Reflecting on #MICER18

This week I ran the third Methods in Chemistry Education Research meeting (MICER18). It was a really interesting and useful day – we had a good range of speakers and lots of discussion; certainly the scope of the meeting this year was the most ambitious so far. As the meeting is beginning to settle into a space on the calendar, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to take it forward.

Micer Timeline

For me MICER operates on three levels. At one level this meeting has a very simple purpose – to share approaches that can be used when doing educational research, and especially applied to chemistry education research. This is achieved by asking speakers to give talks on how do undertake particular approaches, accompanied by activities and discussion – effectively a series of workshops. Over the series (2016, 2017, 2018) we have covered things like doing interviews, thematic analysis, using Likert scales, designing questionnaires, statistical approaches, thinking about theoretical frameworks and ethics, and the holy grail of writing a decent research question. The purpose is to give insight into the language and processes around educational research for the audience of people with a scientific background, who are moving towards the light. The emphasis on sharing methods of how things were done, rather than what happens as a result of doing things means that this meeting can eek out a little bit of light beyond the shadow of the annual Variety in Chemistry Education meeting. 

A second level is about identity. Most people working as a discipline based researcher in the U.K. and Ireland will likely be doing this as a kind of part-time hobby, in the few gaps available when doing a full time teaching position. Lack of funding means that the discipline is amateur; people are doing things with not much time and less money. If we are to professionalise, people need to feel confident in saying that they are a “chemistry education researcher”, loud and proud. This is very difficult to do if you don’t feel professionally grounded in that discipline. To gain that confidence, there needs to be a community into which they can situate themselves, and a sense of personal expertise to allow them to make the claim. By sharing methods and approaches, and demonstrating that there is a community, the meeting aims to help raise this confidence. This year we included a “reports from practice” section; hearing from people who are just like us doing CER in their own situation. It was wonderful, and a real highlight of the day, a kind of showcasing of what real live chemistry education researchers look like. I was also struck this year by the number of people in the room who spoke about projects they are working on, or where they were situating themselves on the spectrum of evaluation, reflection, and research. This highlights to me that the landscape is shifting slowly. But there needs to be considerable support; financial yes, but also in terms of identity. This is something the RSC needs to grapple with firmly. 

Finally, the entire education landscape is shifting. The growing emphasis on teaching at third level means that those situated in a teaching and scholarship roles are thrust into a political ping pong. At school level there is an expectation that teachers will engage with education research with little support or guidance, save for some grassroots heroes. We aimed to address this head on this year with a keynote talk about this very landscape; one which I think well characterised it and also offered clues as to how we might navigate it. We also included a talk on managing student projects; standing firm in a world where in some institutions, the presence of such projects is contentious. 

MICER19

In setting out on the MICER journey, I was only ever really concerned with (and indeed thought about) the first level. I knew from conversations that people wanted to know about the how of doing education research. The additional levels have grown, partly thrust upon us as a nascent community, partly necessary for us to be a community. But there is a danger that in aiming to do everything, the meeting tries to do too much, and as a result, does not achieve the sum of its parts. It is only a one-day meeting after all, and I am left wondering whether we should refocus our thoughts on the first part, and the others will work themselves out elsewhere (come on RSC!). 

I’m planning to send out feedback survey and hope to use that to guide the focus of future meetings. There are other less lofty considerations; the meeting was full by February and likely needs a bigger venue. The characteristics of attendees is broadening. While the registration cost is cheap, getting to London is expensive. Getting funding to support the meeting is getting more difficult; there is a limit to the hit that the supporting interest group budgets can manage.  

But the interest in, and outcomes of, the meeting mean that I think the effort will be worth the while. 

 

A memorable teaching scenario for #Chemedcarnival

Katherine Haxton has challenged us to write a blog post on a memorable teaching situation.

When I was 19 I attended a Scout training weekend as part of a course to become a canoe instructor. I had been canoeing for several years under the patient instruction of canoe instructor, Keith, who was also a former scout leader. Keith is tall and patient and a scientist and has a clipped English accent with excellent projection. “Lean downstream, Mick” he’d boom up and down rivers, while I’d lean upstream, and capsize.

