on administration and ultimately more administrators to keep track of the forms. On paper it makes sense – there is a nice paper trail and at the end of it all, it is “accountable”. But at what expense? Wouldn’t these hours be better spent on research itself, rather than accounting for it? Taking autonomy away from people and institutions means that they will spend more time proving that they are doing the job they are meant to be doing rather than doing the job itself!

The process of requiring individuals to be accountable will ultimately result in them doing less work

This is the fallacy of requiring accountability in a type of employment which does not easily facilitate bean-counting. And while all that discussed above is annoying, it is small fry to what is coming our way. HE will be run on a business model where the expense per lecturer will be offset against the income – ultimately a cost-benefit analysis. There is an excellent article on this model in the Wall St Journal. While individual differences between income and expense may be explained locally (Lecturer X does a lot of in-class tutorials with small groups, hence the high “expense”), these numbers will ultimately compiled by school, college and institution, where these local explanations are lost. The easiest way for institutions to be in the black will be to have very large classes and summative assessment, which goes against pretty much every good teaching practice concept developed in the last thirty years. In practice, this will push more academics to formally record what they have being doing outside Roisin Shorthall’s supposed 15 hour workload – meeting students, correcting continuous assessment, discussing feedback, mentoring projects, preparing induction, professional development and so on [and on]. Institutions will eventually have to reject the recording of this time, as it will very quickly exceed 40 hours, so these activities will dwindle. In other words, the process of requiring individuals to be accountable will ultimately result in them doing less work. But at least we’ll know then how much work they do…

This simple solution is to ease off on over-monitoring. The system has internal, often informal checks. Students are quick (and right) to complain about lecturers who they feel are not delivering the goods. It’s impossible to conduct research effectively without publishing or presenting work to peers in your discipline, who will be far more critical than any of my very nice administration colleagues could be. In short, all this time spent saying how busy we are could be much better utilised. The increase in fees in the UK and the re-implementation of fees in Ireland will be the oxygen to the spark that is igniting around flexible models of education provision, where private companies are already way ahead of the starting line, ready to run. George Siemens recently wrote that “higher education is not in control of its fate as it has failed to develop the capacity to be self-reliant in times of change“. Instead of bean-counting the past, institutions should be pushing forward alternative means of provision so that they have the money to survive the future.

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