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Reform in Irish Education

By 09004209 Apr 25, 2013 3569 Words
09004209 (Essay 1 from Section A)| EN4006
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Bachelor of Technology (Education) in Materials and Engineering Technology| Curriculum Studies - Orla McCormack|

Provide examples of effective (deep change) changes/reforms at post-primary level in Ireland and examples of ones that were not effective. Justify your selection of one change/reform from each category in some detail and propose related recommendations for the future.

It is extremely difficult to source a wide public or even professional consensus concerning the definitions of a change and a reform. Furthermore, changes and reforms can both be sub-categorised into two strains, they are; 1. Deep & 2. Surface. In addition, the words ‘change’ and ‘reform’ have two very different definitions when it comes to curriculum and schooling. To begin with, ‘change’ (in terms of education) can be vaguely described as a ‘bottom up’ alteration. Bottom up change is usually initiated by principals, teachers, parents and students. Change may be pursued by these people when they feel the must to respond to a need in their environment i.e. school (McCormack 2011). For me personally, being aware of these changes, past, present and potential, and how they come about is somewhat important as it can often be teachers that follow up any queries or matters parents or students may have. We, as teachers, play a vital role in initiating, and further to that, developing a possible change and seeking how it may be obtained. Following change, there is ‘reform’. Reform can again be imprecisely defined as a ‘top down’ movement. Contrary to change, reforms are imposed or enforced by the DES (Department of Education & Skills), the Minister for Education, Academics and/or Policy Makers – usually by means of legislation. (McCormack 2011) Consequently, reforms are beyond our control. If one day, I am posed with a reform suggested and put forward by the DES, I have no option but to comply. All other schools, principals, teachers and students must also comply with any new reforms implemented.

In order for revolution to happen as expected/planned, which is known as ‘deep change’, the following three areas need to be altered for the better. They are content, practice and most importantly beliefs & values, (Fullan 1991). Goodson 2010 also devised his own parallel areas that need to alter for deep change to occur; he refers to them as phases 1, 2 & 3. They are internal change, external change and personal change (resembling beliefs & values). In contrast, ‘surface change’ has a higher probability of occurrence. Adjusting content and practice can be done quite easily with research, effort and time. However, altering one’s beliefs and values is a totally new affair. As the hierarchy make plans for reform, this is their biggest impediment. Traditional ways (or what one is accustomed to) can often overwhelm new methods/ways which in turn will cause the reform to fall short.

As stated, educational reform/change is the process of improving education for the public. Minimal changes in education can have vast social returns, wealth and well-being. Historically, reforms have taken various manners because the incentive of reformers has fluctuated. Basically, they will either succeed or fail. So how can we measure the success/failure rate of a change/reform? How do we know what is needed in order for a ‘deep’ change/reform to occur? Research has found that successful educational changes occurred in situations where the schools were provided necessary support and were allowed discretion in determining how best to go about achieving the change (Seidman 1983). Measuring the success/failure rate of a reform/change is a complex process, Fullan (2001) observed, “The total time frame from initiation to institutionalization is lengthy; even moderately complex changes take from 3 to 5 years, while larger scale efforts can take 5 to 10 years with sustaining improvements still being problematic” (p.52). Failure, therefore, is incredibly possible, much more possible than success, realistically. We know that the improvement of schools is possible when the reform effort is well-thought out, when teachers are active agents in the change process, when there are sufficient resources and time to support reform, when capable leadership is present, and when school cultures change along with school structures. “These tenets about school change…have become common knowledge” (Datnow & Stringfield, 2000, p. 184). Based on this sanction, obviously a lot of time and effort is needed. You could say that all the above aspects are critical, none are optional, and should any be left out for whatever reason, failure is bound to occur.