All this made Keith very exotic. Coming from a small country village where everyone mumbled and there were no scientists, much less well-spoken English ones, he was very different. We adored him. He had rare qualities of being The Adult but never condescending, paternal but never patronising. We mimicked him constantly (out of earshot) but woe betide anyone who even hinted a bad word about him.

So the country fellows went to training course to learn how to be leaders. The teachers on the course seemed tough and scary and, well, from Dublin, which is to say they were under the influence most of the time. When we arrived we found out that Keith was going to give one of the sessions on this weekend of the course. This is more than half a life ago, but I recall the excitement that news brought. We were used to him in the context of our own canoeing, going down (and upside-down) the rivers of Wicklow, but now we would see him somewhere different. We knew him and these chaps from Dublin didn’t. He was ours and we were loaning him to the mob and he would be amazing.

He was amazing. The session was about safety, and the kinds of decisions that need to be made quickly when on rivers. He was clear and authoritative and we sat and listened in total silence. Bursting with pride. Everything he said made sense.

But then; one of the Dublin fellows shouted out in the silence: “But Keith – that’s WRONG!” You can guess our horror. Keith listened, and responded, and moved on. And then; another interruption!

A game was afoot. Even for simple country chaps, it was clear that the whole lesson had been structured, with planned interruptions prepared well in advance. Tension eased, we all played along, throwing out ideas and suggestions and discussing various scenarios and decisions.

It is a “teaching moment” that has always stuck with me. There aren’t many lessons from half a life ago that I remember so well. A few months ago I was in the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland, and wandered into a wing featuring some new artists. I came across this portrait of our hero. The link explains more.

ROBINSON, N-770

When is a conference real?

Respected Dr Dr Mrs Seery, we hope that you can come to our conference in somewhere you’ve never heard of and tell us about your interesting and exciting work in Pre-Lecture Resources for Reducing Cognitive Load at our Conference on Chemistry and Chemical Engineering in Sub-Oceanic Conditions. Please reply.

Most of us now receive daily invites to conferences around the world – oh the travel we could do! – and the usual fare is a greeting like that above; a dodgy mail merge of incorrect title, a paper title you have published and a conference that has a theme that bears no resemblance to the topic that you have been on. But the targeting is getting cleverer, and there are now quite a few Chemistry Education “conferences” doing the rounds.

These conferences are organised to make money. The model is that academics are invited to speak at conferences, and they, like all attendees will pay to attend.  The organisers know nothing about the topic, and the conference will not have any coherent theme, but the organisers will have delivered on their promise to host a conference, and gather all the money raised in the process as profit. Academics will provide free labour by presenting at the conference, perhaps peer-reviewing, being members of the “Advisory Board”… It all mirrors an actual conference very closely, but of course the problem is that the themes of these “conferences” are so broad that little meaningful discussion could take place. So how do you know what is real or not?

Three key places to look are: (1) who is on the advisory board (2) is there a professional body underpinning the conference, and (3) what are the conference themes.

ICCE2018Organisers and Advisory Board

If you are going to a conference on chemistry education, and the advisory board is populated by Professor of Forestry from Transylvania, then an alarm bell should ring. Are the names familiar? If you were to Google some of them, would you come up with some CER publications? Pictured are the Local Organising Committee and International Advisory Board of the very real 25th ICCE 2018 conference happening in Sydney in 2018. A cursory glance at this list for anyone involved in chemistry education would show that these are people with a genuine investment in the discipline.

Sadly, this check on authenticity is becoming more difficult, as academics are bounded by a singular characteristic: we love doing things for free. So when you get an email that asks you if you want to be part of an organising committee for a conference whose title interests you, well why not? If you don’t look into it too much and you’ve always wanted to go to the Mongolian mountains for a hike, this fits the bill. Before you know it you are profiled on the conference website and credence is added to the meeting because of your affiliation.

