One of the most enjoyable parts of my job as a teacher is facilitating debate. Every now and then, we’ll have a debating class, and the students will argue a topic that interests them, be it Brexit, the death penalty, North Korea, school rules or social media. We have two basic rules – no personal insults and no interrupting others. And let me assure you, the young people become so engaged that they often don’t even hear the bell at the end of the forty-minute period.
Training children and young people in the skill of honest and open discussion is vital in a time when the art of debate in our society is under serious threat. We have become too afraid, too insecure, too busy, and very often too indifferent to speak our minds. Failing to safeguard robust debate has facilitated the rise of an easily-offended generation and has had a significant negative effect on the youth of Ireland. When schools neglect to encourage discussion in the classroom, when parents forget to talk deeply to their children, when debate on controversial issues is avoided and only one point of view is presented, the result is young people who are perfect candidates for the left-leaning programming that plagues our 3rd level institutions.
Facilitating debate and building resilience go together. If we are truly resilient and secure in our beliefs, we will not be afraid or offended by beliefs and ideas that are different to our own. Recently, a Lega Nord meeting was advertised in Headford, Co. Galway, Lega Nord being one of the coalition parties in Italy’s current government. A campaign against this meeting was supported by Galway’s Anti-Racism Network; concurrently the organiser in Headford received numerous explicit and offensive messages, including the hope that his business would be burned to the ground. Regardless of the policies of the Lega Nord party, it is regrettable that those who opposed the meeting were unable to engage civilly with the ideas presented but instead resorted to obscene language on social media and threats of violence.
Such behaviour does not belong in a vibrant, tolerant, open-minded democracy. The free untrammelled, uninhibited flow of ideas is the cornerstone of a truly liberal society. We cannot demonise those who hold beliefs and opinions different to our own, and still profess to respect democracy; what we ought to do is confidently engage with and oppose offensive beliefs through the forum of respectful debate and argument. Noam Chomsky said, ‘If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all’.
It was my students who informed me of the Headford meeting; maybe we’ll make Lega Nord the subject of our next debate – and it goes without saying that obscene language and threats of violence will not be allowed.
The primary purpose of education is the removal of ignorance. An ignorant people are easily deceived, easily satisfied and easily controlled. Ignorance indicates a lack of knowledge – and can be used to describe individuals who are in the state of being unaware.
The first step, then, in the educational process is to become aware that one is unaware. When the knowledge that I do not know leads me to want to know, that is the beginning of learning.
Listen to a young child, discovering the world. Informed by their senses, they ask incessant questions and thus, they discover how the world works. The answers they receive to their own questions help them form a unique, personalized notion of the world in which they live, and the role they play within it. Answers build confidence, security and certainty.
Of course, questions can be dangerous – they confess a lack of knowledge. They take us to the edge of our comfort zones, to the door of new and unknown territories. They cause to stop in our driven cycle of monotonous living and consider the alternatives to life as we know it. They force us to challenge the status quo. Asking questions in Soviet Russia got you sent to Siberia, and curiosity in Nazi Germany was a ticket to the concentration camps.
The greatest minds throughout history asked questions ceaselessly. Plato asked, ‘Have you ever sensed that our soul is immortal and never dies?’ Stobaeus considered, ‘What use is knowledge if there is no understanding?’ Schiller mused, ‘Our age is enlightened…how is it then, that we still remain barbarians?’ Galileo, Faraday, Copernicus, Newton and countless other scientists and thinkers began each of their great works with a question.
Scripture, the cornerstone of Christian civilization, is full of wonderful questions. Remember the four lepers, sitting in starvation at the gates of Samaria, saying one to another ‘Why sit we here until we die?’ Think of Samuel, the great prophet, hearing the sounds that denied King Saul’s words and asking, ‘What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears?’ Consider the cry of the man who would become Paul, the mighty defender of the faith, as he fell to the dusty Damascus road – ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’
A life without questions is a complacent, indifferent, disinterested life. So many of us have settled into lives that have forgotten how to inquire. When we face pointless tragedy, we smother our troubled thoughts. When we hear rubbish from our politicians, we sigh and suppose they must know best. When we feel like screaming at the hypnotizing routine of our days, we think of Thursday’s paycheck and pretend to be thankful.
