An NFB Message To Those Taking Exams

Students: The Leaving Cert is an awful, excruciating unfit-for-purpose exam. For many of you, the three digit number you get from it will have little to no bearing on your life or prospects. The knowledge you need to get those numbers, even less so. For those who seek college places, the vast majority of the knowledge you have acquired in school will be similarly useless, both in 3rd level and real life. I have nothing but sympathy for you, being put into the position you are in, tricked into thinking the next FEW weeks will define you. They won’t. Your life and job experiences in the first year after the Leaving Cert will provide a sterner test of your future prospects than that exam.

As for the Junior Cert, it’s a pointless relic that will both mean and get you next to nothing in the real world. The JC is 0.1 ahead of your exams at the end of 2nd year in terms of importance, and was treated with laughable disdain by the faculty at my school, but of course, only after we had completed it.

I write all that after reading a lot of “Don’t stress” and the like. I disagree with that sentiment. Do stress. Until it’s over, and you have gotten the requisite three digit number to continue studying if that is your desire, at an institution where independent thinking is encouraged, not stifled. Then you can start to forget the useless nonsense so much of the curriculum contains.

Allow me to go through each of the seven subjects I took in the Leaving Cert seven years ago and expand upon what I learned, and what I retained. In no particular order:

English – I can say that the English class I was mandated to take encouraged a love of good literature and of Shakespeare, so I’m grateful for that. It did not, through its emphasis on rote learning and beating the system, encourage a love of poetry. For creative writing, the instruction I received was minimal, and the emphasis was on simply learning off various themes and ideas to regurgitate onto the page when discussing King Lear or The True History of the Kelly Gang.

Most of the best books you will ever read are the kind that school authorities wouldn’t allow within a hundred miles of an actual curriculum, so English class suffers from a certain amount of conformity – teachers and then students are encouraged to focus on only a very select amount of textbooks. When mine tried to get out of this pattern with the aforementioned Kelly Gang, a very entertaining and unique book, the class suffered due to a lack of analysis being readily available. When I took grinds in English, the tutors had nothing to offer on that book.

Irish – I was always terrible at Irish, and have a relationship with the language that skirts the bounds of adversarial. Roughly five minutes after I had completed the exam, for which I received the lowest passing mark and was happy with it, I had ceased any attempt to retain information on it. Unless you are one of the staggeringly low number of people who will speak Irish on a daily basis, so will you, no matter what you might think.

Maths – Most of the maths I actually use day to day, I have known since finishing primary school. Obviously, some will go on to use Maths to a greater extent than others depending on college choices and employment prospects. The vast majority of us will make do with the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, ignoring various other theorems and more complex algebraic equations as something that has no relevance in the real world, when calculators and other options exist to do the work for us.

History – This was always my great skill, and I can say without any degree of hyperbole that I would have aced the LC in my second year if given the opportunity to take it. This subject simply came far easier to me than any other. Since I went on to study history in 3rd level, this was by far the most useful subject I took in school, but I was struck, after a completing only a few weeks in my alma mater, the rank difference in the approach between secondary and third level. In secondary level, history is something to be learned off. In third, it’s something you are required to think about, or struggle. I imagine that’s the same for most subjects.

Geography – I wasn’t too bad at this either, but lack of use for what I learned has resulted in most of it slipping out of my head. Population statistics and the formation of oxbow lakes is the kind of stuff that will be useful for some, but for most will be relegated for use as a table quiz outlet.

Business Studies – I have never owned a business and don’t know if I ever will, but I can at least acknowledge the usefulness of this subject and some of the things it contains, especially in regards consumer rights, basic accountancy and looking into how money works. This is the kind of subject that gives practical knowledge and is useful in many ways in the real world.

French – I was never good at it, but I recognise the obvious practicality of having to learn a major European language in school, even to a basic extent.

That’s it. Out of those seven, there are none, bar some elements of French and Business Studies, which I could describe as critical for moving past education and into the actual world, not for everyone. Individuals will take more from some subjects, but the vast majority of the curriculum is poorly designed.

