On learning “gains”

I have heard the term learning gain on and off but considered that it was just an awkward phrase to describe learning, a pleonasm that indicated some generally positive direction for those needing reassurance. And I am sure I have read about the concept of learning gain in the past but never took too much notice, likely too busy checking Twitter to focus on the subject at hand. But it was through Twitter this week that I was released from my gains-free bubble, and enough neurons aligned for me to grasp that learning gains is actually A Thing.

And what a horrendous Thing it is. HEFCE have a website dedicated to it and define it as “an attempt to measure the improvement in knowledge, skills, work-readiness and personal development made by students during their time spent in higher education”. If that isn’t clear, then how about this: a 125 page document published by RAND for HEFCE define learning gain (LG) as

LG = B – A’

They put it like this too – an equation on a separate line so that the scientists can nod along but the humanities people can just skip to the next piece of text. Good scientists should note that the variables should be italicised. Neither route offers any solace. This seemingly placid text masks one of the most remarkably awful ideas – gosh darn it THE most remarkable fuckwittery – I have come across in a long time.

Devoid of being able to monitor very much about teaching and learning in higher education, some genius has dreamt up this clanger. Rather than wondering why it is difficult (impossible) to achieve this task, the approach instead is to quantify with a number how much individual students have learned each year. A student will be measured at the start of the year, and again at the end of the year, and the difference is… well it’s obvious from the formula – there’ll be gainz. Each student’s own gain will be individual, so these poor lab rats exposed to this drudge are going to have to sit in an interview in a few years’ time and explain to someone what this garbage is about. Not only that, but this insidious beast is going to creep into every aspect of students’ learning. Degree transcripts will list a learning gain of 3.4 in career awareness and 2.9 in self-sufficiency. You were on a student society? Add 0.5 to your learning gain. Is this who we are now? How many centuries have universities existed, and now, at our supposed pinnacle, we have been reduced to this tripe. Don’t trust experts, Michael Gove said. Lots of very clever people are involved in this, and while I hope their intentions are good, I don’t trust the motives behind it. Writing an introduction to a special issue of HERD on measurement in universities, the editors cited Blaise:

A measurement culture takes root as if it is education because we are no longer sufficiently engaged with what a good education is. (HT)

HEFCE have funded several universities to wheel out creaking wooden horses, under the guise of pilot studies. It’s a cruel move, throwing some breadcrumbs at an education sector starved of research money to do anything. A horrible irony, it is, that in the name of ensuring value for money for taxpayers, that money is being spent on this. Don’t those involved see the next act in this tragedy? Institutional comparisons of average learning gains, far removed from the individual it was supposed to be personalised to, are easily computed. And numbers, whether they have meaning or not, are very powerful.

So when your student is sitting with you at the end of the year, and you have to measure their career awareness improvement, and your institution is under pressure as its gains are not as good as their protein-fuelled competitor, most likely a private operator in the dystopian near future the Tories are setting up, you might think again about their ability to discuss career pathways. Worse still is the difficulty in measuring a subject gain, or the even greater idiocy of using a proxy to measure something that can’t be meaningfully expressed as a number in the first place.

Another problem with measuring anything half as complicated as this, as a century of predictive studies has found, is that it is very easy to measure the large changes and the little changes, but the mass of students in the middle is mostly a muddle. And with LG = B – A’, there will be lots of muddle in the middle. What about the very bright student who actually knew most of the content at the start of the year because of prior schooling, but was shy and wanted to settle in for the first year of university. What about the one who enjoys just getting by and will focus in Year 3, but in the meantime has to be subject to self-efficacy tests to demonstrate improvement. What about the geniuses? What about first time in families? What about the notion that university is more than a number and the very darn fact that these are not things that we should try to measure.

I want my students to graduate mature and happy and adult and functioning members of society. If they learn some thermodynamics along the way, then that’s great. I can measure one of these things. It will be a sorry state of affairs if we have to measure others, and our future graduates, burdened with this heap of gunge won’t thank us for it.

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Practical measures for practical work

There is something about reading old educational literature that is simultaneously reaffirming and depressing. Reading a point of view from over three decades ago that confirms your current thinking belies the notion that you are jumping on “the latest fad”, while the fact that it is still an issue for discussion three decades later makes you wonder about the glacial rate of change in educational approaches.

Education in Chemistry published a series of articles on practical work by Alex Johnstone. This article from 1982 sets the scene:

It is not uncommon in undergraduate laboratories to see students working as fast as possible just to get finished, with little or no thought about what they are doing.

Students, he argues, see practical work as “an intellectual non-event”. Johnstone used this article to elaborate on his hypothesis that practical classes presented a significant challenge to students, because the idea being taught is simultaneously needed at the start of the practical to organise the information presented in the class. In the lab, they need to recall the theory of the lab, remember how to use apparatus or read new written instructions about apparatus, develop new lab skills, listen to verbal instructions, and process whatever experimental data the experiment produces. It is difficult to discern which of this information is immediately important, and which is incidental.

Information overload in a lab environment (from Education in Chemistry, 1982)
Information overload in a lab environment (from Education in Chemistry, 1982)

The result is that students will follow the laboratory procedure like a recipe, without any intellectual engagement. Or they might take unnecessary care so that they won’t regret any experimental actions later – for example using an analytical balance when only a rough estimate was needed. Or they might go all British Bake Off Technical Challenge and just look around and copy others, without knowing why they are doing what they are mimicking.

Johnstone makes an interesting point which I don’t think I have seen elsewhere. When we lecture, we start off from a single point, elaborating with examples and developing connections. However, in practical work, students are exposed to all information at once, and must navigate their own way through to find the main point, often obscured. He used the idea of a pyramid and inverted pyramid to model these approaches.

