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'The Leaving Cert is a valuable life lesson. If you want something, you need to work hard to get it'

I have never forgotten the idea that I needed to put in long hours if I wanted to achieve something, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

THERE IS A tendency in Ireland to view everything Irish, by virtue of being Irish, as inherently shit.

This is most obvious every June when State examination time comes around. While certainly not flawless, the Leaving Certificate is something that we largely get right. Yet the belief that it represents another failure of the Irish State is widespread.

Rote learning

One of the biggest complaints against the Leaving Cert is that it simply rewards rote learning, and does nothing to develop the critical thinking skills of students.

There is no doubt that memorising material is hugely important in order to succeed in your exams. But so what? There seems to be an assumption that rote learning is easy. That simply isn’t true. To do well in the Leaving Cert, students have to put in long hours of study.

In other words, a high points total in the Leaving Cert might not be a sign of intellectual brilliance, but it is almost always a mark of a strong work ethic. Any education system that rewards hard work above all else has a lot going for it.

Importance of critical thinking

This is not to say that enhancing critical thinking skills is not important. Of course it is, even if many of the people who call for a greater emphasis on critical thinking have a hazy sense of what that actually means.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that those who set the exam papers are under pressure to produce exams that are “fair”. In terms of the Leaving Certificate, “fair” is the code word for “predictable”. The problem is that if you want to test whether students can think critically, you need to remove the predictability. So, we can have “fair” exam papers or ones that challenge students to think, but not both.

One key aspect of critical thinking that is often ignored in these discussions is that problem solving involves time to reflect. For example, an engineer faced with a difficult challenge isn’t told that he or she only has two hours to figure it out or they lose their job. Due to time constraints, sit-down examinations are not really compatible with demonstrating critical thinking skills as they function in the real world.

Continuous assessment

“Exactly!”, the critics of the Leaving Cert will say, “this is why we need to have students assessed continuously during the senior cycle, instead of having everything depend on one exam”.

Undoubtedly things like take-home projects, by giving students ample time to complete a task, are more conducive to promoting critical thinking. But it also opens the door for cheating.

I teach undergraduate modules in the US. Almost every time I give students an assignment to do by themselves at home, I discover one or two who rip off material from the internet. With the stakes of the Leaving Cert so high, the temptation to cheat on the part of students would be enormous. Indeed, this may already be happening in subjects where students submit work done outside of the exam room.

Under the old Leaving Cert history curriculum, students had an option to complete an independent research project. But my teacher had separate research papers already prepared for us, which we simply learned off and wrote out in the exam. When the door is opened to the possibility of someone other than the student doing the work, it will be regularly taken advantage of.

Accountability

I remember many of my teachers getting frustrated with their class some days and saying, “Lads, I can’t do the Leaving Cert for you. You need to put the work in yourselves.”

I think one of the most important aspects of our education system is that ultimately the buck stops with the individual student. In this sense, the Leaving Cert teaches valuable life lessons. If you want something, you need to work hard to get it. Sometimes, even if you work very hard for something, you might still fall short. I don’t remember everything that I studied in sixth year, but I have never forgotten the idea that I needed to put in long hours of work if I wanted to achieve something.

Contrast that with second-level education in the US. American high-school grades are based on continuous assessment, with all marking done by the students’ teachers. American universities rely on these grades for assessing their applicants.

As a result, American teachers come under huge pressure from parents to generously grade the students, while students have ample opportunity and incentive to cheat on their work.

American teachers also come under administrative pressure to not allow students to fail a class. I know one teacher whose student refused to submit the required work to pass the class. The teacher was told he needed to do everything to make sure the student passed. In the end, he did the student’s projects himself, and that student received a high school diploma.

Fairness

This hints at another major advantage of the Leaving Cert, namely its blind fairness. Obviously, wealth can bring certain advantages for students, like individual grinds or access to private schools. But even well-off students ultimately need to do their own work, and students from less-fortunate economic circumstances still have an opportunity to outperform their wealthier peers.

Compare this once again to the United States. Generous donations can buy a place for a student in even the most prestigious universities, while a student’s postal code can be the make or break factor for their college application. American universities are businesses, and they need to be sure an applicant can pay the fees. Thus, if two students have broadly similar applications, the one who is assumed to be more capable of paying will get priority every time. Wealth might skew the academic playing field in Ireland somewhat, but not to that extent.

So best of luck to all students doing exams in the next few weeks, and when it’s all over with, maybe you will have a greater appreciation for the much-maligned Leaving Cert.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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