Friday, August 22, 2014

The ESRI and the True Nature of Education

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Economic and Social Research Institute, the ESRI, have published a report about the Leaving Cert. The report, titled “Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions”, is a sequel to the Institute’s 2011 hit, “From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students.”

This year’s report is shorter than the 2011 version – it is seventy-four thousand words long, five thousand shorter than before. One would like to think it’s shorter become some editor, with his cigarette, eyeshade and blue pencil, returned the first draft to the authors with instructions to “punch it up a little bit,” but hope may be in vain.

As may be any hopes of the authors that anyone would read their reports. Seventy thousand words qualifies as novel-length – who on earth is going to plough through all that, and why? A look at what appeared in the press last week would suggest that not only does the ESRI’s Leaving Cert Report tell us nothing we don’t already know, it is based on some painfully naïve suppositions about how the great world turns around.

The ESRI report tells us that social class is a major factor in whether or not a child goes to university, a revelation equal in shock to hearing that night follows day or water is wet.

Some years ago, possibly as many as twenty, Fintan O’Toole wrote a genuinely magnificent column in the Irish Times about the nature of social class. He considered two children, both born on the same day, and rolled dice at each pivotal stage in their development to see what their luck would be like in life.

At birth, the middle class kid rolled a six and the working class kid rolled a one. By the time the kids were in school the gap was of the order of 24-4 or 30-6 and will never be bridged. That’s how the world turns, and has done for as long as humanity has recorded its own history.

The ESRI report does address the problem of students learning off answers for the Leaving Cert, but not quite in the way you might expect. Should the State make an effort to make the foremost exam in the State less predictable than clockwork and taxes?

Why, sure they could do that but the ESRI would be much happier if “discussion could usefully focus on the potential role of project work and team work within senior cycle in equipping young people with the kinds of skills they need for lifelong learning and the labour market.”

This is the sort of stuff we have to listen to all the time about education. Forget all those fuddy-duddy notions about learning stuff you didn’t know. Project work and teamwork are very much where it’s at.

Reading these sorts of theories, you would be forgiven for wondering if some of the theorists have ever worked on a project or in a team, because the chief thing you learn from working on a project or in a team is that Hell is other people.

Projects aren’t collaborative efforts. The majority of people on a project aren’t pushed. They’ll do enough to keep the boss off their backs but after that, well, life is for living, not projects, as far as they’re concerned.

One person on the project will do more than half the work, for different reasons – enthusiasm, natural leadership, fear, whatever. But as sure as God made little green apples there will also be at least one person on the project who won’t do a tap, not even under threat of violence. He or she has figured out that the leader and/or the others will crumble and cover for him rather than shop him to the bosses. And that sort of Machiavellianism is not a lesson that we should be teaching our children.

The other thing you have to wonder about these educational theorists is if they ever met a child. They seem to have a very vague idea of how children operate. The theorists will tell you that, rather than hammering home times tables and handing out mountains of homework, if you just open the child’s minds to the wonders of mathematics, they’ll light up like tiny stars on every point of the co-ordinated plane.

The theorists tell you that people shiver and break out in hives at the very mention of the world “maths” because the teachers are teaching it badly. The theorists may be assured that if the maths teachers knew a better way to teach maths they would do, for the same reason they walk into the classroom, rather than hop.

The current vogue in teaching maths seems determined to make what was once straightforward complex, for no apparent reason. Its proponents say it’s because it encourages the children. But being confused isn’t the same as thinking, a fundamental point the theorists seem to miss.

The US equivalent of our Project Maths is called the Common Core. One of the Common Core support materials outlines an old school maths question – “If 3(y-1)=8, what is y?” – and goes on to say it’s no good because “this question is an example of solving equations as a series of mechanical steps.”

How is that a bad thing? All maths is built on one single sentence, written by Euclid of Alexandria, three or four hundred years before the birth of Christ. “A point is that of which there is no part” is the sentence with which Euclid opens his book, The Elements. Euclid took the smallest thing there is, a thing can cannot be broken into smaller parts, and built a whole mathematical world on it, in a series of mechanical steps.

Reader, if it was good enough for Euclid, it’s good enough for you. If you got your Leaving Cert results last week, congratulations and the best of luck to you. If you’re facing into the Leaving next year, there is one little-known and under-exploited trick that will stand to you. Keep doing your homework. Everything falls into place after that.