Changing the Curriculum

I’ve been reading a document by the Irish National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). It’s a framework for a new Junior Cycle, how we educate students from age 12 to 15. The link is below. I have some observations.

The document opens with some comments on how easy it is to achieve change on paper, when it’s so hard to do in classrooms. This first implies that the change is always good, and more importantly has to be imposed from above because those in the frontline can’t innovate by themselves. This is a fallacy. Time and time again we see teachers changing what they do when it grows stale, that what good teachers do. I find newly qualified teachers are great for giving us, the more settled, a push to rethink.

This opening of the framework also frequently mentions the consultation process. It gives no details of this undertaking, it neither lists the participants or tells us who said what. Peter Lydon reckons it might take a Freedom of Information request to find the answers here.
The list of contributions to the consultation process is here
Thanks Karen

Next the document tells us that previous attempts at reform failed because they didn’t change the methods of assessment. This is classic reverse engineering:

– lets change the method of assessment’ (because our PISA scores are out of sync)

– but how to justify that?

– let’s say we’ve tried everything else, so it must be the method of assessment

The real problem here is with the anxiousness to parse the PISA scores into an apocalyptic moments for Irish education. Read this by Kevin Denny.

To be positive for a moment, the framework will devolve power to schools to draw up programmes, particularly for short courses, themselves. This appears to be a solid idea, but the closer you look at it the more it appears that a staff in situ over the next few years will have huge power. We all know staffrooms go through changes, but once decisions are made about which subjects or short courses are to be adopted how easy will they be to undo? There is genuine fear that subjects like Geography and History (which I teach) will disappear because of staffing considerations, never to reappear.

More likely though the power will devolve to management which will have huge power to drive the school in whatever curricular direction it wants, a power previously unheard of. Readers in England might want to comment on what devolution like this means for teachers in classrooms. Either way it will mean huge variations in how reform is delivered.

Further on, the NCCA framework presupposes learning can be measured. How can this be done without copious paperwork and pretend measuring criteria. We know each kid moves at a different pace, but how do we measure this? These kids will now be taught at a common level, so where do we allow for the gifted or the challenged?

As an aside the document seems to imply 1st Year will be a transition from Primary, am I right here?

On page 15 we get to 24 ‘Statements of Learning’. While the NCCA seems to hope these statements will be applied across the board curriculum. When you know how a school works, it’s not hard to see these being used to justify one subject and reject another. It’s worth saying at this stage that the document is clouded in jargon, ‘a student describes, illustrates, interprets, predicts and explains patterns and relationships’ (this means Geography I hear) , ‘the student learns how to think and act sustainably’, ‘the student takes initiative, is innovative and develops entrepreneurial skills’, what do any of these things mean? Why not just say Geography, Business Studies etc.?

The next question I have is how will the mix of subjects and short courses be timetabled? Has anyone in NCCA ever drawn up a timetable? Has anyone in the NCCA thought of practicalities at all? Later on we find the new system will be rolled out gradually, despite the hope that ‘we all jump together’, English will be first (as an english teacher, thanks for that), followed by others as we proceed. This will mean both Junior Certificate and Junior Cycle will be examined in the first number of years and the full roll-out won’t be until maybe 2020. Practicalities matter, wouldn’t it have been better to pilot the programme than introduce it in this way?

Key skills. There are many but only two are elaborated on: literacy and numeracy. A colleague recently compared the way these have become ubiquitous to the way ‘gender studies’ was the compulsory unit of most CPD in the 1980s and 1990s. They bring us back to PISA, the peg on which the whole framework hangs. Have you read this yet? Read it and come back.

When it comes to assessment the NCCA has proposed a model comprising two components, a terminal exam and a portfolio, 60/40 (not to mention 100% Junior Cert. exams for the first few years). The State Examinations Commission will handle the exam, schools will handle the portfolio. It’ll be sold as something that’s being done already in Art, Technology, CSPE, History and Geography at Leaving Cert. etc. Except it isn’t. While teachers supervise coursework now, they are loath to mark it, or mark the work of their colleagues’ students. Is this ‘internal moderation’ just about saving money on examiners at end of the year? Or are ‘moderators’ to be compensated? I won’t be holding my breath on that.

I haven’t quoted from the document yet but this nugget is worth reproducing:

A move from a reliance on external assessment to a system that combines external assessment with assessment in schools at a time when schools are subject to the pressures of working with reduced resources is challenging for all concerned. These pressures are widely felt across the education system, but can, ironically, generate greater support for changes in practice that have a direct impact on learning. P28

Translation: they’ll be no resources because we have no money but you’ll all muddle through because your all so lovely.

