Junior Cycle Reform

This post is a little off topic for the site but as I am President of the Association of Geography Teachers of Ireland and given the current threat to remove Geography as a single, systematic course of study from the Core Curriculum of the Junior Cycle, it deserves an airing here. That and the cloak-and-dagger nature of the process just irks me.

The Jesuits had a phrase ‘Give me a boy until he is seven and I will show to you the man’. The quote is attributed to Loyola and exists in several versions. But I always understood it to mean that those characteristics which are present in the man (& woman) have their foundations in the early periods of a child’s development. Montessori knew this also.

There has been much criticism of the Junior Cycle (students 12-15 years of age). It started life as a criticism of the Junior Cycle Examinations but the need to reform this seems to have morphed into a radical change to the nature of Junior Cycle education in Ireland. There is much that can be improved. But one should always be wary of change for change sake and all the other reasons for proposed changes other than the explicit and verifiable improvement in standards. Interestingly, the National Parent’s Council – Post Primary have said the ‘system is not broken, why fix it?’.

The changes coming include more emphasis on literacy and numeracy – call it ‘teach to the test’ – (which seems to be based on a false understanding of the PISA scores). There was no mention of graphicacy in the literacy and numeracy plans.

There will be a reduced core – Irish, English, Maths and Science and of course CSPE. Schools will decide on the rest of the curriculum – probably including taster courses. Instead of the Junior Cycle being built around subjects, it will be built around skills. Content will have only the importance conferred on it by the students’ need to learn a skill. But because students will only be allowed sit 8 exams, there is a good chance they will only acquire the skills provided by the examinable subjects. Skills provided by other subjects may not be learned because they won’t need to be. We know this from the Leaving Certificate where many students don’t need Higher Maths for their college course and so they drop it to focus on their other 6 exams subjects.

Skills are important. But the teaching of them in a system in which they are learned cannot be said to be education.  It is mere training. Instead of educating the mind of a child, it seems we are now to treat them like monkeys doing tricks. Learned that skill? Here, have a peanut.

There will be a change to the examination process – with continual assessment of some sort carried out by someone (no one is quite certain who yet). This will have interesting consequences for standards – but one will have to be prepared to be flexible in one’s understanding of the term ‘standards’.

Adopting the education ‘reforms’ tried and tested in other jurisdictions 10 to 20 years ago and which have failed will not necessarily work here simply because we are a different country. Of course, the corollary is that they could. We don’t know. But one thing we do know is that ‘taster’ courses do not a rounded education make.

Just because knowledge can be found anywhere (this is usually taken to mean the internet), doesn’t mean children will go looking for it (say nothing about the digital divide). Teaching learning skills is important, but what learning will students do with those skills? By adopting a taster approach to subjects, students will miss out on the rigor that for many years defined Irish education.

While I have a bias, few could fail to see the importance of geography as a core component of a child’s education. The most important things in the education of a child, have to be taught early and often. There is a good chance that Irish children will go through second level education without ever having studied any geography (history is also in the same boat). We know that this has had profound consequences for British society.

People do not live in a vacuum where the mere possession of skills is sufficient to live.  They live in spaces and are affected deeply by them – economically, socially or physically. Fundamental to an understanding of the world and our place in it, is an appreciation of the skills, attitudes, values and knowledge conferred by geography. These are the weaker reasons for maintain geography as a core, single, systematic course of study at Junior Cycle. Here are ten more.

The removal of geography as a core subject at Junior Cycle would be a mistake. Several countries discovered this and have reintroduced it. No country can develop a smart, globalized economy without geography in their school system. www.agti.ie

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