Ireland’s “education deficit”

Could write a book about this I’ll keep it to a single rambling post! I was reading this article in today’s Irish Times. The conclusion appears to be that we don’t have a world class education system and that some tech companies are finding recent graduates poor. This was described by Craig Barrett at the Farmleigh conference last year and more recently at the described December 2009 meeting between the management of tech multinationals based in Ireland and the minister for education, Batt O’ Keefe.

Many multinationals, O’Keeffe heard, were reluctant to recruit from certain colleges because of concerns about standards. There were even suggestions that several institutes of technology (ITs) and one university were on an unofficial recruitment “blacklist”. At the core of the problem was grade inflation across the education sector, from Leaving Cert to third-level degrees.

I agree there’s a problem but that last paragraph was part of it. It’s a vague assertion that IoT students are being blacklisted. Perhaps they are but a stray quote like that goes a long way to undermine the credibility of every student who has qualified from an IoT over the past few years. The article contains another comment from an anonymous former Hetac employee stating:

““The ITs all want to be universities, so there is this relentless push to inflate grades and make themselves look better. There is no sense that anyone is in control of standards. You can more or less do what you like.”

What irks me about this is that we have a national problem, beginning in primary school with our education system yet someone decided to use this article as a way to piss on IoT’s. Again, we’re thinking of small-minded national politics rather than the larger problem.

Ireland’s education system is designed to produce generalists who are adaptable. In many respects it’s a legacy of the romantic Ireland notions of Dev who appeared to want a nation of god-fearing scholars with equal fluency in cultural, philosophical and scientific endeavors. He may have been over-compensating for his own weaknesses in mastering the Irish language. We want for our children what we can’t have for ourselves. So it was that Ireland adopted a leaving certificate programme which mandates studying many subjects while not specializing in any. The pressure for college places has led to a multi-million Euro industry in exam preparation courses.

Are these kids all wasting their time? Yes and No, in my opinion. There is so much rote learning in these courses as they’re oriented towards giving idealised answers for questions that a student would be statistically unlikely, regardless of intelligence, to discover in the context of an exam, even with good preparation from their teachers. The quality of what’s been regurgitated blinds us to the quality of the learning. Parents are forced to send their kids to these courses as they can’t risk their kids not being able to compete with their neighbours for college places. It’s a form of social blackmail. So the Irish education system teaches students how to cram. We’re world class crammers and I’ve been to enough international science+tech academic conferences to understand how the Irish are what’s often referred to as a “quick study”.

The problem is that much of our 2nd level education system is of little use to Googles and Intels. They’re understandably focussed on scientific knowledge and training. They want engineers and inventors. Our educational system impedes these students by effectively requiring them to display general aptitudes which may be useless in their chosen career. It is possible for a talented mathematician to not be accepted into an Irish university because of an inability to pass Irish. The points are frankly ridiculous for some courses. Who needs a theoretical physicist to be a rote-learning generalist, yet the points appear to indicate they should be? The history of physics & engineering is illuminated with individuals who had chequered results in subjects outside of maths or science. It often feels to me like we’re jealous of the great UK universities and see them as the ultimate aspiration of academic sophistication and class, forgetting that they’ve imported faculty and students to remain competitive.

Our colleges inherit a mess from 2nd level. As a lecturer I was driven to distraction for a few years by some students with poor numeracy and literacy skills, yet they were objectively cunning and resourceful when they needed to be. They could also regurgitate pages of MEng-level notes almost verbatim. Human photocopiers.

I believe we should have a 3 subject “A-Level” leaving cert and that students should be required to sit (until they pass) 2 SAT-like general mathematical and linguistic exams at junior cert and leaving cert level. Obviously we need to make exceptions for students with genuine learning disabilities. However, currently we want students to regurgitate 10 pages of obtuse prose about Yeats before understanding the correct use of a semi-colon. Our mathematics and science A-level courses would need to cover topics from existing 3rd level “freshman” science courses. Input from our level 9 lecturers and professors should be provided in shaping the new courses. Our students need to hit the ground running. IT needs to be taken seriously in schools with most students learning the basics of algorithmics and programming in 2nd level. It’s just not happening right now.

In third level, the institutes and universities need to coordinate projects in a way that more closely mirrors what happens in the workplace. Larger and more ambitious projects with active contributions from staff. Again, we need to get the students to take pride in their work and be enthused about projects which span several topics, perhaps several years (e.g. design, implement and test a new web scripting language) rather than bitty/piecemeal tasks in isolation. If students can be taught to reach for achieve ambitious goals in our universities then we will have failed them. Our universities and IoT’s should ask themselves “Are we innovators in the learning experience and facilities we provide?” Ireland will not have a competitive advantage if we merely following the pedagogical innovations of others. I’m confident that the Innovation Task Force are aware of the challenges and will provide excellent suggestions.

It’s not all positive 🙂 Some students are simply not suited for the courses they’ve ended up studying. We have to be unafraid to give students low marks or even fail them when they’re not meeting an objective level-9 standard. It’s OK to fail at something and it’s helpful not to dwell on what we’re not good at. It’s also instructive to be failed for being lazy or spending too much time partying. That life lesson alone could benefit the economy greatly 🙂

We should also look to move students between courses in a flexible and sensitive way. It’s simply not possible for everyone (or even most people) to pick their ideal course on the CAO form. Revamping the leaving cert as I suggest would, I believe, improve matters. 3rd level needs to work with 2nd-level career guidance advisors to help students make better decisions. Teachers at all levels need to embrace change for the good of their students. Ultimately, good teachers & lecturers have nothing to fear from motivated and competent students!

If you’ve gotten this far in my rambling tale you could do worse than to read Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s account of his experiences as a guest lecturer in 1970s Brazil and his severe criticism of their educational system. I’m not suggesting we have the same degree of problems but there are obvious analogues with the comments of Craig Barrett and Google’s Jim O’Herlihy.