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Opinion: Teachers should grasp this unique opportunity to engage with young learners

The current Junior Cycle reform impasse presents teacher unions with an opportunity to show creative leadership.

Image: Monkey Business Images via shutterstock

LEADERS OF TEACHER unions walk tense tightropes. As trade unionists, they have to listen attentively to their members’ concerns – particularly when pay and working conditions are threatened. As educators they need to read carefully the changing social and educational landscapes, identifying not only members’ needs but also how well current policies and practices serve learners. It’s a balancing act.

Irish teacher unions have not always distinguished themselves in their initial responses to proposals for changes in the schooling system. The inclination to be driven by members’ fears rather than the possibilities offered by reform is understandable.

The current Junior Cycle reform impasse presents teacher unions with an opportunity to show creative leadership. Handled imaginatively, Junior Cycle reform should lead to serious improvements in the learning experiences of the nation’s 12 to 15 years olds and, significantly, in the professional development of teachers.

The current system is not fit for purpose 

The leaders of TUI and ASTI know well that current Junior Cycle provision is not fit for purpose, that children at the critical ages of 12, 13, 14 and 15 are the big losers. Both unions employ full-time education officers to keep them briefed on international best practice. Both unions are active participants on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) which shaped the exciting and progressive new Junior Cycle. Union leaders know what the research tells us about Irish students, especially in second year, disengaging from learning. They also know how international best practice in recent years highlights the distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning.

Stated simply, assessment of learning is the summary assessment that happens at the end of a learning cycle. It succinctly summaries what learners have achieved. Leaving cert grades, and their associated ‘points’ are the best known examples of such summative assessment. That assessment of learning is important because, for the vast majority of students nowadays, it represents the end of their schooling and is used as a gateway to further progression (its fitness for purpose, while related to the present discussions, is a separate issue).

Assessment for learning is very different. Here the purpose is to support the students’ learning, particularly by way of feedback. Strengths and weaknesses are identified. Students and teachers talk to each about what needs to be done to improve performance. Given increased participation rates to Leaving Certificate, a shift to assessment for learning is particularly appropriate in Junior Cycle schooling. The new emphasis on the skills of staying well, managing oneself, communicating, managing information and thinking, being creative and working with others does not sit well with traditional externally assessed, written, terminal examinations. The new emphasis also challenges us not to see the JCSA as some sort of rehearsal, a mini-Leaving Certificate. At age 15, students’ assessment and learning needs differ greatly from when they are 18.

Advocacy for young people’s learning

Improving the scaffolding for learning in Junior Cycle as imagined in the reforms, requires greater teacher assessment of their own students. Indeed, the shift to constructive feedback that arises from emphasising assessment for learning means quite simply that teachers in their own classrooms are best positioned to provide that feedback. They know their own students’ starting points, their potential, the efforts they make, how they respond to prompts and suggestions. Such assessment can be real advocacy for young people’s learning. Teacher union leaders know all this.

International evidence also reminds us that assessing key skills such as information processing, critical thinking and teamwork, is best assessed at the site of learning. So, presentations in class, portfolios, blogs, short films etc represents the way forward. The class teacher is best positioned to make informed judgements.

Teacher union leaders are also aware that across Europe many teachers are surprised – some are amazed – that Irish teachers are threatening to strike for external assessment; they see external assessment as an erosion of their professionalism.
Of course, there are challenges. Those of us who previously worked at second-level and then moved into higher education did not find the cultural shifts involved in assessing our own students immediately easy. But we learned how to do it fairly and with rigour, benefitting from collegial support, internal verification and external authentication.

Assessing one’s own students not only involves giving feedback but also listening to students’ voices, especially their concerns about their learning. This almost inevitably improves teaching. Teacher union leaders know that there are great opportunities to further professionalise teaching by enhancing the capacity for assessment.

Teachers’ needs must be properly addressed, too

This brings us to one of the less spoken about dimensions of the present dispute. Currently, thousands of teachers supplement their income by working for the State Examinations Commission in June and July as exam superintendents or in grading scripts. Many fear losing this income. The issue needs to be addressed by the Department.

One might have imagined that the unions would be negotiating more strongly for investment in professional development for assessment. Indeed, such professional development might be best imagined as a collaboration between the Department, the SEC and the teacher unions with the unions’ professional expertise being harnessed creatively. That would require courage and imaginative leadership from both unions and Department.

Finally, teacher unions know well the history of curriculum developments in Ireland. If we really want changes in classroom practices, we must change the assessment system. If we don’t move to the direct involvement of teacher in assessing their own students’ work, we run the risk of ‘no change’ in Junior Cycle, despite parents, the student representative body, school leadership groups, teacher educators, employers and others calling for urgent change. If teacher union leaders are driven by the key considerations of improving the quality of the learning experiences of 12-15 year olds in all Irish schools, and enhancing the teaching profession, they should grasp a unique opportunity.

Majella Dempsey and Gerry Jeffers are teacher-educators at the Education Department, Maynooth University.

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Majella Dempsey and Gerry Jeffers

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