There are many problems (issues if you’d prefer) facing Irish science education but the most important is philosophical. The idea upon which it is based is flawed. Most of the problems we have today follow on from this.
The education system we have in Ireland today – and it is much the same as that which exists in the USA and the UK – is based on an obsession with the industrial concept of consistency being the hallmark of quality. This has its roots in the 1980s when Governments, such as that of Margaret Thatcher in the UK, wanted to put pressure on poorly performing schools and teachers.
The British public, for the most part, initially supported attempts to make under performing teachers and schools more accountable for their actions. However, the way that the Thatcher Government decided to do this led to the introduction of a whole new set of problems that we are still saddled with today.
The problem was that the Thatcher administration began to assess value in education based on ideas imported from the corporate culture. The notion of consistency across all schools and teaching departments was introduced for example, with its roots in Toyota Cars. The British Government back then thought that schools, like the car industry, could be homogenized, so that students could somehow have the same quality of experience no matter where they were in the UK. Despite the fact that schools are a reflection of the communities they are located in, with all their problems or privileges.
Greater consistency in business is reassuring to customers and helps build brand loyalty and increase sales figures. However, it cannot be usefully applied to the education system which is populated by human beings with all their flaws and talents. Despite this obvious truth, the Irish government too has for decades now used the concept of consistency to assess the quality and success of schools and their teachers. In this bizarre world parents are consumers and schools the providers of education ‘product’.
In recent years, the publication in Ireland of school league tables, which show the percentage of students reaching third level colleges, has helped to embed the notion that schools are providing a product – that being access to third level education and greater career opportunities. Arguably, one of the main reasons that many parents will pay for private schools is that they know that this buys their children a better chance of a university place.
These developments have had a devastating impact on teacher training. Unlike in times past, trainee teachers in the classroom are assessed by a number of standard listed criteria, as if they were a new car rolling off the assembly line. There is little room for aspiring teachers to be different, or creative in their approach, even if they are so inclined. Neither is there much room for teaching inspectors to judge trainee teachers as individuals with their own style – rather they are forced into a box ticking exercise largely akin the role of the quality assurance inspector on the factory floor.
The treating of education as a commodity started many decades ago, but accelerated in the 1990s in the USA, UK and Ireland. At this point it is clear that this approach has failed. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that these three countries lag behind many of their peers in the PISA tables. PISA stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment. This is the gold standard method by which educators judge how 15 year olds compare across various countries on reading, mathematics and scientific literacy. Ireland has consistently placed in the middle or the bottom half of the table on maths and science compared to its industrialized rivals. It is significant that nations that regularly top the PISA tables in science and maths, such as Finland, South Korea and Japan, have pointedly rejected the attempt to introduce corporate methods into their education systems.
In Ireland, education has slavishly looked to the business world, with teachers buying in materials such as worksheets, and even class plans (surely class plans should be developed by teachers themselves) that are not tailored to their students. In Finland, in contrast, teachers are expected to use their creativity to draw up their own classroom materials, based on their knowledge of their own students. The teacher is given the freedom they require to teach the materials in their own particular creative way. Furthermore, science teachers in a given school will come together to design a curriculum that they believe is best suited to their students. In Ireland such notions run counter to the industrialization of education.
The science materials in Finland, thus, are far more likely to excite the students, as the teacher has designed them, and is also excited themselves about the process of learning. The materials change from year to year, and curricula change too. In Ireland, it is all about results. The system doesn’t really care whether an individual is a brilliantly creative teacher or not, or whether they are working with children that face particular challenges or not. Student teachers are assessed on how well they implement systems that have been borrowed from the corporate world. It’s a licence to bore.
These points are particularly true of science education, where student teachers potentially have a great deal of freedom to make the links between science and the ‘real world’ and to convey the excitement of scientific discovery. How does my iPhone work? What is the history of wireless communication? How is a pharmaceutical drug designed? These and other questions are just some examples of how students can engage with science. They might not be on the curriculum, but the key is to generate interest.
Teachers must be given more freedom if the profession is to attract more scientific talent. This freedom of professional action is a major draw as is seen in other countries, where salaries are not particularly high for teachers, yet many talented young people still want to become teachers. One reason they do is the prestige of being a teacher in countries where education is truly valued. The other is the opportunity for using personal creativity to truly engage students.
The dead hand of bureaucracy must be removed from the teacher training process and individual talent allowed to flourish. The Government needs to actively encourage the best scientific talent to enter teaching. To do this they must end the obsession with trying to pressurize poorly performing teachers of all kinds. If more talented teachers enter the profession this issue looks after itself.
There must be a sharp focus on encouraging independent thinking among students, in the science subjects. That is the basis of scientific enquiry after all. There must be an acceptance that teachers and students are individuals that simply cannot be treated like they are the latest Toyota cars. There is no one best way to teach, and no two teachers or students are the same.
Finally, there must be a real and true acceptance of the importance of science education in Ireland. There is, and has been, for many years, a situation where decision makers talk up the value of science, and they do things that are not in the best interest of science. There are many examples of this, and the latest came early this year when the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn announced that science cannot be made a compulsory subject in all secondary schools, because that would require that every school have a laboratory, and he said the money was not available to build such labs.
How much would it cost to fit out every school with a lab? Most schools already have laboratories after all. Now measure that public investment against the negative perception created in the minds of multi-national science and technology companies that have chosen to set up in Ireland. Some ‘people that matter’ must be questioning whether all the Government talk about the importance of science to Ireland’s future is simply blather.
The fact that science will not be available to secondary level students in some schools in Ireland, because the Government will not invest in building a laboratory for them is scandalous given all the talk about the strategic importance of science. This double talk on science must end. Then, the whole philosophical approach to science education must be re-examined.
This article was first published in Science Spin, September 2013 issue.
Sean Duke has a Higher Diploma in Education from UCD, and taught Biology to Leaving Certificate level before entering journalism full time.