A few final observations:

  • we’re supposed to devise our own programmes but exemplars will guide our way?
  • not exam focussed but sample exam papers available. Remember how late new LC Home Economics papers arrived some years ago?
  • ‘a network of schools to support preparation of guidelines for implementation’, some already ‘volunteered’: anyone know of one?
  • Transition Year is one of bulwarks against completely exam driven education along with extracurriculars. Will both of these now be subsumed into Junior Cycle
  • the website introductory video uses prezi, v text heavy, inspectors would not be happy!

So. It’s a painstaking read. It’s jargon-heavy and pretty aspirational. There’s plenty to occupy teacher, parent and student representatives and much to negotiate. It’s at best based on an opaque consultative process and definitely not designed by practitioner. I’m not going to deny the hard work of the people involved, but wonder if without a budget they’re just shouting down a well.

Finally a dig: it’s a pity governments listen to economic and business ‘experts’ when framing education policy, and not education experts, perish the thought.

The NCCA framework for Junior Cycle is here (pdf)

Here’s a wordle of the document


8 thoughts on “Changing the Curriculum

  1. I agree that it does seem like a lot all at once and in a rush!As a relatively newly qualified teacher (2007) its not the change that I fear its more the joining together of subjects, as a history teacher who loves the subject at both Junior and Senior Cycle I’d hate that it would perhaps not be so prominent. It seems like the government feel they have said they’re changing JC and they’re pushing ahead regardless of the consequences, good or bad!

    1. I agree about the rush Edel. I wonder too how a student can move from a common paper at Junior Cycle to a LC higher paper. The DES isn’t known for joined up thinking, the NCCA will probably have a new Senior Cycle Proposal by 2017.

  2. FYI, the list of submission to the Junior Cycle consultation is here:
    Ours is listed under Gifted Advocacy and Support. As you can see, there were submissions from the TUI, the ASTI, the Teaching Council, FETAC and the Joint Managerial Body, as well as several from individual teachers and principals. The consultation was open to everyone and was ongoing for a considerable period of time. I’m not sure how much more the NCCA could have done to ensure that every interested party had the opportunity to get involved. I’m certainly pleased that our group took the time to consider and submit our views, especially as some of our proposals have found a place in the new Junior Cycle.
    As regards your final ‘dig’, I’ve just done a quick calculation of the submissions and I hope you will be pleased to note that 24 of the 42 were from education and 9 from business or industry, so that’s 57% from ‘education experts’ and 21% from ‘economics or business’ sources, and that is counting in the likes of The Irish Film Institute, Irish Aid and the Safefood Commission.

    1. Thanks Karen, I’ve added that link to the blog. My point was though that the consultation had been framed in such a way as to make submissions narrow along the limits set down by the NCCA. I should have been clearer. I’m not retracting my dig though! I can see what your submission achieved and
      I’ve read Catherine’s blogpost on it, without funding for schools, training for teachers and support for students, it’s just fine words brought on by a panic about standardised tests.

    2. Dazzled – The quote about the number of submission is a result ofme not being accurate enough in a tweet to Levdavidovic. There was 42 submissions mailed submissions. Some of these were invited. Neither the Subject Associations nor the Subject Association Representative Group were informed nor invited to make submissions. This is not just mere oversight. Additionally, there was an online webform on which submissions couldbe made. There re 60,000 teachers in Ireland. there was only 450 online submissions.
      In terms of what the NCCA could have done – the answer is lots. They launched the ‘consultation process’ on April 21st 2010. This is one of the busiest times for teachers – the run up to exams – and it tends tobe all we concentrate on. After that is the summer. So unless the ‘publicity’ captureed teachers when it first launched, they would have missed it and then forgotten about it. But in reality, most know nothing of it. the only notice sent to schools was a poster and a letter. These ‘may’ have been posted on rspective staffroom noticeboards i.e. lost a mid apile of other notices in what are usually crowded conditions. But that’s assuming they were posted on the noticeboard in the first instance.
      By the NCCAs figures, the largest source of knowledge of the ‘consultation’ process was by word-of-mouth. Hardly exemplary stuff.

      If they were serious about consultation, they would have begun the process in a September. They would have contacted the Teaching Council and requested they email the details to registered teachers so that EACH teacher knew of the consultation. AS it is, today, most teahers are unaware of the reforms!!! They would have taken out adverts in the newspapers butmost importantly, they woudl not have rushed it. that of course is on the assuumption that this has nothing to do with saving money and eveything to do with finding the optimum pedagogy for the 21st century.

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