Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Leaving Certificate Curriculum Reform: Discussion

4:00 pm

Mr. Aidan Farrell:

We have had a really interesting debate this afternoon on knowledge acquisition, skill development etc. in terms of the leaving certificate. Phrases such as "rote learning", "memorisation" and so on have been used and they are used regularly when discussing the leaving certificate. When one considers the leaving certificate examination, its core purpose is to assess in the individual examinations the extent to which each and every student has met the objectives of the particular subject. There is a range of elements in every curriculum which must be tested in the examination system. The most basic of those is knowledge. After a three-year programme of study at junior cycle or a two-year programme of study at senior cycle, students will have engaged with a subject and it is quite reasonable to expect that they will have acquired a body of knowledge in respect of that particular area of study.

In and of itself, it is important but also in terms of actually looking at the other requirements of the particular syllabus because without a body of knowledge to start with, it is very difficult to ask students to show that they understand it, can apply it or can bring analytical thinking or synthesis skills to it. One needs it in the first instance to be able to show that one has acquired some knowledge and then to be able to apply it.

It is probably fair to say that it is a poor enough examination if it rewards students who can learn off reams of material beforehand which can simply be replicated on the day of the exam. It is not a great examination if students do really well as a result of doing that. In the leaving certificate examination, however, the questions are framed in such a way as to force students to show that they understand, can apply and bring the higher order skills to bear. I am saying that based on some independent research that was undertaken a number of years ago by the University of Oxford and Queen's University in Belfast. Researchers reviewed the syllabi for six subjects in depth. They looked at the syllabi, the examination papers over a period of ten years in a row and the exam materials, that is, the scripts completed by candidates in those six subjects in one year. They then did something which had not been done internationally previously. They engaged with over 1,000 students and then with focus groups of both teachers and students to find out how they prepared for the exams, how that preparation matched up with what happened in the exam hall and ultimately, what the results were like. The researchers found that students who focused too narrowly in terms of preparing for the exam, in other words, those who believed they knew what would come up in the exam and that they could ignore elements of the syllabus completely, did less well. The research also showed that our teachers believe that it is not possible for students to achieve very high marks in the leaving certificate without showing the higher order thinking skills that everybody is talking about and which are considered very important in the modern world. The research team concluded that predictability in the leaving certificate is not a problem.

The leaving certificate is an important examination and nobody can gainsay that. It is important in and of itself because students are obviously completing their second level education at that point but it is also important in terms of selection for third level. That makes it the ultimate high stakes examination. Students, their teachers and their parents will focus really strategically in terms of preparing for the examination. Students will, quite rightly, use the material that is available to them. They will look at past papers, marking schemes, sample answers and so on, in the course of their preparation. That is a perfectly rational and understandable thing to do. Anyone who has ever gone for a job interview or for promotion will prepare for it in advance. Students are asked in the examination for that mix of knowledge, which is an important building block in any subject, and the associated higher order skills which are also important in a modern economy. The report itself is testimony to the strengths of the leaving certificate system.

I might just pick up on one point made by another contributors this afternoon with regard to students progressing from the new junior cycle English programme on to the leaving certificate. Undoubtedly, this is something that was in the minds of the NCCA when the programme itself was being designed and also, in terms of ourselves when the assessment for junior cycle was being designed. I am in absolutely no doubt that the space for progression is there. Our sense is that across all of the assessment modalities that exist in junior cycle English, between the classroom based assessments, the feedback from teachers, other assessments at school level and the examination itself, students who perform at the top end of the higher level junior cycle examination are well fit to progress to higher level English at leaving certificate. I might also add that English was one of the subjects that the independent researchers looked at when they were looking at the predictability issue but they did not identify any problem around English. As independent reviewers of our system, they did not believe that rote learning or inappropriate learning are at the core of studying leaving certificate English or in the actual examination.


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