Our children mimic us. Our classrooms, especially at senior and university level, are populated by young people who no longer ask questions. Fear of being mocked keeps their mouths sealed – fear of being called a ‘nerd’, fear being regarded as different, fear of saying the wrong thing. Political correctness and an untamed peer culture have strangled the life-giving skill of asking questions; unless we, as their role-models, begin to practice asking questions, the future looks bleak.
Because worse than finding no answers is having no questions to begin with.
Why I am Voting No to the Removal of Ireland’s Blasphemy Law
I am voting NO to removing blasphemy as a criminal offence from the Irish Constitution because, frankly, I am tired of the crusade against religion in Ireland today. Belief in God is relentlessly demeaned, ridiculed and belittled in the public sphere. Our schools, for example, are forbidden to include Religion as part of Wellbeing education, even though the key principles of Wellbeing have always been at the heart of religious education. Teachers have become afraid to mention their own religious beliefs and sadly, they often find themselves engaging in subconscious self-censorship on issues regarding morals, values and faith.
Belief in God
The campaign to remove the offence of blasphemy from our Constitution is but another attack on sincere religious faith. 90% of Irish citizens believe in God; our nation’s history and identity are built firmly on the successful principles of Judaeo-Christian thought. Our belief in God sustains us in times of crisis, tragedy and death – no matter how nominal or weak our faith. The constitutional ban on blasphemy honors that strong belief and simply acts as an important statement of respect for religion.
Facilitating Respectful Discourse
The blasphemy law in Ireland is incomparable to the draconian decrees against blasphemy found in autocratic regimes such as Pakistan. Our law does not compel anyone to be religious, neither does it prohibit criticism of religion. It does not put religion upon an untouchable pedestal, neither does it endorse any specific religion. It simply criminalizes the utterance or publication of ‘any matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage…’ (Defamation Act 2009). This law preserves respectful discourse – it provides an open and considerate environment in which genuine dissent and debate can take place. Is there anything wrong with that?
No to Atheist Ireland
Any call for the blasphemy law to be abolished indicates a desire to insult and abuse religious belief. This contradicts everything we have been told about being mindful of each other’s well-being and respectful of our differences. What does it say about our society if we wish to be allowed make grossly abusive and insulting statements regarding matters held sacred by religion? Groups campaigning for the repeal of this law include Atheist Ireland and the Humanist Association of Ireland, both of which have also been vocal in calls for Irish schools to be completely secularized and for euthanasia to be legalized. There is no doubt that if the campaign to remove blasphemy is successful, all references to God in the Irish Constitution will be systematically targeted and eliminated.
Teaching Our Children Respect, Regardless of Religious Belief
I will be voting NO on Friday because, as a teacher, I believe it is important that our children grow up to respect religious belief – regardless of whether they themselves are religious. Repealing this law would mean that, in Ireland, the use of grossly abusive and insulting language towards religion is completely acceptable. That would be tragic for our children, our national values and our promotion of religious tolerance.
I’m voting No to protect respectful discourse and to preserve respect for religion.
I am voting No because I believe that the use of grossly abusive and insulting language is never right.
I am voting No because I wish to be able to pray, with sincerity, ‘Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name’.
It was an uneventful parent-teacher meeting until Katja’s parents sat down in front of me. I didn’t need to look at my notes or even think twice about what I wanted to say.
‘Katja is a pleasure to teach,’ I said. ‘But more than that, she’s just a very pleasant child. Thank-you for the wonderful work you are putting into Katja – she’s a credit to you’.
Dad nodded to acknowledge my words. Mum, who stays at home to bring up the children, was silent, and when I looked at her, I realized that her eyes were filled with tears and she couldn’t speak. It was only on the way home that I realized why. Nobody had ever before acknowledged the cost she had paid to have her child grow up so well.
As a society, we appear to have stopped publicly valuing parents. Of late it has become ‘uncool’ to celebrate parenting, mothering or staying at home to raise your children. Recent reports have spoken of the lack of government sponsored childcare ‘forcing women’ to leave the workplace and take care of their own children, as if such a thing was dreadfully unfortunate.
