” Ruairi’s Junior Cert reform and the sad story of why nothing ever changes,” reads the headline by Matt Cooper on Wednesday last in the Irish Daily Mail.
As Executive members of INOTE we felt it was incumbent upon us to address some of the comments made in this article.
Mr Cooper states that reform of the Junior Cert will eliminate ” teaching to the test “, he states that this means ,” students are learning by rote what might come up in an exam-going so far as to memorise essays and prepared responses to questions-rather than developing innovation, creativity and what’s called active learning “. As English teachers we are certain that this is not true for our subject and here are the reasons why.
The Junior Cycle in its current form examines English over two papers at higher level. We do not and cannot teach to the test as 75% of the marks are for unseen work. It is amazing that at this stage in the debate no one has dealt with this simple fact.
Paper 1 is completely unseen, question 1 a comprehension, is often very difficult. Question 2, is a composition or an essay to you and I. Students rarely pre-prepare or learn an essay by ” rote ” as there are so many choices it would be an impossibility. Question 3, is a piece of functional writing, possibly a letter, talk or speech. We do, of course show students the rubrics of letter writing, report writing, and speech writing yet we cannot predict the paper so the work is very authentic on the day. The final section on the first paper is an exploration of media studies. Students are required to understand media in all its forms, advertisements, web sites, print media, television etc. They are asked sometimes very specific questions such as what is a ” scoop? ” or broad questions such as comparisons of visuals. The task requires a personal response and critical engagement with the text, is this not innovative, creative thinking?
Paper 2 is the dreaded ” learned stuff ” paper, or actually it isn’t. This paper contains Unseen Poetry, Unseen Drama and Unseen Fiction. There’s a clue in the titles here, ” Unseen” , 90 marks for unseen material. That brings us to a total of 270 marks for unseen material. Now you don’t have to be a member of Mr Quinn’s higher points for honours maths brigade to figure out that that if 270 marks from 360 are for unseen material, the idea that students would ” memorise essays and prepared responses to questions ” is laughable.
The JC in it’s current form has no set texts, we can choose as teachers to teach any poems, any play and any novel we feel would work for our students. Many teachers have taken this opportunity to read texts and explore writers previously dismissed in classroom environs, making our schools places where students have a real input.
The course has remained unchanged in structure for many years and we as English Teachers welcome change. We are thrilled to embark on many aspects of the JCSA, in particular the Oral Literacy module, however we now have to film the students and award them marks for their endeavours. Ask yourself this Mr Cooper, will the child with a stammer suffer, will the child who is painfully shy withstand the perceived pressure, will a parent submit a fantastic PowerPoint presentation to assist the students work? We have so many questions about equity, not about pay and conditions as you seem to assert.
This leads us to the Leaving Cert. Rote learning is the last thing we do as English Teachers, in fact due to the amount of poetry alone which is required to be covered 30 poems, five lives, it has been 13 years since we last insisted a Leaving Cert learn a poem by heart. We have lost so much because of this alone. Children and young adults can no longer recite the words of some of the greatest poets in the world, what an awful shame.
The Leaving Cert exam comprises of 2 papers also. 55% is for unseen material . Where is the rote learning here? Paper one begins with a comprehension. The students are asked to comment on the comprehension, answer a personal response question, discuss visual literacy and have knowledge of genre and style. Again, this is a difficult ” rote learning ” scenario.
Question B is a task, possibly a letter, memo, blog, diary, report, speech. Similarly, students are rewarded for engaging with the task, the correct use of register and the structure. How can we prepare students for this ? Obviously, we’ve taught them how to write a talk, address the audience, use rhetorical questions, anecdotal evidence, emotive language, but on the day again it really is a personal response to the task.
The final question , the dreaded Composing! In the past maybe, students learned essays and were able to adapt them, however, things have been very different recent years. The short story is now so prescriptive that even the gifted child is taking a risk by attempting it. This year’s short story titles are reflective of recent practise, ” Write a short story in which a ghostly presence plays a significant part ” and ” Write a short story for inclusion in a collection of Science Fiction writing inspired by the following quotation from TEXT 2, “….a new beast, slouching towards us…the beautiful mutant”, appeared extremely difficult to us. Are we now killing the short story, killing the very art Irish people are fascinated by and famous for?
It is now much preferable to write a speech, a personal essay or a feature article (everyone has an opinion Mr. Cooper, isn’t that right?) We teach the construction of the genres, we give the scaffolding but that’s where our influence ends, the building emerges from the student’s own work
Paper 2 is where the fun starts. This is where we as teachers are criticised and told we are ” teaching to the test “. Indeed we spend a lot of time preparing for Paper 2 but we cannot and do not predict, simply because we realise the range of questions available and because we’ve read the syllabus. We are required to help students develop a, ” mature and critical literacy”, whereby they have the, ” ability to think, reason discriminate and evaluate a wide variety of linguistic concepts “.
Most students begin with Macbeth or whatever the Shakespearean text is. Here, in many ways we can see why Mr. Cooper might assert students are learning by rote, but here Mr Cooper is incorrect. Students are rewarded for their ” critical engagement ” with the question, and their ability to ” adapt ” their knowledge, not for formulaic answers. We all know the main characters in our plays and the themes, students themselves try to learn everything possible. They exert undue pressure on themselves in an effort to have the perfect answer but in the LC it is your personal response that is the key to achieving a high grade.
The Comparative Section is really interesting for teachers and students. This is of course a new departure where students take a novel, play and film possibly and compare them. When the new course arrived in 2001 we were all quite rightly concerned about this section. The modes for assessment were, Cultural Context, Theme or Issue, Literary Genre and General Vision and Viewpoint. Like all good teachers we learned the modes and what they were, these are again the scaffolding or structures for the answers, however a formulaic approach will not suffice. Students are required to answer the question and juggle their knowledge and somewhere in that mix add in personal engagement. The questions are nuanced and challenging.
The Unseen Poem this year was quite difficult but the students realise what is required. They can do well in this section if they engage with the poem and focus on their own response to it. The question is often omitted due to time constraints and is often the difference in a grade or sub grade.
Finally the poetry. So this year we had, Yeats, Dickinson, Larkin and Plath (again). So we all know we can’t predict and of course we wanted Heaney here but what people are forgetting is once again it doesn’t matter if you know the poet, it’s how you answer the question that counts. The tasks are so cumbersome and wordy, they require personal engagement , insight and innovation!
At this point we have digressed from Mr Cooper’s main point which was reform of the JC ( we certainly wouldn’t do well in the LC), however we digressed because as Mr Cooper says himself ” Quinn is not looking to immediate reform of the Leaving Cert”, but it will come. As teachers we have no objection, in fact English Teachers teach new texts each year so it is not an issue for us.
Again, we welcome reform. The point is why reform for the sake of reform? Why begin with a JC subject where only 25% of the exam is studied material? Why constantly tell us we are ” teaching to the test “? Why not tell us how we are to assess our students, now, as we begin the new course? Why not provide adequate in-service and resources to enable us carry out the course requirements ? There are so many questions that need answers yet we the English Teachers are forging ahead.
Without question the JC and LC we have in place, develops innovation, creativity and active learning. Both exams encourage thought and engagement, maybe if more exams in the current system allowed for this our students would well and truly be capable of leading us to an optimistic future where fact replaces rhetoric and the exam system alters to reflect all partne