In order to fully understand change and reform we need to take a look at relevant examples that have happened in the past or that are ongoing today, both successes and flops. One example, though extremely broad, of a reform that begun in the 1800’s and still continues today is the effort to reduce cost to students and society for continued education. Historically, education favoured the wealthiest, nowadays in some fields, it still does! When we think of private schools, grinds, tutoring etc., we think of the students whose parents are soaring on the ‘economic ladder’. There has been major work performed on this issue and it has improved dramatically. However, it has been restricted to wealthier countries and therefore education is not perceived as fair globally. This reform, in my opinion would fall under a success, solely due to the vast improvement of our educational systems in Europe, Ireland being one of them. Economics in some parts of the world make it next or near impossible to enforce reforms. Contrary to the global reform above, here is a well-known change that initially had the potential to be a phenomenal achievement, but fell at the hands of external forces such as government laws and legislations. The Durant School, thought up in the late 1960’s in Bradford (Iowa) by students, teachers and parents (therefore, bottom up: change) was conceived in 1971 with a non-traditional mission. As years passed, the Durant School had to periodically negotiate with external, hierarchy influences in order to secure legitimacy and ensure its survival. Over the years, new mandates and requirements have altered the Durant School ever so slightly over time, that it became a school like all others. The Spencer study (Goodson and Foote, 2000).

Another example of a successful reform is the Finnish Education System. In 2001, the first PISA results were published, since then Finland has been tremendously consistent in their results that they are now seen as one of the top education systems in the world. What makes it especially impressive is the consistency across all schools. No other country has as little variance between their so called ‘top’ school and their ‘bottom’ school. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of their socio-economic status or their family backgrounds. Due to this success, Helsinki (Finland’s capital) has become a major educational attraction. Policy makers and educationists alike flock to the city to try learn the secret of their success. Source: OECD2 (2010), PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I), OECD Publishing. A further example of a reform that looks like it might be failing, closer to home this time, is the new DCG course at Leaving Cert level. Design & Communication Graphics took over from the old Technical Graphics course in 2007. As the name suggests, the course is now moving from the one time dominant Mechanical Drawing, to communication through the aid of graphics. Also, the introduction of SolidWorks (3D mechanical CAD programme), now a whopping 40% of the final grade, should have encouraged more and more students to take up the subject. However, the numbers taking DCG have dropped below the numbers that took up Technical Graphics in the previous years. ‘Subject Inspection of Technical Graphics and Design and Communication Graphics Report’ (St. Louis Community School, Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo) from the DES.

Now that we fully understand what a reform and a change is, I can look into arguably the most successful reform in history. I will look again at the Finnish Education System. Prior to the year 2000, Finland never stood out to be one of the world’s greatest education systems. Research shows this, between the years of 1962 and as recent as 1999, Finland never excelled from that ‘average’ ranked zone in a series of international mathematical and science assessments. However, Finland policy makers were patient. Their rise to success wasn’t spontaneous. It has been a slow, steady and patient build up over the past four decades. The educational evolution in Finland is closely intertwined with the country’s economic development since World War II. This is by no means the whole story, Finland have education policies that other countries are continuously trying to emulate. However, some sceptics believe that other countries may not be able to learn from the Finnish system due to their homogenous culture. In spite of this, recent studies have shown that Helsinki is now home to more immigrants than ever.

Source: Statistics Finland

The same sceptics point out the advantage Finland have with their superior IT skills department, but fail to realise that the expenditure per pupil in Finland is well below the average spending pupils of the world. OECD 2010 Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States. It is also interesting to know that Primary School Teaching is now the most popular profession taken up by young people of Finland.

“My challenge was to develop a plan that guaranteed that this reform would ultimately be implemented in every Finnish community. There were lots of municipalities that were not eager to reform their system, which is why it was important to have a legal mandate. This was a very big reform, very big and complicated for teachers accustomed to the old system. It took several years, in some schools until the older teachers retired, for these reforms to be accepted”