Professional Body

A second thing to check is if there is a a professional body underpinning the conference. The very real 25th ICCE 2018 conference happening in Sydney in 2018 is being organised under the auspices of IUPAC, as have all of the conferences in the ICCE series, and the national chemistry body, RACI. This lends an air of authority to the meeting – these are professional bodies who are interested in promotion of chemistry education, rather than just out to make money.

ICCE2018logo

Conference Themes

But what if there is a conference that is out to make profit but means well and wants to host a good conference on a particular theme, where it has identified a gap. This isn’t illegal or morally wrong. We can use the conference themes to get a sense of how invested the organisers are in organising a conference about a topic that will bring a lot of like minded individuals together. I’ve pasted below an image from a tweet from the organisers of the “8th Edition of International Conference on Chemistry Education and Research” (note the ‘and’).

DPzbt2WVwAYUwyO

Exercising Judgement

It is in the interest of organisers of conferences such as these to spread the net widely; the more themes they cover, the more people will likely match. But of course, the broader the net, the more useless the meeting will be. It is worth exercising some judgement by considering the three points above. Even the conference title needs consideration: including an “and” is very popular as it allows a much broader range of topics while sounding like another very well established conference. Compare:

  • 25th IUPAC International Conference on Chemistry Education (ICCE2018)

with

  • 8th Edition of International Conference on Chemistry Education and Research

At a passing glance in a busy email reading session, both look similar.

Many readers of this will likely have received an invitation from the “Journal of Chemistry: Education, Research and Practice” and perhaps confuse it with the journal Chemistry Education Research and Practice. In this case, punctuation reveals very different intentions.

Take care, and if you do go to one of these “conferences”, I hope the scenery is nice!

Seeking thoughts about running a webinar

Later this month I am hosting a webinar, hopefully first in a series. The speaker is Alison Flynn, who will be talking about organic mechanisms. Registration is available here: https://rsccerg.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/webinar-announcement-prof-alison-flynn-25-october/

How do you run a webinar? I have given webinars and remember that it was a bit like speaking into a void as you can’t get a sense from the room as to how much people are enjoying your talk… Instead you just keep talking, hoping that the internet is still working, and that someone on the other end of the line is listening. It is a bit of a bizarre experience first time out.

There are some strategies for avoiding this: occasional polling, or using the chat box. I have mixed feelings about allowing the chat box being open during the talk. On the one hand, it is really nice to see comments come through – essentially text versions of body language and perceptions you might gain from speaking to a live audience. But they can also be distracting, albeit in a positive way – someone might post a comment that is interesting – for example an aside to the presentation that you weren’t going to discuss – but now that it is raised you are wondering in that moment whether to. It can mean you lose your train of thought. So my inclination is to turn them off, or else turn them on for defined periods, although ultimately I intend to leave the decision to the speakers.

Anyway, I am looking for thoughts on what experiences people have had either as a presenter or attendee that can help create a positive webinar. Comments below or on Twitter please :)

And do join us for #CERGinar on 25th October. Alison is a fantastic speaker.

10 thoughts on VICEPHEC

  1. I enjoyed VICEPHEC this year. I like meeting friends and colleagues and hearing about what people are doing.

2. Everybody has a different view on what VICEPHEC is. The two parent organisations need to outline some overarching guidelines as to what VICEPHEC is (and isn’t).

3. These guidelines can then frame abstract calls and conference themes, with local hosts free to offer initiatives such as the (reportedly excellent) Labsolutely Fabulous.

4. I detected several instances of quite pointed commentary this year disregarding/dismissing any sense of evaluation of output or serious data. In my view this is anti-intellectual.

5. Sharing good ideas is a valuable part of the meeting; but we have an ethical responsibility to consider evaluation. Do you want to be the next “Learning Styles”?

6. Evaluation does not necessitate diving into the pedagogical glossary. But let’s not dismiss those who chose to do this. After all Variety is in the name.