Different approaches in class work and practical work (Johnstone and Wham, from Education in Chemistry, 1982)
Different approaches in class work and practical work (Johnstone and Wham, from Education in Chemistry, 1982)

Teaching strategy

How then can this information overload be alleviated? Johnstone provides some examples, including

  • making the point of the experiment clear;
  • a consideration of the arrangement of instruction manual so that it is clear what information is preliminary, peripheral, and/or preparatory.
  • ensuring the experiment has not acquired confusing or irrelevant aspects – this resonated with me from experience: some experiments involve students making a series of dilutions and then performing experiments with this series. Students spend so much time considering the process of dilution (preparatory), this becomes the main focus, rather than the main purpose of the experiment. This involves thinking about the goals of the experiment. If it is required that students should know how to prepare a dilution series (of course it is), then that should have primary prominence elsewhere.
  • ensuring necessary skills are required before exposure to investigative experiments.

A new manual

in 1990, Michael Byrne from what was then Newcastle Polytechnic decided to put Johnstone’s ideas into practice and reported on a new first year manual with the following design considerations:

  1. Experiments included a brief introduction with key information needed to understand instruments and the principle behind the experiment.
  2. Objectives were explicitly stated, indicating exactly what the student should be able to do as a result of carrying out the experiment.
  3. The language of procedures was simplified and laid out in sequence of what he student was meant to do.
  4. Information was provided on how to present results and what the discussion should cover. Students were prompted as to how they should query their results.

These ideas aren’t exactly what we would consider radical now, but students were tested after five weeks and those using the revised manual scored significantly higher in tests about techniques and results of experiments than those who had the old manuals.

Tenacious J

In 1990s, Johnstone continued his attempts to effect change in our approach to practical teaching. In 1990, he discussed the use of student diaries to record views on their lab experiences during their second year at university. The diary consisted of short response questions that the student completed after each practical. The responses were analysed iteratively, so that the experiments could be grouped into layers of criticism. Unsurprisingly, physical chemistry experiments came out as the most unpopular. My poor subject.

Why were they unpopular? Johnstone analysed the “load” of each experiment  – the amount of information they had to process, recall, digest and interrelate in the three hour period. I’ve reproduced his table below:

Load caused by experiments, Johnstone and Letton, Education in Chemistry 1990
Load caused by experiments, Johnstone and Letton, Education in Chemistry 1990

The total load of physical chemistry experiments is much greater than the inorganic or organic labs, primarily due to theoretical aspects. Furthermore, those physical lab experiments which were subject to most criticism had a theory load of 40, compared to the average physical lab theory load of 33. The result of this was evident in the student diaries: comments such as “not learned anything” and “no satisfaction” indicates that the students had not engaged with the experiment in any way.

Practical measures for practical work

In 1991, in the final of my trio of his articles here, Johnstone reported how he addressed the issues arising from the study of load in the manuals. Five strategies were considered:

  1. Noise reduction in the lab (noise meaning extraneous information): clearly labelled solutions, provided without need for further dilution unless required as part of experiment, highlighting where a particular procedure may differ from what students have previously experienced.
  2. Noise reduction in the manual: clearer layout of manual, with consistent icons, diagrams of types of balance beside instructions, etc. (this is 1991, people…)
  3. Allowing for practice: design of the overall practical course so that required skills are progressively developed.
  4. Time for thought: requiring students to prepare some of the procedure in advance of the lab as part of their pre-practical work – e.g. amounts to be measured out, etc.
  5. Time to piece it together: arranging the lab programme so that skills are developed in one week, used in a second week, and applied in a third week in a more open-ended lab that took about half an hour of lab time.

Johnstone’s trio of papers shown here show an impressive sequence of developing a theory as to why something has gone wrong, testing that theory with some analysis, and grounding an educational approach based on these findings. It’s one of the reasons I admire his work so much.


Michael S. Byrne, More effective practical work, Education in Chemistry, 1990, 27, 12-13.

A. H. Johnstone, A. J. B. Wham, The demands of practical work, Education in Chemistry, 1982, 19, 71-73

A. H. Johnstone, K. M. Letton, Investigating undergraduate laboratory work, Education in Chemistry, 1990, 27, 9-11.

A. H. Johnstone, K. M. Letton, Practical measures for practical work, Education in Chemistry, 1991, 28, 81-83

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Rethinking my views on LGBT in STEM

I’ve never been sure where I stand with the association of sexuality and professional status. I’ve always leaned towards the side of considering it a private matter, not something to be either concealed or promoted. It is a personal identifier, not a professional one. Yet I’ve agreed with the notion that, as one clever person put it to me recently, if it helps someone, then it is a good thing. Maybe I’ve just been reluctant to be the one helping.

Recently there was an LGBT-focussed seminar day, where scientists and engineers came together to present their work and discuss issues around being LGBT in STEM. While I didn’t attend, I did follow the tweets and it has prompted some thought and several incidental conversations since. I wondered why all of these extremely clever people thought this to be an issue of great importance, while I was sitting on the fence.

I came out in the last year of my PhD; the imminent void facing me probably prompted a desire to remove at least one future concern. My main memory from that time is the terrible sadness I felt when a very lovely colleague asked me why I hadn’t said so before. They were bringing another colleague to a gay club every Sunday and I could have joined them. The utter futility of all those years of secrecy seemed such a waste.

So when I started my post-doc, I was an out person. On my first day, there was a query about a partner and who she was, and I mentioned a he, and all was well. I’m not sure whether it is on purpose, but ever since I’ve opted to tell the most trusted gossip I can find early on, and any awkward pronoun conversations are avoided evermore. I even managed (accidentally) to get it into my interview presentation at Edinburgh.

So why don’t I see it as an issue? It’s probably because it’s never been an issue for me. My memory of not being out has faded as it is half a lifetime ago. My experience has only been in academia, which has always been an actively supportive environment. That’s my frame of reference.

There can be no doubt that there are issues around supporting LGBT people in a university environment. It’s well documented that at school level, there is significant stress and trauma and associated mental health problems regarding LGBT pupils. And there are workplace studies that discuss the reticence of employees and the associated discomfort of coming out in an unsupportive environment. So while there is not much research for UK (although see here for a good article) it would be folly to think that in between these two phases of life, that there are not issues for our students at university which are worrying.

