Tuesday, 26 February 2013

My Thoughts on the Irish Education System

Ok, well, here's a rather long-winded summation of my opinions on the Irish education system that I've been meaning to actually type for sometime, hopefully it doesn't sounds too much like a rant.




Advancement

There is no room in the Irish education system for "modular" learning. I have a friend in Israel who finished his maths course for secondary school 2 years early, by himself, took his exams early and passed. He then spent the next two years starting a bachelors in Mathematics at the local university instead of doing math classes. Now he only has to take a little over one year of college to get his degree.

There is nothing like this in our system. In America, they have Advanced Placement classes, where you can start the next years course early, or take different classes. I'm incredibly bored with the math I'm taking in school now, and I have a friend who writes in his spare time who is learning nothing in English class. If we were in a different country, I could start sixth year math, and he could start sixth year English, we could sit our exams in those subjects this year, hopefully pass, and then have one less subject to worry about next year and a string of free classes to study in.

I know logistically this is a bit of a challenge, but most other countries have some form of this kind of self-directed advancement programs.


Technology

Some subjects are painful in this regard. I take accounting, it's a nice subject, but I spend the majority of my time adding figures rather than actually accounting anything. Why can't the accountancy exam be taken on spread sheet software? It has many advantages. The exams would take less time. No more tipexing the entire question and having to then recalculate the entire question because you left a zero out of your first figure. Time freed up in class from monotonous addition could actually be used to learn more subject matter (see Point 5 on freeing time). Marking the exams would be almost trivial and instant with special software. Students would be learning how to account in a somewhat modern way, rather than how it was done 35 years ago.

There are other examples of this too. I can't type my Leaving Cert exams.  Why? Because I don't have a reading disability. Never mind the fact that I can type more than three times fast than I can write, and for longer periods of time without tiring too, I will be spending a vast amount of my English, chemistry, physics, Irish and German exams, waiting for my pen to catch up with my brain.  Typing is a useful skill to have in today's job market and for those of us who can type particularly well, or are just plain slow at cursive, I think the option should be available.

In Technical Graphics, or DCG, 40% of the grade is given for a project completed in CAD software, a product design task. This is literally the only case that I have seen any sort of technology used in official exams, save for calculators and several students in my year who type their exams because of dyslexia.

I know the main argument against this type of change is the fact that not all schools have the facilities available. However, I don't know of one secondary school which doesn't have at least a class-sized computer room. Even so, the schools that don't should be upgraded, desktop computers aren't exactly expensive today and it would greatly increase the quality of learning.


Computer Science

The fact that there is no IT in Irish schools today is appalling. Yes, most schools do some sort of computer classes, or the EDCL in transition year, but as far as how computers work, the Irish student population is almost completely ignorant.

I personally, would love to take a subject where I'm asked to submitted some algorithmic programs in a choice of different languages, which I am graded on. But even little steps towards full-blown computer science would help. For example, my cousin took ICT in his International GSCE exams in Portugal, where he learnt HTML. He's not going to become a web developer, but at least he knows a bit about how it all works and he's not afraid to really use a computer.

Technology, the subject, is a step in the right direction. However, I know very little people who take the subject. Not because it's unpopular with students, but because barely any schools actually offer it. I would take it in a heartbeat, as would many of my friends, but I know of nowhere that does offer it, apart from one school in Dublin.


Subject Content

The Department of Education has a problem with changing or revising curricula, they don't do it often enough and when they do, they tend not to listen to the suggestions given by universities, teachers or students.

Here are some examples of subjects that badly need revision. My physics book, apart from a couple of pages on semiconductors and spectrometry, contains absolutely no post World War II physics. Chemistry is in a similar boat. I've already pointed out accounting's flaws. Yes, people point out that topics like quantum mechanics shouldn't be thought in schools because they're far to complicated for secondary students, but they're not, if anything, very interesting challenging topics would benefit the subjects more. I know for a fact that many of the people in my physics class are extremely bored with the light and mechanics topics that we've already covered, which I have gauged from their constant questions about when we will be starting the only chapter on particle physics and why isn't there any astronomy on the course.

Irish, in my opinion, needs an overhaul for the opposite reasons. I like Irish, I really do, but it is a very difficult subject for those without a flair for languages. Taking the current group of students doing higher level Irish, I can tell you very little take the subject for CAO points. It is a much harder subject than almost any other, the only thing that could make up for this would be a scheme like the extra points for higher level maths grades. So, considering this, why do the limited number of students taking higher level continue to do so? Heritage and culture. That's the only reason I am. So if there's one problem I have with the Irish curriculum, it is that there is simply not enough emphasis on the heritage. All of the texts I have to study, apart from Tír na nÓg, are contemporary. If I'm learning a language purely for cultural reasons, I want to actually learn about the culture, not modern pros about posh upper-class family problems, or stabbing incidents in a city.

