To secure that . . . all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education as citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.
Dem Programme of the First Dáil

A key factor . . . was the need to engage in self-
directed learning . . . which was contrasted with
the more directive approach adopted in school.
Leaving School in Ireland 

Qualified but not educated

Before the pandemic made ‘normal’ a sketchy memory, two very bright young people I know, from geographically distant schools, passed their Leaving Certificate in English literature without reading the assigned texts; instead, they simply memorised bullet lists of factoids supplied by or compiled from textbooks, teachers, and crib sheets. They both also passed Leaving Cert Irish, but after fourteen years of studying it, neither of them speaks the language.

In sum, they left school qualified but not educated—and deeply unprepared for the demands of third-level study. They were short-changed.

We have fabulous, hard-working, and dedicated teachers in our secondary education system who are too often frustrated by the enormous pressure—too little time, too few resources, too many students—to teach, not the subject, but how to pass the exam. They too are being short-changed.

The Leaving Certificate has been our gold standard for educational achievement at second level for almost a century—so it should come as no surprise that it could do with something of an overhaul. The post-Truth, post-Covid, post-modern twenty-first-century world we live in is vastly different from post-war, post-flu 1924 when the Leaving Cert was introduced. What was unthinkable then—literally unavailable to be thought—is mundane today: virtual classrooms, for instance, or textbooks that can be carried on a memory stick in your back pocket. Or kitchen appliances that talk back to you.

And the entire history of three-quarters of the twentieth century and all of the twenty-first to date.

Knowledge increases exponentially. Social, intellectual, technological, medical, and scientific knowledge have all changed massively since 1924. Who could have predicted what Einstein would do to Newtonian physics? Space and time will never be the same. Demographics have changed. Pedagogical models have changed. Universities and the subjects they offer have changed. Students have changed. 

What hasn’t changed is the Leaving Cert.

A report from the OECD at the end of last year said it was ‘unclear how senior cycle is at present preparing students for the future beyond sitting the Leaving Cert’. Three other studies asked students and other stakeholders in both second- and third-level education what they thought. They all agreed with the OECD by sizeable majorities.

Disconnected

In 2019, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) found that, for the majority of students, studying for the Leaving Cert was stressful. A startling 87 per cent of them found it stressful ‘always or most of the time’ and 87 per cent found that stress affected their ability to study. Only 2 per cent found it not stressful. The most common source of stress reported was difficulty coping with the pressure and stress resulting from the knowledge that everything rested on one final exam. Anecdotal evidence from the pandemic suggests that spreading the work graded for Leaving Cert over a longer period of time reduced the stress level and made studying easier, potentially allowing students to achieve higher grades.

There was strong support from all stakeholders at both second and third levels for a move away from a one-and-done written exam to a system of continuous assessment over the Senior Cycle.

The really bad news from all three studies is the strength of agreement that the Leaving Cert doesn’t prepare a student for third-level study. The NAPD study also found that students, parents, and teachers agree that it doesn’t prepare them for a world outside of the academic either. In their report, Senior Cycle Reform,

  • 96 per cent of  students, 85 per cent of parents, and 72 per cent of Principals, Deputy Principals, and teachers said they did not believe the Leaving Cert is fair and accurately assesses students’ achievements.
  • 78 percent of students said that the Leaving Cert, in its current format, does not adequately prepare students for third-level study. And 60 per cent of Principals, Deputy Principals, and teachers agreed, as did 52 per cent of parents.
  • 93 per cent of students, 71 per cent of Principals, Deputy Principals, and teachers, and 76 per cent of parents, didn’t feel that the Leaving Cert adequately prepared them for the world of work either.

The worst fears in the NAPD report are confirmed when students get to college. Two recent studies from DCU and the ESRI asked first-year undergraduates whether they felt that the skills taught in their Leaving Certificate courses had prepared them for study at third level. An overwhelming majority confirmed what 78 per cent of the secondary students had predicted: the Leaving Cert, despite being the main pathway to third-level education, doesn’t provide students with the intellectual skills they will need when they get there.

At DCU, Michael O’Leary and Darina Scully found a ‘worrying disconnect’ between the demands of second- and third-level education in Ireland. More than two-thirds of first-year students reported that they hadn’t been taught to engage critically with what they were hearing or reading beyond taking notes.

  • Only 25 per cent of students felt the Leaving Certificate prepared them to interrogate and critically evaluate information or ideas.  
  • Only 28 per cent felt it prepared them to identify sources of information.  
  • Only 27 per cent felt it prepared them to compare information from different sources. 
  • Only 30 per cent felt it prepared them to explore ideas from a number of different perspectives.  

For third-level students, the ability to review, evaluate, and analyse new information, investigate new ideas, and use evidence-based reasoning to inform new perspectives is essential no matter what subject they study. The great majority of students in both the DCU and ESRI studies who had recently made the transition to third level felt that the Leaving Cert quite specifically did not prepare them for any of that. They found that at third-level it wasn’t enough to remember the right answer; you were called on to ‘apply yourself much more in terms of thinking and explaining your opinions and answers’. They found it ‘challenging and overwhelming at first to evaluate and analyse situations, scenarios, visual and textual data.’ And they were aware of the nature of the problem: ‘A lot of the Leaving Cert is fact-based . . . in college . . . my learning has been very conceptual’ (DCU). Rote memorisation has no space for concepts, evaluation, or analysis, only bald facts.

