It’s a good week to discuss teaching and education, and why we need change if we are to get the best out of our people. It was terribly disappointing to hear the negative reaction of the teachers’ unions towards the proposal last week to scrap the Junior Cert. When the very agents of change are terrified by it, we have a serious problem.

The education system as currently devised – with its rote learning, old-fashioned academic, grind-based reward system – terrorises many hundreds of thousands of children, scarring them with stigmas and insecurities which they carry with them for life. Because of the nature of our education system, there are hundreds of thousands of brilliant Irish people walking around today who believe that they are not brilliant. How many exceptional people do you know who will say to you “I hated school”?

They hated it because they knew that our education system stigmatised them.
Worse still, the system ‘rewards’ a type of conventional, linear intelligence which breeds conformity and ‘single-answer’ narrowness. This leads to the type of ‘group think’ that has blighted this country in many areas.
Arbitrarily in Ireland, a person is ‘punished’ for having a certain type of mind and another person is ‘rewarded’ for having a different type of mind. Those who are punished carry with them an unwarranted, self-conscious insecurity while, possibly more egregiously, those who are rewarded carry with them an unwarranted, out-sized confidence. Both the insecurity and the confidence can be dangerously corrosive to society and the individual.

The reason I use the word ‘arbitrary’ is that defenders of the system drone on about the need for the education system to create a ‘good educated workforce’, as if such a thing exists. It does not. It does not because the basis for producing students for the demands of the economy presupposes that the economy is a single unchanging entity that devours and deploys productive people of a certain type of ability. In addition, it presupposes that the economy can be forecast and careers can be mapped out.
This is not the case.

A few days ago, I chatted to my daughter who has just started secondary school. She was perplexed. She asked me when I decided to become an economist. I told her that I never really intended to, but kind of fell into it after an old friend – a lecturer – sparked my interest.
She was confused because lots of the children she was talking to at school were choosing subjects on the basis of what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“How can you know at 12, Dad?” she asked me.
“You can’t.”

The economy changes all the time and we have no idea what is coming next.
Here’s an example from my own life. And I’m sure you can think of many examples from your own, or your friends’. My first real job in 1991 – an economist in the EU section of the international relations department of the Irish Central Bank – didn’t exist five years previously because there was no such department.

My next job – an economic strategist in emerging markets at an investment bank – didn’t exist five years previously because no one had heard of emerging markets, as most of those countries involved were then communist.

My next job – an economist at a hedge fund – didn’t exist five years before that because hedge funds didn’t exist. My next job was at a private Irish television station, TV3, which didn’t exist five years previously because there was no such thing as an Irish private TV station. Five years later, I was making a living writing books on popular economics which didn’t exist five years before, because there was no demand for that sort of thing and, five years later, the Abbey paid my wages, allowing me to bring economics to the stage. That was a job which certainly didn’t exist five years previously.*

You get the picture. The world is changing all the time and the way we make a crust is changing so dramatically that the idea that we can educate and reward a type of person now, in order to prepare them for life, is nonsense, particularly if we punish curiosity and risk-taking.

At best, we can teach children to question, to realise that there is more than one answer and to be flexible. But our education system teaches them that they will be rewarded if they don’t question, if they learn one or two answers and if they are not flexible, but conformist. In a changing world, this is entirely inappropriate.

When I was in school, whether doing the Inter or Leaving Cert, our year was divided into six streams based on academic ability. Some of the lads in my year were truly smart people; they were not traditionally academic because they were actually too intelligent, yet they were discarded and labelled (not explicitly but implicitly) as stupid. In reality, when it came to the rewards in school, my year was divided into the clever ones and the stupid ones. But ‘cleverness’ was only a certain type of intelligence. The interesting thing is that this so-called streaming, this arbitrary conveyor belt that was supposed to prepare you for life, rarely survived the impact with the real world. Many of the lads who were overlooked in the sausage machine of the Leaving Cert have since thrived.

The notion that the education system with its bias towards academic intelligence is a grand scheme, which prepares you for the future, brings to mind Mike Tyson’s wise words when he said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

It is obvious to most adults that our education system is an industrial factory model, which is outdated. I look at my children and they ask me why they have to learn this boring stuff and I have no answer. We are alienating our own children for a system which might have worked when the economy worked in a certain linear way, but now it doesn’t. So we are alienating them for nothing.

I see how creative they are with each other, playing games – yes, even computer games – and how their brains are totally switched on. Then I contrast this with their boredom with homework. Why do we punish them for being distracted by things they enjoy and reward them for the forced diversion of their attention to subjects which are so abstract as to be ludicrous to them?

Worse still, think about what the present exam system is doing to these kids: it is diminishing all the things that are important to them and elevating lots of things they don’t care about. This is disastrous.
If moving away from one-off exams towards continual assessment helps to rebalance the education system, then it is a great leap forward.

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