And it is sad to think that at a time when they should be most free to express and explore, and focussing on my thermodynamics notes, some of my students are instead worrying about how to distract their peers from conversations about what happened at the weekend.

So back to that fence: is it my role to advocate? What does that even mean? I am uncomfortable about the term ‘role model’. Conversations in the last while have certainly changed my thinking, in that I am now leaning towards the feeling that doing something is a good idea, but now I’m not quite sure what that something should be.

Some useful links from the LGBT STEMinar:
Dave Smith’s keynote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8p937rh2xBY
Elena Rdz-Falcon’s keynote: https://youtu.be/Sws5EHtY6eU
Good blog post on this seminar: https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2016/01/16/why-the-lgbtsteminar-succeeded-was-needed/ 
Tweets from the day are under the hashtag #LGBTSteminar

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ChemEd Ireland, DIT Kevin St on Sat Oct 11th

ChemEd Ireland is being held at Dublin Institute of Technology Kevin St on Saturday October 11th, 2014. 

The 33rd Chem-Ed Ireland Conference returns to Dublin on Saturday October 11th from 9.30 am to 4pm at Dublin Institute of Technology Kevin St. Campus (5 minutes walk from St. Stephen’s Green). This annual event provides an opportunity to share resources and ideas relevant to teaching chemistry and science in Ireland. It features both presentations and workshops on topics that include; the new Junior Cycle Science specification, effective hands-on laboratory demonstrations, new chemistry teaching resources, applications of chemistry research and applying technology to enhance teaching and learning.

Contributors include:

  • Dr Kristy Turner, Royal Society of Chemistry School Teacher Fellow and Teacher Trainer
  • Miriam Hamilton, Junior Cycle for Teachers Science Team Leader
  • Marie Walsh, Limerick IT, coordinator of Chemistry is All Around Us project
  • Dr Maria Sheehan, Science Advisor with the Professional Development Service for Teachers
  • Angela McKeown, Royal Society of Chemistry Programme Manager for Ireland

The conference fee includes a hot lunch, tea and coffee and the conference programme


Please register at the Eventbrite website at this link: http://www.eventbrite.ie/e/chemed-ireland-2014-tickets-12938390073

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So-called “Radical” education reforms

In the week of the teacher conferences, Minister Quinn’s special adviser has earned the large pay packet this morning. The Irish Times, Independent and Examiner all carry details of the changes planned for the Leaving Cert grading system. “Leaving Cert grades face radical change under plan” writes Joe Humphreys in the Irish Times. “ABC system will be dropped in sweeping education changes” says Katherine Donnelly in the Independent.

grading scaleThe reform announced will see the number of grades drop from 14 to 8, with bands every 10% rather than the current 5%. While this is welcome, the education correspondents seem to suggest that this will somehow “nurture a spirit of enquiry” (Donnelly) or allow schools “reclaim their purpose as educational institutions” (Humphreys). (Unfortunately neither of these goals were achieved in the short time after the Irish Times proclaimed the points race to be “over” a few years ago.)

While proclaiming the wonder of this radical new plan sweeping through education, our education correspondents seem to miss out on some details. Points awarded at higher and ordinary levels are not proposed. The balance between ordinary and higher has often been the subject of debate and in the case of maths, has led to the introduction of bonus points, to stem the flow of students aiming for 60 points at ordinary rather than risking it all in the higher stakes maximum of 100. What is proposed for the new system?

Our reporters happily lay the blame of the current system firmly at the door of the third level sector, arguing that the colleges asked for the current system to increase the granularity of the points awarded and hence reduce the number of places awarded by random selection. That was in 1992. There are a lot more courses on the CAO now, so with decreased granularity, there will be a lot more allocation by random selection. Did the reporters query to what extent the expert group believe this will be the case?

The reports mention in the same breath that the grading bands are being reduced to avoid teaching to the test, but that a separate study has found that predictability is not an issue. There is a conflict here that should be investigated.


The real issue is number of places allocated per course. To make courses popular, colleges subdivide main entry courses (e.g. Engineering, Science) into different categories and allocate small numbers of places per course. Therefore these courses, which are predominantly co-taught with other courses, will have high points on entry, and become more popular, attracting more students and requiring higher points. It’s a self-propagating system. Humphreys writes:

Instead of asking school leavers to chose between, for example, “physics with astronomy”, “applied physics”, “physics with biomedical sciences” and “analytical science” – to take four courses off the DCU prospectus – there will be a greater focus on putting applicants through “common entry” science, allowing them to specialise later. In fact, DCU already offers such a course.

The real question is if DCU already offer such a course, why then do they (and all colleges) continue to offer the specific courses? Humphreys does report that the college “are intensively reviewing their programme portfolios to reduce the complexity of choice and to ensure broader entry programmes into higher education,” quoting directly from the report linked to the Minister’s press release, but doesn’t make the point, which Niall Murray of the Examiner does, that this was first proposed in 2011. Why is there a delay?

A commitment to review the courses by the institutions themselves is a bit like a commitment to ensure responsible drinking by the alcohol industry. No-one wants to make the first move. Perhaps the HEA telling colleges that they have a limit on the number of courses they will fund through direct entry might initiate some progress. Colleges can have as much choice as they like in second and subsequent years (you know, the way it used to be), but all entry must be through a single point. Now that would be a radical, sweeping change.

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Education in Wicklow: My New Book

Education in Wicklow From Parish Schools to National Schools Michael Seery ISBN 978-0-9928233-0-6My new book on a history of education in County Wicklow is published this week. It’s a great present for your history loving friends, múinteoirs of all ages, and the person who has everything.

The book blurb is below, and you can see the Table of Contents and the Index, and order the book at this website.

Education in Wicklow: From Parish Schools to National Schools

ISBN: 978-0-9928233-0-6

In 1825, every school in the country was documented by a Parliamentary Inquiry. This showed that while the hedge school was still the main provider of education, there were a significant number of purpose-built schools in County Wicklow.