The reality is that this year’s best Junior and Leaving Certificate results in my local area were achieved by children whose mothers are always at home. That says a lot. From my own experience as a teacher, children with a stay-at-home mother are happier, more fulfilled, more content, more likely to achieve academically and less likely to have learning difficulties than their peers. The research backs this up. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development US discovered that the more hours a child spent in child care outside of the home, the higher the incidence of problem behavior and the greater its severity. A Norwegian study recorded that having Mum at home had a noteworthy effect on school grades (for the better). In a recent Pew Research Survey, 60% of respondents said they believe children are better off when a parent stays at home to focus on the family. Research also reinforces some of our key beliefs about parents and children, such as:
parental involvement is a more significant factor in a child’s education than the quality of the school they attend
I have no doubt that it is much better for children to go home to a warm, brightly-lit home where the dinner is on and there is someone waiting to have a chat about the day and help out with homework, than go home to darkness and a house key under the front-door mat. Most of my peers would agree.
And for decades our nation agreed too. The Irish Constitution, built on Judaeo-Christian principles, has enshrined the family as the primary unit of society and has honored parents as the primary educators of the child, responsible for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social instruction of their children. Our society, based on Christian values, traditionally supported the togetherness of parents and children, with the state giving support only where necessary. Families were close, secure and strong, communities were generally safe, and basic principles of respect and care were transmitted automatically.
Today things are different. Our government is eyeing the special place of the family in the Constitution with an intent to dismantle, destroy, and replace, families are in disarray, and communities are no longer safe and secure. The centrality of the traditional nuclear family has always been a cornerstone of Christian statesmanship, and this is, of course, being targeted by today’s aggressive socialist secularists. Teachers are being called upon to raise the nations’ children; the new subject, Wellbeing, is defined as ‘encompassing social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and physical education’ – areas which were once the main concern of the parents. Huge amounts of money are being invested in solving the soaring mental health problems of our children and youth, while at the same time the government, through focus on state-run childcare programs, campaigns to amend the Constitution and more, is undermining the most effective cure – the support and presence of caring and loving parents. No counselor or teacher can truly parent a child and no teacher can replace a parent in the life of a child.
If we want a safe community, an effective education system where children truly learn and a return to principles of respect, care and self-esteem, we must honor our parents, especially the ones who stay at home to raise their children. They are doing our nation an invaluable service.
My own subject is in the second year of reform, with the first exams due to take place next year.
I and my fellow teachers do not know what the 2020 Modern Foreign Language exam will look like.
We are struggling with implementing the new curriculum specifications and making sure that all aspects are fulfilled in case of inspection.
We do not know what inspectors will be looking for.
We are not getting clear answers to our questions from the JCT support group – which is not necessarily their fault. It’s hard to give answers when there’s none to give.
In this month’s Junior Cycle results in all schools, there was a very noticeable reduction in top results in English, the first subject being examined under the new Junior Cycle.
So naturally, I am somewhat worried.
I accept that any change is inherently difficult, especially at first. However, it seems that in this case, there are yet no successful results from the change – going by what we have always defined success to be i.e. the satisfactory achievement of an aim. In exam terms, that would be an ‘A’, or a ‘B’ – or a Distinction. 1.8% of Junior Cycle candidates scored a Distinction in English nationwide, compared to 9.7% receiving an A grade in 2016 (the last year of the old system). Could it be that the reduction of top results might mean trouble for the standard of our education system moving forward?
At a recent Junior Cycle training day, we were told that the new Junior Cycle is not about the high achievers, those pupils who always get As, who get the lead roles in the musicals and score all the goals on the football pitch. The reforms are not about helping them – no, for too long they’ve had it easy. The new Junior Cycle is about getting behind the kids who struggle to get mediocre results, the ones who drift along and never excel at school. It’s time they got a chance to shine, to feel successful, to feel good about themselves.
I have thought a lot about that since. These reforms are about redefining success. Instead of success being an A, it is now feeling good about yourself when you open your results envelope. It’s that there are no ‘fails’, no ‘E’ on your certificate. It’s that you almost did as well as Martha (who’s always answering up in class), because you got a Merit – with very little study, and she got a Higher Merit – with hours of preparation and swotting. But this view of success i.e. feeling good won’t hold when you apply for a job, take your first driving test or sit your final exams for the Medical Council or the Electricity Supply Board.
Don’t get me wrong – I would be the first to step up and help the academically weak child to reach his or her full potential. School must be about encouraging and nurturing every student – but should this be done by decreasing academic content? By making it harder for intellectually talented pupils to do well, and easier for others who are deficient in knowledge to achieve a decent grade? By penalizing the achievers and mollycoddling the slackers?