7. But should we change the name? I think the combined meeting should have a new name. It is only physicists and chemists for historical reasons.

8. Sponsorship is welcome and beneficial. But we need to keep clear boundaries between sponsors and the academic programme. See 2.

9. Disagreement and debate within a community is healthy. But let’s do it respectfully. We are all on the same side.

10. MICER is a very different and much more niche affair than VICEPHEC. If I thought for a minute that MICER meant that talks at VICEPHEC became evaluation-free, I’d shut up shop.

While I have you… MICER18 is on 14th May 2018 :)

What does active learning look like in college science classrooms?

A new review addressing this topic was recently published. I love reviews (someone else does all the hard work and you just have to read their summary!) and this one does a good job of categorising many of the approaches under the “active” umbrella. There are some limitations (for me) in their analysis, but the categorisation is useful nonetheless.

Most interestingly, the authors present a framework to consider active learning. There are two components to this. One is perhaps obvious: considering active learning means that you must first have an overall approach (i.e. are you teacher/student-centred, constructivist, etc); a strategy – a basis for why you will design particular activities in the classroom; and finally what these activities are. That seems pretty obvious.

The authors then draw on social interdependence theory (no, I hadn’t either) which identifies whether there is positive, negative, or no benefit from cooperating with others in attaining a goal. This is interesting. They then place on a grid the various activities depending on whether there is benefit from interdependence or not (positive or none) and what kind of peer interactions an active learning strategy might employ. The grid they come up with is shown, and they highlight:
– the difference between one and two-stage polling (clicker questions vs more formal peer-instruction)
– there are a lot of activities that depend on only ‘loose’ peer interactions; interactions which are short lived and do not involve the same peers.

active learning social interdependence

Types of active learning

The review is useful as it offers a smorgasbord of the kinds of activities people undertake. These are categorised into four main headings:
1. Individual non-polling activities such as the minute-paper, writing exercises, individualy solving a problem, concept maps, building models…
2. In-class polling activities formalised in terms of peer-instruction (question, vote, discussion with peer, revote) and sequence of questions, and non-formalised such as one-off voting, poll followed by written answer…
3. Whole class discussions involving an activity, a facilitated discussion, and questions/answers…
And
4. In-class activities such as POGIL, lecture-tutorials, PBL activities, and jigsaws (different groups do different parts of a problem and then it is all brought together).

Defining active learning

The authors define active learning as: “active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasises higher order thinking and often involves group work.

I think it is useful piece of work, and certainly the social interdependence piece is interesting. But I do wonder how they searched for information. They give details on this, but they seem to be missing a whole tranche of work around the flipped lecture movement, for example, and it would have been interesting to read about how active learning scenarios were facilitated in terms of curriculum design and what kinds of things were done in class once that information was available (or indeed relied on that process). Also they describe how they got papers but have a very worrying (in my view) statement about not looking at discipline specific journals, such as CERP. But a CERP paper is referenced. In fairness they do not declare to be comprehensive, but this kind of thing makes me wonder about the extent of the literature surveyed. But that is a minor gripe, and I think it is well worth a read.

Reference

Arthurs, L. A., & Kreager, B. Z. (2017). An integrative review of in-class activities that enable active learning in college science classroom settings. International Journal of Science Education, 1-19.

Lessons from a decade of ‘doing’ chemistry education

It’s been 10 years since “Developing practical chemistry skills by means of student-driven problem based learning mini-projects” was published in Chemistry Education Research and Practice, and it marked the kick-starting of an accidental career invested in chemistry education. This paper was published with two colleagues and friends, Claire Mc Donnell and Christine O’Connor, who inducted me into the ways of all things chem-ed. We would continue to work together; Claire and I guest-edited a special issue of CERP on technology in chemistry education in 2013, writing an editorial that is surprisingly cited quite often (for an editorial – I think it is because we say… something). And Christine and I wrote a book-chapter for the 2015 Wiley book on Chemistry Education, which in full respect to the editors, has quite a list of names assembled as authors. But wait: this is not an article about how great Seery is (that’s the next one, and the one before).