This book investigates the origins of these purpose-built schools. While some came from the eighteenth century, most were built in the decade prior to 1825. They were built as a result of local efforts involving landlords, clergymen, and parents, as well as support from the Kildare Place Society and others. Many of these schools became connected with the National School system when it was established in 1831.

Using original research from archives, society records and the reports of the Wicklow Education Society, the development of early purpose-built schools in Wicklow is described for the first time.

Michael Seery is a local historian. Education in Wicklow is his third book.

Creathach Press

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Under the shadow of Section 37

The saddest thing about watching the David Norris interview released by RTÉ Archives this week is that while it was broadcast before I was born, it took until I became an adult for what he was campaigning for to become a reality. The simple acknowledgement that two people may love and live with each other, regardless of gender was a criminal act until 1993. I look to those generations before me and wonder how and why they were so complicit. Why did no-one say stop?

Of course even Norris acknowedged in that interview that the actual punishments for homosexual activity were rarely handed out. The paternalistic State didn’t mind if you were gay and broke the law; once you did so quietly. Stay in the shadows. Don’t ask, and don’t tell. Be grateful that you are not being locked up in asylums with several thousand volts to hand.

A similar logic is used by those who argue that Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act should remain a law of this State. Section 37 is particularly insidious, as it expresses the act of discrimination in the form of religious freedom. Consider the following extract:

A religious, educational or medical institution which is under the direction or control of a body established for religious purposes… shall not be taken to discriminate against a person… if it gives more favourable treatment, on the religion ground, to an employee or a prospective employee over that person where it is reasonable to do so in order to maintain the religious ethos of the institution… [Statute Book]

The fact that the legislature of our Republic includes the possibility for discrimination against any citizen on any grounds is a stain on our society. More than twenty years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the State still refuses to acknowledge the equality of all of its citizens. And this generation – our generation – is complicit in accepting it.

One might argue, much like the illegality of homosexuality in the 1980s, we don’t really mean it. The Iona Institute considers this to be the case:

Currently, religious organisations including schools do in fact employ many individuals who are gay or lesbian, divorced or remarried as well as those who are cohabiting. These organisations have little difficult accommodating such individuals because they respect the private lives of their employees and the employees respect the ethos of their employer.

The Iona Institute considers that keeping the offending clause in the Act is not discrimination:

Would this be discrimination? It would certainly not be unjust discrimination because employers are permitted to take into account characteristics of their employees or prospective employees that are relevant to their employment.

The key aspect here is relevance to employment. Quite how the private life of any teacher is relevant to their employment is unclear. The primary consideration in employing a teacher, one would assume, is their knowledge of their discipline as determined by academic qualifications and their ability to teach, as measured by previous references or scores from teacher training.

The repercussions are both local and societal. At a local level, schools are like microcosms with complex and intense relationships within class groups and between class groups and their teachers. Breda O’Brien became quite emotional during her interview with Hugh Linehan on the Irish Times podcast this week when she spoke of how her pupils had lost confidence in her. How must teachers feel when they come back every Monday after a weekend of being free and open with family and friends, and suddenly have to lock up those emotions for fear of threat to their employment and career. I have seen teachers writing about how they “change the gender” when they are talking about their partners in staff rooms. How can these teachers enjoy the confidence of their students when they can’t risk the confidence of their colleagues? This lack of acknowledgement of the very existence of gay people in the profession in turn means there is an absence of role models to demonstrate that homosexual people exist and can lead full or dull lives like any other person. I honestly can’t understand how a teacher like O’Brien cannot emphatise with these very real experiences some of her colleagues must endure.

On a societal level, we haven’t come much further from that Norris interview of 1975. The direct power of the Church over the state may be gone, but like a teenager moving away from strict parents, the state lacks the confidence to take control of its own destiny. It has never developed its own moral compass, and is forever looking back for its moral guidance. Therefore we are subjected to national “debates” where we decide where we want to go as a society. But as we look at the Archive video with embarrassment at the length of time needed to decriminalise homosexuality, how can we justify to ourselves that it is still okay to discriminate in any way against any of our citizens in this year, 2014. The oppressed are becoming the oppressors, O’Brien said this week. I disagree. The oppressed want to not be oppressed, and seek only equality.

Teachers may be interested in the INTO LGBT group, who are on Twitter: @INTOLGBT, and both the TUI and the ASTI have support groups. 

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Thank You, Iona Institute #TeamPanti

breda o'brienWhen Ireland first started to tackle the issue of immigration two decades ago, there were regular letters to the editor of the Irish Times from “The Immigration Control Platform”, which were an advocacy group against immigration. Their message was simple: you can be whatever race you want, just not in Ireland. It was never clear who or what ICP was beyond Áine Ni Chonaill, its public relations officer, and to be honest, you couldn’t help feel that it was a fairly small platform that probably fitted easily into a corner of Áine’s front room.

But she was from “somewhere”. Irish news media producers seem to be automatically programmed into needing to fill a byline when someone’s name appears on screen. Therefore advocacy groups like the ICP or Iona Institute are ideal, as the byline looks offical, and instead of “Michael Seery / Some random bloke off the street with an opinion”, it can look much more professional with “Michael Seery / Serious Issue Society”. Recently Vincent Browne, struggling to introduce “Random Bloke off the Street”, eventually spat out “Blogger” by way of explaining why he was on the television in our sitting rooms. The same person had become part of “Preserve Marriage” or some such by the time of his appearance on Prime Time a few days later. A label looks much more impressive.

This approach of caring that a contributing commentator is from somewhere more than where that somewhere is appears to be changing. The spotlight is suddenly very much on the Iona Institute itself, a small band of conservative intellectuals, who have for more than a decade had prime position in Irish media. One blogger has found company accounts from 2011, which document Iona’s income that year of over €220,000. Where this comes from, we don’t know, but a good guess is that a significant proportion comes from a wealthy American who wants to keep Ireland pure. Despite the intellectual capacity of its patrons, Iona produce rather poor quality material, which like any lobby group, cherry pick and “interpret” results and data to suit its own message. My favourite, from its many reports, was a report opposing co-habitation (of straight people). Many more cohabiting couples fail, the report proclaimed, than married couples. When the source was explored, it transpired that Iona were characterising “marriage” as one of the failure routes of a cohabiting couple. What a strange world.