Project Maths could be written about in length. It is a perfect example of the lack of feedback that the department takes when deciding curriculum. I have yet to meet a single student, teacher, or third-level professor who is happy with the new course. Which begs the question, who did the department consult when revising this course? As I have an interest in science and maths, I can certainly tell you the removal of vectors and matrices, for example, was not called for by any lecturers in physics, mathematics or engineering. The approach towards problem solving is quite good, however the questions themselves are far too vague to be suitable, some accounting for paragraphs of writing, rather than calculations or notated logical proofs. The move towards making maths more relatable to the average student has isolated anyone with and interest in the subject before hand. Ideally I would like the subject to be split, into general maths and pure mathematics, allowing for students who wish to further their studies to do so, to their benefit later in college. Of course this essentially boils down to the same argument of modular learning I mentioned previously.

The main problem I see with the curriculum is that student's opinions, as well as teachers in some cases, are unaccounted for. Instilling an interest in a subject is equally as important as giving a solid grounding, yet more emphasis is made on the latter.


Time

As a seventeen year old student who spends the majority of my time looking forward to learning, there is almost nothing that infuriates me more than activities whose sole purpose is essentially to waste my time. As I have said accounting is a good example of this. I would much rather learn more types of final accounts than to practice adding long lists of numbers. Another example is certain areas of curriculum which are repeated from junior certificate to leaving.

I learned basic algebra in 6th class (all due to a particularly insightful teacher, not to the Department of Education), and again in first year. Then at the start of fifth year, the first two chapters of the textbook,which we spent almost an entire month on was linear algebra. Forcing a very good honours leaving cert maths class, most of whom received As in the junior cert, to revise basic linear algebra for the month of September is ridiculous. Thankfully, most teachers of my other subjects tended to skip all of the first several chapters.

I don't particularly have a problem with having to revise topics over and over again, except, it shows a sort of immature attitude towards students. If the department actually believes that sixteen and seventeen year old leaving cert honour students need to revise basic linear algebra, I have to wonder what standards we're aspiring to, treating young adults like thirteen year old will not instill a sense of capability or maturity to students.


College Applications

The points system appears to be a very fair, well-balanced, idealistic approach to college entry. It is very simple, supply and demand, the brightest students will apply for the courses which tend to be the most profitable in the long term job market, and also usually the most challenging courses to obtain a degree. The key word here is usually. The students who enter are not necessarily well suited to said course, and could possible be there only for the well paid career at the end. A perfect example of this is medicine. The reason the HPAT was introduced in the first place is because far too many students were applying for the medicine courses, all because the career afterwards is quite well paid, not because they had a particular interest in the profession.

An example of the inadequacy this causes, is the story of a friend of mine. He has been programming for a very long time, and knows much of what is thought in first year computer science degrees. Now, in an ideal system, these skills would be recognized, and he would be able to complete a computer science degree at any university he chooses. However, recently points needed for computer science has shot up. Why? Because it promises a very secure job afterwards. Now, my friend, in all likelihood, will not obtain the points needed for the particular courses he wants. Yes, he will do well in math or physics, but after that, without computer science as a subject to bolster his points, his place at whatever ideal college he wants could be taken by someone who has never programmed before, far more likely to drop out of the course prematurely. The system tends to breed drop out rates in cases like this unfortunately.

I think a move towards a more interview/portfolio based system needs to happen. Some courses have started to do this, actually accepting candidates who do subjects more relevant the course or basing acceptance on an interview and/or portfolio of previous work. For example, DCU has started a computer science which does not take CAO points into account whatsoever. The candidate completes an interview and submits a portfolio of previous computer work and only requires a minimum grade in maths at leaving cert to apply.


To Finish

All in all I grow less happy with the education system as I progress through it. During the beginning of secondary school I was quite happy to plod along, learning the basics of my subjects and gaining a solid grounding in them.  However, as I grew older, I begin to become more independent in my learning, something which is not catered for in the Irish education system.

I also began to notice the lack of a feedback loop in the system. There are certain areas in subjects that students do not want to learn, teachers do not want to teach and are no longer relevant to the subject or needed by the students later on. In the same way, there are also many topics students want to learn, or would benefit more from doing so. I haven't seen any changes made because of these reasons however.

Essentially, the overall problem that I find with the education system is
the lack of an atmosphere which actually encourages a love of learning and love
of the subject in students. The static, non-evolving system needs to change
also. It needs to be ready to change, be modular, adaptive and change at will,
not stuck in the curriculum or teaching methods of the last 30 years.

I realise this probably sounds very much like a rant now..

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