Jukka Sarjala, Director-General of the National Board of Education, describing the task he faced as the person with key responsibility for planning and implementing this huge reform. As mentioned earlier, one of the main focuses of the new schools was to recognise all students equally and to give them all equal opportunity in school, regardless of family background. There are countless reasons why Finland is so flawless with its education. Beyond that, according to the Finland OECD Study 2010, all schools offer students free hot meals in school on a daily basis, dental and health services, psychological counselling and guidance; this proves how concerned they are for the well-being of their students. So why did the Finnish Education System reform succeed? Here are a number of lessons we can learn from Finland... An astonishing factor to their success is that almost 50 years ago, the plan was devised, and still, through a number of different governments, the plan stayed intact. Finland has managed to make teaching the single most looked-for profession among young Finns. They have done so by giving teachers more autonomy and more control over their classrooms, they teach how they think is the best way. Another attribute they possess is their ability to spend money wisely. Finland is by no means one of the wealthier countries in the OECD group, however, their schools are quite small, and their teacher salaries are in around the average mark. All principals are expected to teach as well as keep the school up and running on a daily basis. A final note to take from the Finns is trust. Trust, obviously cannot be legislated but can still be incorporated into teaching and learning, just like Finland have done so. Given the respect teachers have experienced in Finland, they are able to teach how they want, the classroom is theirs, and the resources are theirs. The granting of trust from the government to teachers, in turn enables trust to develop between students and teachers, and parents and teachers.

In comparison to the above, Ireland have failed at their efforts to bring about reform successfully. As mentioned previously, the DCG course in Leaving Cert has not got off to the start they would have wanted. Numbers taking up the subject have surprisingly fallen in the last couple of years. Sceptics even have been questioning its role in our curriculum, what its purpose is? Where will it take us? What do we learn from it? Is what we learn worthwhile? In England, they have abolished Graphics as a single subject, over the years there has been talks of doing the same here in Ireland. Representatives of DCG have been defending the subjects worth since it has came out. Dr. Niall Seery here in UL has informed us about all of this, just to make us aware of it for the future. He himself has defended our subject at a national level. This reform, only 3-4 years old, is already on the downhill. For my part, DCG is a substantial improvement on the Technical Graphics course a few years back. The policy makers have incorporated technology into the once boring pencil and paper subject, through the use of CAD modelling and computers, they have also introduced sketching as a big part of assessment. The ability to sketch and communicate graphically is a universal language. I, for one, would hate to see my favourite subject merge with another such as Engineering or Technology.

The second case I will look at in detail is the Durant School. As briefly discussed earlier, the Durant School went about teaching and learning in their own way. Their mission statement was like no other, it was ‘non-traditional’. Their view on education was not based on discipline, not on regulations like all other traditional schools, but on developing and sustaining a flexible education programme that catered for individual student needs and embraced the entire city landscape as a learning environment. Controversially, in my opinion, the Board of Education passed their application to open the school in 1971. It consisted of a junior high, and an elementary school. As stated earlier, every so often, the school had to comply with new laws and legislations. Over the years, the school was beginning to slowly grow parallel to all other schools in the state. It even had to forfeit the use of Carnegie course units as evidence of a legitimate academic programme. Their status as being iconic and exclusive was slowly disappearing. They were inevitably beginning to be driven by external manipulation i.e. the policy makers. Now, the school inescapably responds to changes made and enforced by outside stimuli. A passage that portrays this best is the fact that they were forced to change their exam system. There are now five standardised exams which schools have to comply with in order to be eligible as a learning environment in the US. Teachers accordingly had to teach students content that was specific to these exams. Students can no longer develop programmes of study that will mend their own flaws and weaknesses. One teacher expressed her disbelief at what the society were doing...

“So the [state tests] are coming and I think it’s a damn shame that that sense of autonomy, that ability to create your curriculum with high standards has to be thrown out every place by something that I think is artificial. It takes out the creativity of teaching and you’re teaching to the test. Just the thought that I’m doing this is totally counter to what I believe, it really is, but you know, I’m a captive . . . . You’re selling your soul to the devil.” (October, 1999)

The Durant school was founded as particularly and purposely non-traditional, in our time there is still evidence of its alternative nature. For example, the student handbook describes the school’s aim as helping the students – through its unique structures of extended class, continuous advisement, and the senior project – develop independence, self-reliance and the ability to pursue lifelong learning (Document, Student Handbook, 1998). However, it is clear to see how the school was powerless to resist change. “In sum, because Durant had such a clearly-defined alternative mission and approach, the school community saw the school as incompatible with the traditional teaching and learning associated with the demands of preparing students for the Regents exam in compliance with the state testing regulations.” Case Study by Martha Foote, University of Rochester, 2009.