Breda O’Brien, one of the Iona Institute’s patrons writes weekly in the Irish Times. On 13th November 2004 she rejected the concept of same-sex marriage:

But should we sanction an even more radical experiment [of same sex marriage], an experiment with children as the subject, by officially declaring gender to be irrelevant?

Almost ten years later, last Saturday, O’Brien complained that the debate was being stifled and those with a view similar to hers were being silenced. While she has held her platform for a decade, the way this debate is conducted has undoubtedly changed over those 10 years, likely to her frustration. Respondents to her views were restricted in 2004 to writing a letter to the editor. In 2014, opponents of O’Brien’s views can take to the stage, literally. Instead of the old media containing and directing the debate, they are now chasing the debate as it happens elsewhere. That this story has run now for almost three weeks demonstrates the length of time it has taken old media to catch up.

In all this negativity, some wonderful things have emerged. Ironically, a debate on the word “homophobia” has led to a much broader awareness of gay life in Irish society, and the ridiculousness of the concept of rejecting same sex marriage. Panti’s speech at The Abbey has given an insight into the slight remove gay people feel in society – a sense of checking to ensure conformity. Holding hands becomes a political message, Rory O’Neill explained to Miriam O’Callaghan, when all you wanted was a private moment. Gay politicians have given eloquent speeches in the Dáil. It’s not all suddenly wonderful in Oz, but we’ve covered a lot of yellow bricks in a month. I doubt any of this was in Iona’s mission for the year, and to be honest, I think the €45,000 isn’t a bad price. The €40,000 to John Waters? Less so; I want that back. I’d imagine most of the “plain people of Ireland”, to use the Iona’s legal representative’s term, want it back too.

O’Brien wrote in her 2004 article:

No one likes to think that they are bigoted or prejudiced, but that is no protection from being either.

Too right. The acknowledgement of the legacy of oppression of homosexuality in our society that has emerged over recent weeks, and how we all need to “check ourselves” in countering that legacy, will go a long way towards challenging remnants of bigotry and prejudice wherever it exists.

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Removing Religious Instruction from Schools

It wasn’t meant to be this way. When the National School system was formed in 1831, the rules stated that while the bible could be read in class, no comment was allowed in class time. Any comment from Protestant or Roman Catholic doctrine was to be conducted out of formal class time, in Sunday classes, or at Mass each Sunday. The system itself inherited the principles of the Kildare Place Society, formed in 1811, which advocated secular education, with comment on the bible the job of the clergyman, not the school master. Henry Grattan wrote in 1811:

I should recommend that in those Parish Schools the Christian religion should be taught; but that no particular description of it should form a part of their education.

This principle of keeping schools free of all interference with the particular religious tenets of any of the people in attendance was the basis of every major report on primary education from the formal easing of the Penal Laws in 1785 to the formation of the National System in 1831. The new system was not, as Breda O’Brien commented on RTÉ radio recently, to create “the perfect English child”. In fact, the Roman Catholic church embraced the new National School system, as the demise of the Kildare Place Society was a political victory for the Church. I have studied schools in Wicklow in detail during this period, and the facts counter O’Brien’s contention. Existing schools at the time could apply to come into connection with the board. The first schools in Wicklow to do so included one which was held in the nave of a Roman Catholic church in Englishtown, West Wicklow and Fr James Doyle’s enormous school at Avoca. The first school in Wicklow to receive money for a school building was St Kevin’s School at Glendalough. This was not a system the Roman Catholic church disliked.

Rule 68 of the National School System (Department of Education)

Despite these early desires to have children educated in “one undivided body, under one and the same system and in the same establishments“, the churches slowly but persistently moved education towards a denominational system. Early requirements for having support from both communities for establishing a National School were quietly dropped. The Church of Ireland, then the Established Church of state, was sore to have lost the battle on who controlled schools, and continued with the Kildare Place Society, which became the Church Education Society, until money dried up in the 1860s. By this time many of these schools had joined the National System as well. By 1900, the Catholic Bishops reported that the system was “as denominational almost as we could desire”. If things were this good for the Church under British rule, by the time of independence, they got better again. The Church gained ownership and control of most of the teacher training colleges and primary schools. The supreme importance of religious instruction in primary education was enshrined in the infamous Rule 68, still in existence [See image, from PDF].

Time for Change

The legacy of church involvement in primary education manifests itself in many ways. The primacy of religious instruction, on paper at least, means that significant proportions of the school day are given over to religious instruction, and this is accentuated in years where children undertake Communion or Confirmation. This time is meant to be fixed, so that according to Rule 69, children opting for a secular education can be removed. No options are detailed for what happens with such children, and the practicalities of this rule are almost impossible to manage. While the teacher is contractually obliged to give religious instruction, many primary teachers I have spoken to say that there simply isn’t time in the packed school curriculum to afford religious instruction its full time. This was long before Minister Ruairi Quinn’s recent advice to spend more time on maths and literacy and less on religion.

Secondly, and related, is the fact that trainee teachers can spend up to one third of their training time on religious education. This is problematic, because the primary school teacher is already expected to be a polymath, jumping from maths to science to geography to history to languages. Recent work in Mary Immaculate College Limerick shows a very poor understanding of basic scientific principles among primary school teachers in a sample of primary school teachers interviewed. More time on science, maths, history and geography results in an increased confidence in these subjects, and therefore there is likely to be an increased confidence in their delivery.

Thirdly, the religious ethos of a school means that under Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, it is legal for school patrons (Churches) to discriminate against their employees if they act in a way contrary to the ethos of a school. In other words, teachers in a Catholic school can be discriminated against, legally, if they are divorced, separated, homosexual, had an abortion, or didn’t go to confession in the last six months.

How to change?