Capture

Can I say anything sensible about making this a profession? I’m often asked by people who are interested in teaching and learning and education-focussed careers what kinds of things they should think about to achieve this. I don’t know if I am qualified to answer that as much of what has happened was unplanned, fostered by a benevolent, and often indifferent department, working in a REFless, TEFless culture. Moving to Edinburgh has meant that this is now my ‘proper job’ rather than a hobby, but I wouldn’t call the transition or the journey a career path. So much of what follows is what I would advise, considering the REFful, TEFful culture we now live in. With that caveat, here are the top tips…

1. Separate the inner scholar from the teacher

One of the biggest difficulties for someone invested in teaching and learning chemistry is that all aspects of teaching and learning chemistry are probably of some interest. I remember going to conferences and wanting to see everything and #ohmygodthatssocoolwemusttrythat and being overwhelmed very quickly, because of course you don’t have time to try everything. You will not have time to think about everything at once, so my headline piece of advice is to identify what it is you will focus on; what will become your niche. You as a teacher will need to think about labs and lectures and tutorials and online marking and placement and professional development and…

But what will you as a scholar focus on? What is going to be the topic you will be able to have an intellectual basis in? Name it and begin to be strict with yourself about focussing on it. I see a lot of people who don’t produce any outputs even though they are doing good work because they are trying to do too many things.

Imagine an organic chemist. They of course know about most aspects of ongoing organic chemistry generally – they could teach any 2nd year course, but they specialise in their research on one or two particular aspects.

2. Read

If you are going to be scholarly about something, then you must read. I find it very surprising how little people read, or worse, how people cherry-pick some literature. Reading is important if we are going to move on from “gut feeling” or “in my experience” that drags down our academic standing. It is impossible to read everything, but that doesn’t mean you don’t read anything, and certainly doesn’t mean you rely on 140 character summaries as your academic insight. Twitter is amazing for pointing out unusual highlights and what other people who you respect consider important; and I have discovered countless gems that way. But you must be more systematic. This involves identifying a series of journals that you think are of interest and keeping up to date with what is published. If getting into a new area, it involves surveying the literature (hopefully finding a review!), finding out who the key players are. Reading also helps develop a kind of cultural capital – how do people go about things in this field; what are the acceptable norms? What the hell does being ethical mean?

How do you read? The challenge of reading 1000 papers might be a bit daunting. So of course you don’t need to read every line (except mine, for those: read every, single, line), but rather you are reading with a purpose. Perhaps you are making notes on how people implemented online quizzes in their courses. It doesn’t really matter if someone in University of West Nowhere scores went from 45.6% to 52.1%; what matters in this initial survey is what was their rationale and context, how did they go about it, how did they measure, what limitations did they state, and who did they cite to be of influence. You can very quickly build up a map of studies so that you now have a basis for designing your study on exploring how online quizzes; you can state what other people have done, give a rationale for your approach, and compare your results to others. Too often, this analysis is done post hoc. This is not a scholarly approach.

Reading also involves becoming familiar with learning theories. Again, just reading lots of learning theories is a passive way to approach this. Everybody is a constructivist because everybody is a constructivist. But what does that even mean? I thought you liked cognitivism too? How do you marry those thoughts?

3. Generate outputs

Many people do identify an area and do read, but never “get around” to publishing. This is tragic, because it means everyone has benefited from their scholarship except them. Developing outputs; at the very least conference presentations; is the only way the world (and also promotion and interview panels) know something exists. Everyone is a great teacher, everyone can quote some line of good feedback; don’t get that confused with the work of a scholar – producing some output to share with the world that is the result of academic work. The obvious output is a journal publication, but what if you made artefacts as part of some study – can you publish them online – maybe even have a link on the department website. Especially for those new to the field, this will be a useful indicator to show that you have demonstrated interest and will be a useful talking point at interviews.

