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Opinion: Changes to the Junior Cycle will produce a creative, proactive generation

Real education is not present when rote-learning is encouraged and facilitated.

Craig McHugh

THE PLANNED REFORM of the Junior Cycle – now named the Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA) – has been bombarded with negativity from the word ‘go’. Up until now, the public image of this reform has been little more than: ‘Teachers don’t like it; ‘Teachers are going to strike’; ‘This isn’t good for the kids’; and ‘I don’t want my child’s exams to be graded by someone who lives down the road from me.’

But what if I challenged this generalised, media driven image? What if I laid out the facts? What if maybe a student who’s been through the current Junior Cycle system had his say? Well then, it would go a little like this…

Life skills

The new JCSA is all about skills. It’s all about equipping students with the ability to learn for themselves, to think outside the box and on their feet, to work with situations, to work with people and be effective communicators and to develop real life skills. It doesn’t abandon the entire curriculum but instead adds to it and what it adds is quite simple – real education.

Before I really get going, I wish to make a solid point; teachers don’t have it easy. Teaching is difficult, complicated and unfortunately carries with it a misconceived appearance of wealth and long summer holidays but I can assure you that it’s not all as lovely as it seems. The Irish Second-level Students’ Union (ISSU) and the National Parents’ Council post-primary (NPCpp) are pro-JCSA but this does not and never will mean that we will devalue the opinions of teachers and their unions. We merely ask that they reflect on why they joined the teaching profession; was it to educate and foster the minds of young people or was it to play up to the negative stereotypes of long summer holidays and public sector pay that so many harp on about?

Basic knowledge gaps

I’ve sat 12 Junior Cert papers: three Ordinary, one Common Level and eight Higher Level papers. What I remember from those three years of school can be shortened into one sentence; I learned what I was supposed to learn so that I could pass my exams, not what I needed to learn and not what I should have learned.

I left the Junior Cycle system in 2012 not knowing where Bosnia and Hercegovina or Kosovo were on a map (a rather embarrassing situation to find yourself in at an international conference). I left Junior Cert English with little or no public speaking skills and turned entirely away from the Personal Writing section of the Junior Cert course because my teacher didn’t appreciate my imagination; I left Maths knowing how to solve quadratic trinomials up until the final paper, but not knowing how to solve problems outside of them. I left Junior Cycle with a suppressed imagination, and generally disappointed that I wasn’t educated but rather that I was just merely part of an assembly line. It felt unjust and I felt somehow angry.

But what made me angry most was the pressure that was placed upon me to excel. My parents, fortunately, are more ‘do your best’ kind of people, so it wasn’t the need to impress my parents that was pressurising me but more the workload. Three years of hard work performed by students aged between 12 and 15 culminates into one exam. With no attention being placed on the vigorous effort put in by many students over the course of the cycle, a student aged 15 is expected to remember three years worth of information and material and prove their knowledge in just one exam.

Can someone please explain to me how this is meant to be a fair representation and assessment of not just a student’s work but also their potential to excel in this subject in the future?

Teacher-student assessment isn’t as bad as it sounds

I want to briefly touch on this fear that teachers have about assessment marking, and I also wish to empathise with them, too. I respect their opinions but I do hope that they respect those of their students and also their fellow partners in education. The entire ideology around teachers marking their own students’ or local students’ exams does on the surface sound terrifying to some but what if we looked at the future?

What if we recognised the fact that teacher-student assessment isn’t as bad as it sounds? For example, who grades the papers in universities and colleges of further education? Is it always an anonymous examiner? If teachers grade their students professionally following a set marking scheme, as should be done all year around regardless of the education system we serve under, there should be no problem in this area whatsoever.

I wish to re-iterate the fact that real education is not present when rote-learning is encouraged and facilitated. Rote-learning is all about learning answers off word for word and regurgitating them on the day of the exam; Irish essays being testament to this. I can clearly remember friends of mine performing better in their Irish Christmas exams because they had learned a few essays off word for word and while I was blessed with an Irish teacher who taught me Irish and not just the ability to regurgitate information, this wasn’t reflected when it came to assessment.

Listening to the students’ voices 

Another step that I value highly is the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s willingness and desire for student voice in this dramatic reform of education. I recently attended a JCSA Science consultation event; I entered the event feeling like I was the wrong kind of student to be there but soon realised that I wasn’t. I realised that I, like many others, lost interest in science because I wasn’t being engaged properly; I wasn’t being shown the relationship between the curriculum and the real world.

The Junior Cert revolved around and became a slave to a set curriculum whereas the JCSA provides schools with the freedom and scope to introduce exciting new modules that will encourage creativity and spark greater interests in all aspects of education, including subjects never before assessed at this level, such as Information Communications Technology (ICT). The JCSA allows and encourages students to challenge the ideologies of the real world – and therefore think on their toes in situations relevant to them as students and as future key players in society.

I, as a school student activist, second level student, son of two parents and brother of a JCSA English Student (of whom I am greatly jealous) realise the importance of education. Education is the key to a strong-minded, better equipped lifestyle and livelihood. Education should not be focused on moving on from one stage to another, but more on how and why you’re moving on, and should allow you to challenge certain aspects of life, so that in the future you can make decisions for yourself.

Nurturing critical thinking 

JCSA isn’t flawless, I have my concerns, as we all do, but I’ve put them to bed for the sake of progression and the re-evaluation of the purpose of education because I believe JCSA is exactly what this country needs, and what this country’s future deserves. I see the Ireland of the future having not just a highly-educated workforce but one which is creative, critical thinking and proactive.

The opportunities for personal development  the JCSA offers students are incredible and I’d like to once again call on individuals to look into the logistics of what this reform is all about, because I can assure you; it’s not all as scary and negative as it is often portrayed.

Craig is a 17-year-old 5th year student from Dundalk, Co Louth. Aside from his day-to-day studies, he is an active member of youth groups such as YEPP and Comhairle Na Nog, and recently he re-established his school’s student council as Chairperson. Craig was elected ISSU President on 16 April 2014, and is very eager on getting started in representing students and working with their opinions.

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About the author:

Craig McHugh

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