There was a lot of talk recently on the Church’s willingness to engage in discussions on divesting their school patronage, although to date, nothing concrete has happened. With or without church involvement, the system needs to change. As far back as 1991, the Irish National Teachers Organisation distinguished between religious education and religious instruction; the latter being specific to one church, the former being a broader discussion of religion in our society [PDF]. A similar proposal in 2010 from Prof Michael Cronin argued for incorporation of philosophy into the primary syllabus (Irish Times, Feb 24, 2010), a call echoed by Elaine Byrne later that year. These calls illustrate that it is possible to value the importance of morality in education, without requiring these morals to be focussed through a particular religious lens.

O’Brien often points to Northern Ireland as an exemplar; one that includes religious education and performs well in international tests. By her confusing logic, one leads to the other. According to data available on The Guardian‘s website, almost half of Northern Ireland’s schoolchildren are taught in schools where 95% of children are of one religion. In Belfast alone, 180 schools had no Protestant pupils on the books, and 111 schools had no Catholic children. This is institutionalised segregation, and the consequences of this are clear from our recent history. The Northern Irish education system is not a model to emulate. Their performance in international scores is down to investment, not religious education.

Acknowledging the impracticality of religious instruction as it currently exists in our schools under Rules 68 and 69, the Irish Human Rights Commission reported to the The Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector in 2012 that at the very least:

where diverse provision of education does not exist in a school’s catchment area, consideration should be given to more formal religion classes at the start or end of the school day. [Report on INTO website]

Taking that first step would at least bring us back to 1831, where we could have a go at building our National School system again, with the state, and not the churches, finally taking responsibility for educating our children.


For more information on Wicklow Schools in the 18th and early 19th centuries, see details of my forthcoming book here.

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Letter of Complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland

I have written to the BAI and urge you to do so too.


To the members of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland,

I wish to lodge a complaint over the recent apology provided by RTÉ and subsequent compensation paid to Iona Institute and other named individuals, broadcast on The Saturday Night Show this month.

The context of the apology is well documented. However, the ramifications are unclear. In the coming year, RTÉ will be required to provide an important public service as it broadcasts discussions from all sides in the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage. RTÉ has a duty to present a balanced argument, fair to both sides, under its remit as a public service broadcaster and as a consequence of the McKenna Judgement.

In doing so, RTÉ cannot stifle either side in the debate. The opinion expressed on the programme was that the Iona Institute are homophobic. This opinion is a matter of public interest, as the Iona Institute are a very small but quite visible lobby group advocating institutionalised inequality (see for example their submission on the proposed review of Section 37 of the Employment Equality Act to the Equality Authority). It was expressed as an honestly held opinion with consideration of the definition of homophobia as the treatment of homosexual people in a different way to others.

RTÉ acknowledged in their apology that “it is an important part of democratic debate that people must be able to hold dissenting views on controversial issues.” That these views, honestly held and fairly expressed, led to an apology and payment of compensation marks a low-point for RTÉ. Counter to the intentions expressed in its apology, RTÉ has been complicit in the stifling of the debate around this issue and likely other issues where opinions on either side derive from strong personal convictions. I request that RTÉ are asked to explain their rationale for this apology and the awarding of compensation to the Iona Institute to the Broadcasting Authority as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Seery

Cc: complaints@rte.ie

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Research output of Irish Institutions 1980-2009

I thought it would be interesting to compare some Irish institutions by examining their research output over the last three decades. This is first measured by number of publications, and then by considering the relevance of these citations to the community.

Number of Publications

In the decade 1980 – 1989, DCU and UL were the NIHE Dublin and Limerick respectively. DIT was formed as an entity in 1992.

In the first decade, NIHE Dublin’s total number of publications was 232. After formation of DCU, the following decade, this increased to 1331, and in the decade 2000-2009, this increased hugely, to 3016. Limerick followed a similar trend; establishment of a decent base in its first decade as a university, followed by a huge increase in publications following the decade of investment in research.

Comparing this to two older universities, TCD’s output has increased from 3371 to 5817 over the three decades. Maynooth has increased from a mere 267 in the decade 1980-1989, to 2034 in the last decade. This analysis of course is unfair to these universities, as much of the output in the arts and humanities is not included in this analysis. DIT’s output in 2000-2009 was 1193, almost double that of Waterford, with 663.

Research Impact

A more interesting analysis is to consider the value of this research to the research community. When a paper is of use, a later author will cite it, and therefore the number of citations gives an indication of the value of the paper. There’s a million caveats to this, but the h-index, a measure of the number of papers that have achieved a certain number of citations, is often used to measure research impact. A h-index of 10 would mean that 10 papers have received a citation more than 10 times.

The graph below shows the h-index of these institutions over the three decades. Trinity’s h-index in the last decade was 141; 141 of the papers published were cited more than 141 times – a phenomenal number.  Obviously the higher a h-index, the harder it is for it to increase. Interestingly, although DCU’s output increased from 1331 to 3016, its h-index remained unchanged over this period.


I think these numbers are interesting, as it demonstrates that the gamble taken with DCU and Limerick in 1989, when their research output was quite low, paid off (the plan was to turn them into technological universities, ironically enough). I can’t explain the lack of increase in h-index for DCU over the last decade, but it does suggest that while there was an enormous increase in the number of publications, these did not gain traction with the research community globally. In addition, I think that this argument also shows that university status considerations for Waterford would be a political decision, not an academic one, at least from a research perspective. While DIT has a smaller research base, the research output has a similar h-index to the other Irish “universities of the middling kind” (to paraphrase Maurice Craig).


Data taken from Web of Science. Addresses used were:

  • NIHE DUBLIN OR (Natl Inst Higher Educ and Dublin)
  • NIHE Limerick OR (Natl Inst Higher Educ and Limerick)
  • Maynooth
  • Dublin Inst Technol or Dublin Inst Tech
  • Waterford.