My brother has begun studying for a Law degree; one of the first exercises his class had was to take coherent notes on a simple video presentation. The reason for this rather mundane exercise, according to the lecturer, was that new university entrants are unable write essays correctly, and the university department think teaching them how to take notes correctly might be the best place to start.
The new Junior Cycle is supposed to change this; yet in this year’s English marking scheme, more value was put on the presentation of ideas, illustrations and comprehension skills than on the rudiments of correct and structured writing. In this year’s Junior Cycle English paper, 20% of marks were awarded for writing, compared to almost 30% in the old Junior Certificate paper. And even with that, less that 2% got a Distinction grade. I wonder what the University Law Department will be saying in 4 years’ time when these young people enter their doors.
Yes, all pupils do need to be given a chance.
All pupils, including our intellectually gifted high achievers, need a fair chance. And I’m not convinced yet that the new Junior Cycle is giving them that honest, equal and meaningful chance.
At this time of the year, we tend to hear a lot of negativity about the Leaving Certificate, how it needs to change, how it is letting our young people down, how it is all about ‘rote-learning’ (how awful!), and how it kills creativity. This year has been no different, and in the last week two separate reports from DCU produced some ‘newsworthy’ conclusions (with which many teachers disagreed). Let’s have a look at what those reports said:
Research carried out by the DCU Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection came to the conclusion that the Leaving Certificate exams are ‘largely memory tests that encourage “learning off by heart”‘, and raised questions about whether our youth are being adequately trained in problem solving and creative skills at 2nd level. The findings were partly based on interviews carried out with 30 recent Leaving Certificate pupils, who are now in 3rd level education.
DCU, in a separate study, also surveyed 304 first year university students, with results showing that many felt the Leaving Certificate did not adequately prepare them for university life.
Both studies received a considerable amount of media coverage and airtime; many educators have been concerned about how reliable such research can be considering the small numbers surveyed and the fact that the research was limited to Dublin students. It seems somewhat unethical that the responses of 0.005% of Ireland’s student population (an unrepresentative sample) can be allowed to dictate national conversation and indeed policy development on such an important topic. However, what worried me most was the conclusion that the Irish education system needs to move away from knowledge accumulation to skill development.
Without a doubt, there are problems. I distinctly remember a conversation some years ago with my Dissertation Supervisor at NUI Galway’s History department where she told me that most of that year’s 1st year History students had managed to fail History (achieve 40%). Others in 3rd Level Institutions relate how the standard is being dropped – the goalposts are being widened – every year to allow a decent number of students to pass exams, so universities won’t lose face, lose funding, and be forced to shut down. Anecdotal evidence from State examiners continues the same sorry tale: worrying numbers of our children cannot spell, they cannot add, they cannot answer a simple, lower-order question satisfactorily. Recently I attended the final of a schools debating competition at Trinity College Dublin, and was struck by the inability of many participants, even at that level, to listen to a question and logically answer it.
We do have problems – but changing the structure of the Leaving Certificate will not solve them. Indeed, I believe it would be tragedy if we began to mindlessly meddle around with a system that has served us well over the past decade. The new Junior Cycle reform hasn’t been exactly a glowing success, so let’s not be irrational here. Instead let’s look at the glaringly obvious problems in our schools and consider whether our efforts and finances might be better used solving them instead.
Why not value teachers more?
I strongly believe that the Leaving Certificate program, along with the Leaving Certificate Applied, provides a robust and dependable education for our youth. Taught well, by competent and gifted teachers, it is a certificate of which to be proud – but an education system cannot stand on content alone. And unfortunately, our Government has not been doing very well attracting the best-quality candidates into teaching in the past decade. Due to cruel pay cuts, teachers have been emigrating en masse to brighter horizons, with the subsequent creation of a substitute teacher culture which is beginning to wreak considerable havoc on the quality of education in our schools. The salary for teachers is miserable, and we have been the victims of unfulfilled promises about pay remuneration. The Postgraduate Diploma in Education courses are, as a rule, badly organised and poorly taught. Our brightest are being lured into careers in law, finance and medicine; ‘600-point’ students rarely, if ever, take up teaching as their career, and last year, the CAO points for teaching courses dropped.
