Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Education Policy and Teacher Conferences

An intelligent child participating in class, yesterday.

The second week of the Easter Holidays is conference season for the three main teachers’ unions. This year, the INTO meets in Belfast, the TUI assemble in Cork and the ASTI meet in Killarney of the lakes.

Your faithful correspondent’s crystal ball can predict the coverage of the difference conferences right now and save everybody a lot of gas. The biggest single topic will be money, of course. There will be stories about school divestment, all focusing on the urgency of the thing and none trying to figure out how two sides who want something to happen can’t make something happen.

And there will be earnest thought pieces about the need for greater emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in both secondary and primary schools. STEM advocacy is so popular now that it wouldn’t surprise your correspondent if the only thing stopping some advocate form suggesting STEM subjects be taught in the womb is the fear of raising a hare in the matter of the Eighth Amendment, and we’ll get plenty of that in days to come, thank you very much.

All of these motions will be discussed by mostly earnest people who have an interest in their profession and are trying to make it better. But there is an elephant in the room that is seldom discussed, and that was only drawn to your correspondent’s attention over the weekend.

While browsing in the top floor of Hodges Figgis bookstore on Dublin’s Dawson Street, your faithful quillsman got talking to a maths teacher, who was in there because, he told me, he likes to stay on his game and ensure he has fresh questions with which to challenge his students.

We got talking about maths in general, and the nature of the subject. I half-expected a jeremiad against Project Maths, a recent initiative of the Department that is roundly despised by any maths teachers of my own acquaintance, but no. This man told me that the single biggest problem that he sees in his classes is that the poor standard of verbal reasoning among the children means that some of them struggle to understand the question itself, to say nothing of being able to answer the thing.

Stephen Leacock wrote a much-loved essay called A, B, and C: The Human Element in Mathematics, in which he speculated about the real lives of those mysterious characters who appear in maths questions – A can dig a hole at twice the speed of B, who himself digs holes at half the speed of C. If C digs three holes an hour, how long does it take A to dig five holes?

A glance at current Leaving Cert papers suggests that these sorts of problems are all over the shop, as part of making maths more “relevant.” But what it’s actually doing is making maths harder, because the child doesn’t have the skills to read the question. It seems nobody was paying attention to that one.

It’s very hard to get to the truth of these things. Teachers can feel a little paranoid about people always having a go at them, and journalists find divestment so much more box-office than dull educational theorizing. But if this anecdotal evidence is generally reflective of the current state of affairs, this is a time bomb that can fracture the state even further when it blows.

It seems the notion of the homework-less school is more and more in fashion at the present time. And that’s fine, for those who realise that, while one agrees with it at supper in Sandymount, one has been reading to Meadhbh and Conchobar since they were toddlers and making damn sure they were literate before they even got to school.

But what about the kids whose parents don’t read, and aren’t literary, or well-educated, or even educated at all? The State education system is meant to provide a safety net for them, so that they are given the one and only shot at escaping a poverty trap – education. But the State is failing badly in this remit and politicians who claim to represent the disadvantaged and marginalized in society are too busy making jackasses of themselves time and time again over water charges and other nonsense rather than trying to do something, anything, useful for once in their careers.

Class doesn’t matter. This isn’t the 19th century anymore. Education is what separates haves and have-nots now, and it is legitimate to wonder who is shouting for the have-nots when it comes to education. Not one damn person from what I can see.

Enjoy the teachers’ conferences. I am not looking forward to the 1,500 word think-piece in tomorrow’s Irish Times drawing a shrewd parallel between the divestment delay and the Tuam babies cover-up, but I am grateful that I would be able to read it if I wanted to. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for that ability, and my heart breaks for those who will never get the opportunity to learn as I learned. God help them.

FOCAL SCOIR: One hour and forty minutes, of course.