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Technological University “Discussion”

In the week when Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn brought the Technological Universities Bill to cabinet, there was more than some disquiet from the commenterati that make up the usual pathetic discussion on higher education in Ireland. I don’t have any particular leaning for or against TU status for DIT. I think what we do, we do well, and we are one of the institutions in Ireland that genuinely differ from others in the type of graduates from our courses. Different doesn’t mean better or worse, it just means different. And in my own area at least, employers appear to like that difference very much. Our admissions profile also shows that the absence of the word “university” in our title does not deter would-be CAO students. So I have no particular leaning on status, and in fact worry about some of the Hunt Report considerations on making TU research “regional specific”. Research, by its very nature, is global. Cancer isn’t specific to Leinster south.

However, many commentators on this and other issues about DIT irritate me because it is quite clear that they do not know the institution about which they are speaking. They have an impression of what the institution is, perhaps from association with the other Institutes (mostly much smaller, and who collectively have their own lobby group, IOTI). Therefore many commentators attempt to make “academic” arguments, which barely cover this inherent, often uninformed, bias. Yesterday’s poorly written argument by Von Prond’ both argues for and against upgrading to university status, and for and against regional clustering, depending on what point he wished to make. He was taken to task on this by a commenter quite easily. Other commentators also mask what is in effect a kind of strange snobbery under the “standards” argument. I have worked in TCD, DCU, and DIT. I can say the following about DIT:

  • DIT is a member of the European Universities Association, along with University of Dublin, NUI, DCU, UL. It is only the Irish that have a problem with the U-word.
  • DIT awards its own degrees up to level 10. In fact it awards across a range from level 6 to level 10; the lower levels it does at a cost to its “intellectual” profile. Apprentice training means that the DIT staff profile has a lower ratio of PhDs.
  • DIT, like all ITs, is subject to the tyrannical 18/20 hour weekly contract. This makes it very, very difficult to do research when you teach as much as a secondary school teacher, and therefore you do less research. If I hope for one thing from University status, it is freedom from the constraints of this contract.
  • DIT is the only institution in Ireland which requires new staff members to complete a year-long course in Learning and Teaching methods.
  • As one of the “traditional” academics in DIT (PhD, post-doc, research profile, h-index better than those commenting on Von Prond’s blog), I can see easily what a diversity in staff backgrounds adds to courses. Colleagues with industry experience bring a different aspect to programme design and delivery that I certainly never saw in my own studies, or in my work in other institutions.

Let it be very clear: the only thing that matters about the name ‘university’ is marketing, and marketing to international students especially. Just go to the cinema and see how much universities are spending on marketing. UCD recently announced plans to take China by storm. International students are a form of self-generated income that cash-starved colleges could use. This debate is political, not academic. The Waterford case makes that plainly clear. Therefore those harping on about academic standards are either lusting after a lost world when an elite 15% of the population went to college, or more likely, are afraid of the competition from what will be Ireland’s largest university. Bring it on boys. Game on.

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LiveScribe Pen Review: Don’t

Update: See comments below

I recently bought a Livescribe pen with the aim of creating “Pencasts” – videos of pen writings aimed at online tutorials for demonstrating calculations, annotating diagrams etc – effectively screencasts on the fly.

Unfortunately, someone who makes decisions in Livescribe has decreed that the pencast (the video and audio) output will be a proprietary format. After recording pencast, they can be exported to a PDF (final visual only), or uploaded to a space on the Livescribe website. I wanted to be able to export the pencast raw file to Camtasia to do a bit of post-production, incorporate the pencast into a more complete resource. Not possible. I tried cracking the pencast but couldn’t get it done. This renders it useless for this application.

I just can’t understand why Livescribe don’t allow an .mp4/avi type output. The only way around it is to play the pencast using the proprietary software and record the screen using Camtasia—but that’s just one step too many.

So now I have a pen that records what I write and makes a nice PDF—so if you want to have a page of written material electronically without the bother of scanning it in, then Livescribe is for you. If you think you can spend €180 more wisely, then avoid it. An extra negative is that the pen is quite bulky, and sore to write with after a while. I would put up with that if it produced a video output I could use, but I have a feeling this particular gadget is going to gather dust in my drawer.

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Robert Boyle and The Sceptical Chymist

The National Library of Ireland’s new installment of their Discover exhibition, focusing on science, is called Particles of the Past. One of the centre-pieces of the exhibition is a copy of “The Sceptical Chymist” by Robert Boyle, published just over 350 years ago. The story of Boyle is a fascinating one, as it interweaves through a turbulent part of Irish history as well as an enlightening time in the development of science, heralding a new era of chemistry. Yet beyond Boyle’s Law, I have to admit I never knew too much about the “Father of Chemistry”.

Boyle’s father, Richard Boyle, was not born wealthy, but as a student in Cambridge, saw an opportunity in the turbulence in Ireland in the late 16th century, caused by the Elizabethan wars. In Munster, the Desmond dynasty was removed and land provided to English Royalists. Boyle arrived with just £27 3 s in 1588, the same year the Spanish Armada left to conquer England. After marrying the daughter of the Irish Secretary of State, Boyle was awarded several titles of nobility and a huge estate, centring on Lismore, Co Waterford. His son, Robert Boyle was born on Jan 25th, 1627, two years after the succession of Charles I. His father was extraordinarily wealthy by this time, earning £250 per day, and was one of the largest owners of land in the Empire. Boyle was sent to an Irish family for nursing (he was the seventh son and the fourteenth child in his family). He must have been exposed to a lot of Irish (Gaelic) as later in life, he personally paid for a printing of an Irish version of the bible.

Soon after returning home from nursing, Boyle’s mother died, and he was sent with his brother to Eton in 1636. Being “Irish”, and having a slight stammer, he did not fit in well, and spent most of his time reading. By 1640, the two boys were brought on a tour of Europe by a French tutor, including a visit to Galileo in Florence. Religious strife at home, culminating in the rebellion of 1641 meant that Boyle’s father’s wealth greatly diminished due to the cost of war. He died in 1643. Facing civil war at home, Charles arranged for a ceasefire so that his Royalist soldiers could return home to fight parliamentarians. The Royalists lost, and Oliver Cromwell, leading soldier in the parliamentarian army was soon dispatched to subdue the Irish rebels, arriving at Drogheda in 1649, and travelling through the rest of the country in the following years. One of the men to come with him was William Petty, who acquired the great Shelbourne/Lansdowne estates in Kerry. Boyle became a friend of Petty, but found that he could not continue his interest in scientific research in Ireland. Having inherited a property in Devon on his father’s death, he moved to Oxford in 1654.