So, are our teachers inspiring, challenging, encouraging instructors for our youth? Are they the very best they can possibly be? Are they passionate about what they teach, in complete command of their subject, able to present it in a convincing and persuasive manner? Unfortunately, while they do their best, very often the support, training and direction they need is simply non-existent. And our brightest most often turn to careers with far greater financial incentives and professional support than teaching will ever give them.
This is in direct contrast to many of the world’s top-performing education systems – Japan, South Korea and Finland hold their teachers in high respect, and high-quality teacher recruitment and training drives educational success. Before the Irish government pours money into a new Leaving Cycle program doomed for failure, it urgently needs to address the serious issues around teacher recruitment, teacher training and teacher pay; otherwise, reform or no reform, the situation will only get worse.
Why not tell our students that university is just one of many options?
We already have a skills-focussed, continuous assessment-based Certificate for students who learn differently. It’s called the Leaving Certificate Applied and it is an excellent resource for any student challenged by the knowledge-based Leaving Certificate program. We need to offer it, promote it and value it. There are far too many young people trying to get into university just because society expects them to, because their friends are going, or because the career guidance teacher told them to. There are far too many young people in our universities who should not be there. They should be doing apprenticeships, FETAC Courses, attending local Level 6 colleges, working on the farm, fixing cars. We need to be able to say confidently in our schools – ‘University might not be for you – and that’s absolutely fine. Here’s another brilliant option. You can be just as successful as your college-bound classmate, just this route suits you better.’ Our young people need to be encouraged to find their own path and reach their own potential, not just ‘go to university’.
In the past 6 months, I have not seen the media, nor the government, engage with either of these issues. Instead there is a continual focus on reforming a knowledge-based education system to one that engages primarily with the transmission of skills. This is not the problem with our education system, for the reasons I have outlined above, and many more.
However, media and government preoccupation with this ‘perceived’ problem is alarming, because it points to a desire to redefine education as we know it. Education transmits knowledge: knowledge is power. If skills are transmitted instead of knowledge, where does that leave the power that comes with knowledge? Skilled people are good workers; they follow instructions, perform tasks and make an excellent workforce – but are they independent thinkers? Will they call out corruption and tyranny? Will they face the future armed with the lessons of the past?
And so today, as we analyse, criticize and sympathize, let us listen to the critics with an informed mind.
This week, on Tuesday 12 June, Cliona Saidlear, Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, spoke to the Oireachtas Education Committee in Leinster House on the subject of Sex Education Reform. She does not appear to have any educational training, but specialised in International Relations and International Politics at third level. She spoke at length on how the Department of Education must revise Relationships and Sexuality Education, and stated that there was a need for policy-makers and teachers to be led by the children’s realities – ‘we must upskill and learn from the children we are dealing with’.
What a startling suggestion! Education is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘receiving or giving systematic instruction’ and an educator is one who ‘provides instruction’. Teachers are, very simply, channels through which knowledge is transmitted. Yes, they do so much more than just teach, but their primary function is to shape children with information, knowledge and skills that will help them reach their full potential, gain fulfilment from life and live as successful citizens. In the classroom, the teacher is in charge. The children are not. Our training, maturity and life experiences make us the experts. And we not only open doors of knowledge, but we also have a preventative role, in outlining and modelling legal, acceptable and correct behaviours.
For Ms Saidlear to suggest that we be led by the children regarding sex education is bewildering. If the children lead in English, we will only study the lyrics of pop-songs, text language will replace proper English and Shakespeare, Frost and Yeats will be consigned to the rubbish heap. In German, we will watch Bayern München Youtube clips and burn our grammar books. In school in general, smartphones will be in continual use, books and copies will be left at home, the canteen will be a silent expanse of dirty dishes and sandwich wrappings after lunch, exams of any sort will be abolished and the school day will begin at 10 am. Saidlear’s suggestion undermines the very essence of education, which is to provide instruction and security and to act as a deterrent to hazardous, irresponsible and self-destructive behaviour.
Education ought to decisively establish the norms for society; if it is merely responding to current norms, then it has failed its primary purpose and is merely playing catch-up. With regards to sex education, it is the duty of educators to promote objective morality and all that is decent, pure and right. We fail our children abysmally when instead of making a clear distinction between what is right and wrong in matters of sexual conduct, we encourage them, in their childish, celebrity-crazed ignorance, to decide for themselves.