One of the difficulties people find with writing outputs is that they don’t know how to write. They had a great idea, they got some nice results, and now they’ve got to make it look academic, which involves finding some references that look appropriate (See reading, above). Of course this is not the way to go about things. Our organic chemist does not just go into the lab one day and mix some things, happen across an interesting result, and then think about finding some sensible rationale as to why those chemicals were mixed. And it is unlikely that our educator was similarly flippant – there is likely some rationale in there but it makes life so much easier if the reading was done in advance to give that rationale some basis.

In my own experience, I cannot understate the value of keeping a blog has been to develop writing (yes I know this one is a long waffle). When you write something, you learn to think of how to present arguments, write a narrative, and in cases of academic blogging, have to have read something before writing about it. They say you don’t understand something until you teach it; trust me: you don’t understand something until you blog about it and expose your thoughts to the world. The world, in return, is usually grateful for you sharing those thoughts. And it all ends up being an accidental output.

4. Make friends

It’s nice to discuss your work and have support. One of the best things I had was the support of my original two co-authors. Claire and I went on to formalise this in a study we subsequently did and developed a critical friendship – one that was grounded in the knowledge that we both wanted what was best for each other, but not afraid to call the other up when something was awry about some aspect of the work or a conclusion. It was fantastic, not only for the actual conversations, but for the imagined ones too; I would wonder what Claire would think about something even before I would talk to her. This isn’t easy to find but worth seeking out. At the very least, connecting with others at conferences – yes we would all rather stand facing a corner and check our phone occasionally but come on now everyone, turn around. Talk. Introduce yourself. I was taken aback recently when someone I had always been afraid to talk to came up and introduced. We had a great chat and ended up with a group hug (it’s the way I roll). The point is, people go to these things because we have a common interest. Very often, there is someone else in the department who is interested in teaching. Talk with them (not at them).

One key aspect of making friends is the ability to listen. One thing that is slightly grating (to me) is that people will listen to you long enough to find out about how they can link onto something you are saying to something that they have done that is much better. This is not a way to learn about people and how they do things. Use your blog to show off. A better approach might be to think about how what the thing the person is talking about and what your own experiences are might marry into a useful collaboration? You’re a constructivist aren’t you?

In terms of making friends in the UK, the annual VICE conference is a good place to start. Registration deadline for this year is imminent (www.vicephec2017.com).

 

 

Student study approaches

Many thanks to Scott Lewis/USF who put an interesting paper on students’ approaches to study in introductory chemistry my way. The paper describes the development of a framework for learning approaches in chemistry, and they come up with four levels: (1) gathering facts; (2) learning procedures; (3) confirming understanding; and (4) applying ideas.

Do students know how to study? In an exam dominated system, one might reasonably expect students to focus on the second approach – if they learn the procedures and have the facts to hand, then they will be able to use these in an exam. Of course, as teachers we hope students will aspire to developing (and confirming) understanding, and begin to see how this understanding is useful in a wider sense.

So my initial reaction was to make a poster on these learning approaches. It seems that both levels 2 and 3 have similar outcomes; students are able to use procedures in assessments; but the motivations are very different for both. My first attempt at a poster is below, but having spent an afternoon making it and refining it, I am wondering if it now immediately needs a friend in the form of a poster detailing specific strategies. The intention is to (a) make it clear to students that different approaches exist, and then (b) give them some strategies (beyond rewriting notes) that they can put into place.  (Note I left level 4 off this poster for reasons I think I can defend).

More thought needed…

Study Approaches

On the sublime

“Sublimity,” Hauptmann says, panting, “you know what that is, Pfennig?” He is tipsy, animated, almost prattling. Never has Werner seen him like this. “It’s the instant when one thing is about to become something else. Day to night, caterpillar to butterfly. Fawn to Doe. Experiment to result. Boy to man.”

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Moonlight Scene, James Arthur O'Connor
Moonlight Scene, James Arthur O’Connor

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.

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.

References:

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

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

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

Registration:

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

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.

Reform

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.

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

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. 

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.

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.

rule68
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.

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