His education to date had been quite erratic, so Boyle’s early years at Oxford were served as an “apprenticeship” working with Peter Sthael and Rosicrucian. Boyle’s first major piece of work was published in 1657, “On the Spring and Weight of Air”, although it is now generally acknowledged, that this was primarily the work of Robert Hooke – a fact Boyle made clear in the second edition of the corresponding publication.

By 1660 the monarchy had been restored, and Charles II established formally the Royal Society, which had been made up of an informal group of intellectuals, including Boyle, Hooke, Petty and others, called the Invisible College. Persuaded by friends, an initially reluctant Boyle published huge amount of material through the Royal Society, so much so that scholars now consider that he directed a lot of research, rather than completing the experiments himself; in much the same was as modern “principal investigators”. (I like to think of Boyle as the first equivalent of the modern Principal Investigator, and Hooke his first post-doc!) Among these publications was, in 1661, The Sceptical Chymist, the result of 10 years experimentation. It would usher in a modern era of chemistry… slowly…!


Journal of Chemical Education has some nice articles on Boyle over the years: 2009, p. 148, 2003, p. 487, 1951, p. 178 (excellent article)

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Somewhere in the Ministry of Magic or Death Star One, or wherever they Make The Decisions, someone is having a great laugh at our expense. According to the terms of the Croke Park Agreement, lecturers are required to meet with their students and that meeting slot must be a timetabled hour. Therefore I have a sign on my door, saying I am available at a particular hour. Before the glorious Croke Park Agreement came into effect, I was available to meet my students all the time, and still am now. But if I was the kind of student I was when I was a student (if you see my meaning) well then if I went to a lecturer’s door and saw a sign saying “Available Wednesday 5 – 6 pm!”, well I would understandably not want to disturb my lecturer from his sherry-drinking at other times.

To really tighten the screw, our friend Through the Looking Glass has thrown in a twist. It is of course impossible for the timetable to allow for an hour when all the students I teach will be free, never mind to replicate this miracle for all teaching staff and all students. Middle management are left holding the baby – they must ensure the Croke Park Agreement is implemented, even though it is an impossibility.

So I have an hour when I must see the students, even if the students can’t be there. This contrasts with the situation before—obviously unsatisfactory because they changed it—when I was available to students to come and see whenever they wanted. Thanks to our increasingly competitive work-practices, that ridiculous situation has now changed, and I am available for just one hour instead of all hours.


As an addendum, Bernie Ruane’s letter to the Irish Times last Saturday was incorrect. It forgot that the Croke Park Agreement added two extra hours onto all lecturers’ timetables, and an additional student meeting hour.

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Student Feedback

One of the peculiar things about our system here is the process of student feedback. Students fill out a ridiculously long survey called a not-so-student-friendly “Q6A” for each module (and more usually for both of two lecturers in a module). This rates everything from the conditions of the room to the helpfulness of the lecturer, with some space for comments at the end. Thanks to our glorious comrades in the Teachers Union of Ireland, the Q6A responses are the property of the lecturer. Therefore to feed the information on to THE SYSTEM, said lecturer will—quite unbelievably in a society obsessed about transparency—complete a “Q6B” form, which aims to distill all the comments garnered from the Q6A and compile them into the Q6B for passing on to the Programme Chair, who then completes a Q5 Annual Monitoring of Programme Form, which has a (small) section for detailing feedback from all modules on the programme. The net result, even for honest brokers who dutifully complete a Q6A -> Q6B process, is that student feedback is lost in paperwork. So much so that even external reviewers recently commented that there is too much paperwork.

Undeterred, our glorious leaders in Institute management have decided to remove “paperwork” by making an online survey, which being generous, represents a misunderstanding of the external reviewers’ comments. This decision can’t have been inspired by a pilot study last year. In this, Q6C forms (I am honestly not making this up)—which of course are Head of School Survey of a Programme forms, also filled out by students—were completed in an online survey. The response was less than 10% across all four years of the programme I chair, but the QA office still sent us meaningless pie charts summarising meaningless responses.

The online survey for Q6A means that as lecturers, we won’t get to see sometimes quite useful responses on the students’ hand-written forms, which were the only really beneficial part of the form, as the response rate will plummet in the move online. To get around the ownership of Q6A, a “responsible person” is going to compile the information. Comrades… comrades! How can you allow this? Oh, I see you are too busy earning large salaries at the moment.

Of course the way around all this nonsense is just to talk to students directly. Michael Prosser has done some beautiful work on quality monitoring and enhancement, and he spoke last year at DIT (No comrades or glorious leaders present, of course). His basic argument was that if you want to find out how a programme is being delivered, talk to students. We certainly find that is true in our use of staff-student meetings each semester. No paperwork, no pie charts from QA— just a good discussion and exchange of opinion which can be used to enhance the teaching of a programme.

Comrades? Leaders? No, no one.

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Been blogging for over a year now. The most popular posts in terms of access numbers were:

  1. Cognitive considerations in designing e-resources
  2. Social Network Sites as an Academic Induction Tool
  3. Tabbed template for articulate
  4. Why it’s time for vonprond to go
  5. Adding Articulate presentation to wordpress.org
  6. Podcasting and Screencasting to support lectures
  7. Teaching in the laboratory: 1 -pedagogy
  8. Constructivism in chemistry
  9. Demonstration of the iodine clock experiment
  10. Virtual worlds in chemistry higher education

Here’s to another year!

Social Network Sites as an Academic Induction ToolSocial Network Sites as an Academic Induction Tool

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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

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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.

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