We can now take a look at a successful change that occurred in Ireland to contrast to the Durant school. “The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is a distinct self-contained programme, designed for young people who do not wish to proceed directly to third level education, and for those whose needs, aspirations and aptitudes are not adequately catered for by the other two Leaving Certificate programmes.” Gleeson, J. (2000). To be sincere, my view on LCA when I was in school was downbeat. I saw the students in LCA as potential dropouts, I saw them as having no future, and predominantly, I saw them as settling for second best. I knew from merely being observant, that their workload was nowhere near our paradigm. I saw that they had a quite easy day at school, since a lot of their classes were practical. They went on a lot of trips outside of school and they completed numerous projects. Furthermore, their class often occupied the computer rooms which depicted a ‘doss’ for the want of a better word. However, my own research alone has contradicted my perception of the LCA. The programme was introduced, as stated above for the students who didn’t feel ready for third level, but also as I have found, it is to provide a new challenging, active role for students in the school. (Smith, 1987). These findings have also been incorporated into the LCA programme statement (DES/NCCA, 2000, pp. 10-11) which underlines that the programme should begin to contest teachers and schools to implement new configurations and explore and sharpen their thinking around both teaching and learning, with a vision to provide educational practices that are active, practical, and student centred in nature. In addition, Callan (1997, p. 28) concluded from his Schools for Active Learning Project that “much work needs to be done at both the institutional level and at the level of teachers’ values”. Having looked into the programme further, I now see that the LCA course has major benefits for those who do take it up. For that reason, I believe this was a revolution for Irish post-primary schools, not only to abolish the old style of teaching and rote learning, but also to show that our system is (or at least trying) catering for all diversities.

To bring this essay to a close, I will just recap on the points I have covered. Firstly, I believe in order to discuss or debate the topic, we first need to fully understand the phrases ‘change’ and ‘reform’. Subsequent to that, we need to understand that not all changes/reforms are successful. Some result in surface change/reform e.g. teachers may have been issued instructions on how to teach a topic/subject by the DES, however, with no training (or a lack of) the reform can slump to a halt, unknown to the policy makers who may think everything is going according to plan. This reminds me of a personal experience, while I was on TP in second year; the DCG teacher (middle aged) was constantly asking me how to do certain operations on SolidWorks. He also explained that they didn’t receive enough in-service days to train them properly. Secondly, reforms and changes can be global or regional. However, no matter how broad, the same effort needs to be put in. Patience and time is fundamental. Thirdly and finally, though Ireland has seen some successful reform and change stories (Geography at senior cycle, LCA programme, Project Maths) we still can try to replicate the Finns education system. They learned that reform isn’t spontaneous. On the other hand, we need to realise that all good ideas can too be vanquished by external cogency’s, as the Durant School in Iowa learned a number of years ago.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T.S. Elliot.
References

* Wheeler, D.K. (1967). Curriculum Process. London, University of London Press. * Mc Cormack, O. (2011) Stages involved in curriculum change/reform, Curriculum Studies. * Mc Cormack, O. (2011) Some of the reasons why reforms fail, Curriculum Studies. * Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London, Heineman. * Mc Cormack, O. (2011) The difference between curriculum change and reform, Curriculum Studies. * Mc Cormack, O. (2011) The objective and subjective meaning of change, Curriculum Studies. * Goodson, I. (2001). Social histories of educational change, Journal of Educational Change, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 45-63.

* Seidman. (1983) Liberalism and the origins of European social theory. * Datnow & Springfield. (2000) Extending educational reform: from one school to many. * Goodson and Foote. (2000) The Spencer study.

* Case Study by Martha Foote, (2009) University of Rochester. * Callan, J. (1997) Active Learning in the Classroom: A Challenge to Existing Values and Practices, in Hyland, A. (ed) Issues in Education. Vol. 2, Dublin: ASTI, pp 21-28.

* Fullan, M. (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change. London: Cassell.

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