I’ve spent a few weeks rereading and rereading an article from David McWilliams about education. This post won’t intend to pick a fight with Mr McWilliams, because while I know nothing about economics, I don’t publish or speak publicly on the topic. Unfortunately, Mr McWilliams knows nothing about education, but doesn’t have the reserve to leave it to those who are in the know.
His article begins by stating that the time has come to discuss teaching and education so that we can ‘get the best out of our people’. Line one: first mistake. Education, despite what some might have you believe is not a factory in which ‘our people’ are turned out in regular form like planks from a saw mill.
Rather schools are places where individuals move at their own pace, encouraged by their teachers and their parents, and where achievement is unmeasurable, a bit like trying to calculate how an economy will perform, it’s not an exact science.
The education system ‘as currently devised’, Mr McWilliams asserts is based on ‘rote-learning,… a grind based reward system’ and it ‘terrorises many hundreds of thousands of children, scarring them with stigmas and insecurities which they carry with them for life.’ Strong stuff, but lazy thinking from start to finish. The education system isn’t based on rote learning, in fact students with independent thought are reward for their work above a baseline understanding of facts and figures that any economist could, or should, grasp. Strikingly he assumes that success for students depends on them getting grinds to supplement their class work, it must appear so from Mr McWilliams’ vantage point, let me point out that many students do not need grinds because they work well within the schools they attend and their parents don’t see the need to undermine the strong work done by their children’s teachers in schools which are under resourced, and under staffed. The idea that thousands of people are left terrorised by their education would be laughable if it did not try to discredit the work those same thousands have done to succeed in whatever way possible. We are used to hearing economists declaring unsupported ideas like half-cocked hunters firing blunderbusses skyward in the hope of felling a single bird, but the idea that there are ‘hundreds of thousands of brilliant Irish people walking around today who believe that they are not brilliant’ because of the education they received must rank up there with the bank guarantee as a half-baked theory.
‘How many exceptional people do you know who will say to you “I hated school”?’, he asks, who were ‘stigmatised’ by their education into believing in a ‘single-answer narrow, group-think’. My answer? How many people have been stigmatised by their banks, how many have been subjected to the groupthink of property speculation, and how many schools teach banking, property speculation and financial mismanagement?
The desire to blame education for having a punish/reward system that creates self-consciously insecure people or over-confident zombies would hilarious if it weren’t so awfully pass-remarkable. Teachers do not as Mr McWilliams states ‘drone on about the need for the education system to create a good educated workforce’, teachers ‘drone on’ about education, education, education. Sometimes even, education as an end in itself, imagine!. Rather it is the economists, the politicians, the business people who demand an education system that puts kids in perfect round holes so they can have their perfect drones for their money-making schemes. Education is the opposite of all that. Education sets children free, a point Mr McWilliams makes repeatedly about his own story, lucky to get a good education he was prepared to take the chances that came his way, and flourish. He would do better to think on the stories of those kids who won’t get those chances because they’re stuck in classes of 30+ in primary school, or who won’t get to read the subjects they love in secondary school because one cut or other or one ‘reform’ or other destroyed that chance. Sure the economy changes all the time like he says but so do schools, basing his opinion of schooling today on a conversation with his daughter about subject choice in first year and his own recollection of streaming in schools in the 1970s and 80s (a practice completely discredited 30 years later) is so wide of the mark that it invites one to wonder what would happen if we applied the economic thinking of the 1980s to our current mess, what would happen? Coalition implementing austerity then, coalition implementing austerity now: and it’s schools that foster group-think? And for the record any school that ‘implicitly or explicitly’ labels students as ‘stupid’ or encourages other students to think that way isn’t a place I’d like to work or send my children to be educated, in the 1980s when I went to school myself, or indeed ever.
It’s pretty desperate to see Mr McWilliams writing that he has no answer when his children find school unchallenging. Part of the job of schools is to encourage students to reach outside themselves, and if a parent isn’t on board with the school it makes the kid’s life far more difficult. The creativity he marvels at in children (they play computer games) is something good schools harness, but part of school too is taking the time to challenge ourselves to solve the problems we find more demanding and outside our ken.
In the end, Mr McWilliams’ criticisms boil down to a dislike of schooling back in the day. The problem of reform of the method of assessment today, as Junior Cycle reform proposes, is that it drives a wedge between teachers and students, it puts parents and teachers at odds over the way the students are rewarded and it insists that paperwork at local school level is more important than an external national certification programme.
Schools back then, and schools now
Junior Cycle reform deserves better coverage than quick off the mark dismissal of teachers and schools who fear changing assessment, not because it doesn’t work, but because for the vast, overwhelming majority of students, parents and teachers the current system does work and they weren’t consulted on the implications of the changes being pushed upon them. Just think, Irish people having decisions made for them, without their prior consultation or approval, that sounds like something only economists could do…
The McWilliams article http://is.gd/bKfFbj