Ideally, senior cycle is a transition from general education to the next educational stage. To prepare students for college or university, our secondary schools need to be turned around to face the future—and the students themselves know it. In the first place, that means providing students with the tools they’re going to need when they get to college—primary among them, the capacity for critical thinking and self-direction.

Thinking critically

In a passive classroom dedicated to rote memorisation and passing the exam, critical thinking skills of interrogating ideas or exploring them from more than one perspective are counterproductive because they take up too much time. Passing exams doesn’t require critical thinking; it demands instead that students listen, note, and memorise.

But the human memory doesn’t work by rote. It works by association, and the greater the number of associations, the easier information is to access. An active, participatory classroom structure with time for discussion, debate, workshops, individual presentations, and so on, creates a rich context built up of multiple complex associations. Guided independent projects allow the student to open up the subject further, introducing new frames of reference to further illuminate the context—historical, intellectual, or cultural. Those new frames of reference will add colour, depth, and nuance to the narrative the students brought with them. And that colour, depth, and nuance will be brought back to the class to inform the discussion.

The only association for rote memorisation is itself.

The rich context created in a participatory classroom enables students to reach a greater understanding of the course material and retain much more of what they have learned than students engaged in passive reception and rote memorisation. Deeper understanding and increased retention through classroom and project work translate into improved written work, growing confidence, and a smoother transition to third level. And incidentally, it improves exam results.

Self-direction

Perhaps the most significant ‘disconnect’ in transferring from second to third level is the contrast between the passive role too often imposed on the secondary school student and the more active role demanded at third level. Like the DCU study, Leaving School in Ireland found that a large majority of school leavers reported significant differences in teaching and learning between second- and third-level education.

A key factor emerging from the in-depth interviews was the need
to engage in self-directed learning in further/higher education, 
especially the challenges in managing deadlines, which was
contrasted with the more directive approach adopted in school. 

Students who go to university straight from a ‘directive’ approach at second level, and whose days have been organised according to a strict timetable, may have problems managing their own time. They may have difficulty keeping up with work required but not handed in for grading—reading, for instance. Students who have learned by rote may have difficulty using what they have memorised to solve novel problems or evaluate new material. Students who have never been asked for their opinion until the teacher told them what it was can have difficulty processing new information without direction.

Starting to bridge the gap between ‘directive’ and ‘self-directed’ learning, and between passive and active student participation, could be as simple as including a Critical Thinking course on all second-level curricula and increasing the level of self-directed project work. Self-directed doesn’t mean unsupported. Teachers should be involved at all stages from conception to completion, but as mentors, sounding boards, and cheerleaders, not as taskmasters.

How to think, not what to think

It seems strange that for fourteen years students will go to class and pay attention, do homework, study hard, write essays, complete independent projects, and sit end-of-year exams—and none of that will count in assessing their suitability for college. Their immediate educational future depends entirely on a single set of exams they will sit in the summer of their eighteenth/nineteenth year.

Moving away from a single exam toward at least a partially project-based certification system with continuous assessment across the senior cycle would measure depth as well as breadth of knowledge. It would reduce the pressure on students. And it would be a far better predictor than a high-pressure exam of a student’s post-secondary performance in education or at work.

And as we go forward, it’s important to remember that not all Leaving Cert students are studying full-time. The needs of differently-abled students who require different support services or non-traditional students juggling commitments to families, jobs, and other responsibilities in addition to their studies, need to be accommodated. For those, and indeed for all students, a modular Leaving Cert, in which courses can be taken cumulatively, allows for a more flexible pathway to third level.

Teaching subjects not currently examined in the Leaving Certificate but that students may want to study at third level—law, philosophy, or political science, for instance—would help students choose a course before committing to a three-year or four-year programme. This is particularly important for those applying to universities that don’t offer open Bachelor of Arts degrees.

And not all Leaving Cert students are heading for university. Adding the option of vocational courses to the senior cycle—construction trades, for instance, ideally with attached apprenticeships post-Leaving Cert—would increase the value of the Leaving Cert to the student body across educational, intellectual, and social divides.

Well-prepared students making informed decisions about their post-secondary career should be the aim. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, students need to learn how to think, not what to think.


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[i] O’Leary, M. & Scully, D. (2018). The Leaving Certificate Programme as Preparation for Higher Education: The View of Undergraduates at the End of their First Year in University. Dublin: Dublin City University, Centre for Assessment Research, Policy & Practice in Education (CARPE).

[ii] Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions. (ESRI).


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Class in the Classroom
All other things being equal—Leaving Cert results, for instance—students who attend schools in working-class areas are less likely to graduate to third-level study than those from more affluent areas. Why is that?