What would I change? I would put in more electives. In fact, I’d make everything an elective. Split English into a study of the language ala French and English Literature. Remove the special emphasis on Irish, especially the ridiculous necessity of passing it in order to study at most 3rd level institutions, regardless of what you’re hoping to study there. More emphasis on Spanish, as the language of much of the world. The scrapping of transition year, in favour of a more constant program that focuses on fundamental skills and tasks for life – cooking, budgeting, maintenance, job seeking, house hunting, sexual health, that must be taken but requires no exam. A PE assessment process. A revamp and greater importance for CSPE as a class to become involved in the political process of the nation. Trashing religion class, an outdated use of the curriculums space. Have at least 25% of every subjects mark come down to independent project work. A requirement to take part in some form of extra-curricular activity, be it sports or academically based. Scrapping the Junior Cert completely, and implementing at least two series of “mocks” for the LC instead.

Unfortunately, our schools and education department are stuck in a hopelessly inefficient system, making only the bare minimum of changes and bad ones when they do, like the extra 25 points for Math, the kind of band-aid that does nothing to fix underlying problems in the system.

So, students, do your best to regurgitate the required knowledge onto your answer booklets to an extent that society deems acceptable, and pray you do it well enough to make it to a promised land of greater opportunity for intellectual advancement, or to wherever you feel best suits you and your desires. Unless you’re doing the Junior Cert, in which case nothing you do matters that much.

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One Response to An NFB Message To Those Taking Exams

  1. Anthony says:

    Ah, curriculum design. A subject near to my heart that has produced a great deal of ranting on my part. (Warning, this got long)

    I agree with your suggestions in broad strokes, but would add some things. Firstly, the problems with the curriculum start in primary school. The primary school curriculum is bloated and produces extremely shallow knowledge. In a world where most students will have access to the internet (and going forward the number without will continue to shrink) the focus of the entire education system needs to move away from learned-off knowledge and move towards teaching the skills necessary to direct your own learning. At primary level, that’s relational skills, reading, writing, maths, and a degree of critical thinking -a basic introduction to the scientific method and the idea of finding evidence from reliable sources to back up your ideas. (“Relational skills” is the ability to answer questions like “who is your mother’s brother’s wife?” or “if A is larger than B, and B is larger than C, is C larger than A?” These skills have been shown to be the fundamental, molecular level building blocks of all intelligent performance, and explicit teaching of them creates substantial increases in performance, especially for struggling students). The rest of the time in the day can be taken up with “Cool interesting stuff” time. Some art, some history, some geography, some science – framed in such a way that students learn to chase the knowledge themselves as they grow older. I think this would work without any particularly mandated curriculum, but with a mandated level of variety and student-directed learning. The idea is to reinforce Finding Out Cool Things as being self-reinforcing (And it is when we’re young, but the system trains it out of us).

    This foundation should make it easier to implement the kinds of changes you suggest, as students would have the basic skills to do more independent learning. Love the idea of scrapping the JC in favour of a 6 year program with more electives. A credit system might take away some of the Big Bad Exam pressure as well, allowing you to take exams in 4th, 5th, and 6th year to earn credits/points incrementally.

    As for content, CSPE needs a huge revamp, and should continue to be mandatory. The same with SPHE, as it needs to add more research based stuff on sexual health, relationship skills (this NEEDS to be included with the raw biology of sex education,) physical health in general, and psychological resilience (this also needs a MUCH bigger focus. Training in psychological resilience is the best preventative medicine for mental health there is). Religion could be replaced with a “world cultures” elective and be far more beneficial.

    Maths is the big one that needs its content totally overhauled. Most of the honours level maths stuff is only useful if you pursue a scientific career path, and even then, you’ll be relearning it in college. Instead, there should be a huge emphasis on statistics and probability, and applying that thinking to evidence presented to you. That kind of skill is useful in any walk of life – even if you don’t actively have to do the maths, being trained to think in statistically accurate ways makes you better at judging information and avoiding common cognitive errors. And if you do pursue a scientific career path, you’re far better prepared for most of the maths you’ll have to do in non-physics sciences and social sciences.

    I also think there should be a critical thinking class that covers formal logic, cognitive biases, finding information on the internet and judging its accuracy, etc. The reasoning for that focus on critical thinking, self-directed learning, psychological resilience and proficiency with probability is that as the economy changes and technology advances ever faster, the best skill you can have as a potential employee is the ability to retrain yourself quickly and effectively, knowing how to find accurate information and synthesizing it quickly into a new skill set.

    (I don’t like the idea of examining PE, but I do like the idea of moving the focus from “doing sports twice a week” to “teaching you about keeping yourself fit and healthy and putting it into practice”. Perhaps it could be examined partially by exam on your knowledge of physical health, and partially by a “continuous assessment” that doesn’t reward performance so much as a consistent effort to increase your baseline)

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