How we teach our children: Education is learning how to change

This is an exciting time of change for education in Ireland, writes John Hammond of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

Aistear, the early childhood curriculum framework, is being implemented. The structure and time allocations in the primary curriculum are being reviewed, and work is ongoing on the languages and maths curricula.

Major developments in the curriculum at junior cycle have been under way since 2014, and will be gradually introduced in the coming years. We are also in the early stages of a review of senior-cycle education.

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is a statutory, representative body that generates policy advice and leads development work in each of these areas. We use evidence from Irish and international education research, along with the valued experience of practitioners and experts, to advise on curriculum and assessment developments.

The approach through which we develop curricula requires agreement, so our committees include representatives of stakeholders in education — teacher unions, management bodies, parents, the early childhood sector, further and higher education, and business interests. Increasingly, the student voice is being heard in our deliberations, too, often through schools and settings. The students provide further advice and feedback on our ideas.

Consultation is also a feature of our approach. There are public consultations on all major policy documents and curricula, before the Minister for Education is advised. By that time, NCCA has discussed and deliberated, sometimes over a couple of years, so our advice travels without fear or favour. It may come with the caveats of some of the education partners — such as concerns on resources or particular aspects of proposals — but advice on reform on the scale outlined above is never offered lightly.

Through research and review, we look closely at what happens in schools and in the education system in Ireland. For example, in the early stages of the NCCA’s review of senior cycle, a key issue is the implication that developments at junior cycle will have for the school’s senior cycle.

But the NCCA’s work also involves looking at what’s emerging from research and developments in other countries. The use of frameworks that describe the outcomes of learning, but that present schools and other settings with some autonomy and flexibility in curriculum programme design and curriculum development, is common. Aistear, and the junior cycle framework, are examples of this.

A focus on being clear about the purposes of the curriculum, at different stages of learning, and about the nature and content of the learning itself, is also in evidence. At junior cycle, eight principles for learning, and 23 statements of learning, set out clearly the approach to education and what students will learn. Many countries, including Ireland, increasingly use learning outcomes when writing curricula, and include examples of pupil learning or student work to show what that learning looks like in practice.

A variety of curriculum components, including subjects, are in use. Short courses, theme-based units of study, individualised learning programmes, and a greater choice of curriculum pathways feature in many countries. Capacity for future learning is often built through attention to key skills, such as communication and creativity, which are often embedded across all curriculum components.

In Ireland, the junior cycle now features eight key skills, new short courses in areas like coding and artistic performance, and new learning programmes, which are customised for students with special educational needs.

It also features wellbeing, building on and enhancing existing practice in schools where students get to focus on their health, their relationships, and their place in society.

With new curriculum components and key skills being introduced, attention often turns to ensuring that the forms of assessment used are fit-for-purpose and that a balance between formative and summative forms of assessment is achieved, and is reflective of the purposes of assessment at different stages of education.

The junior cycle now takes a dual approach to assessment, retaining subject-based exams at the end of third year, but balancing this approach with classroom-based assessments across both second and third year. This encourages assessment of a wider range of learning.

Internationally, new forms of reporting and certification often reflect the greater variety in educational programmes, curriculum components, approaches to assessment, and autonomy in curriculum development mentioned above. There is much work on richer forms of reporting, providing high-quality feedback and information for learners and parents, especially at the critical points of transition between early childhood, primary, junior cycle, senior cycle, and further or higher education.

A new form of certification is being provided at junior cycle, as, later this year, students receive the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA) for the first time. It will include their results from the State exams and from classroom-based assessments, in subjects and short courses they have taken.

It can also include a section on other areas of learning the student has been involved in at school.

Some students with special educational needs, who have taken individually-customised, Level 2 learning programmes as part of the junior cycle, will have their learning achievements recognised through the JCPA, too.

The NCCA’s work on curriculum development in all sectors always aims to build upon, and recognise, the importance of the classroom, early childhood setting, and school as the sites of change.

It sees practitioners, teachers, and school management as the principal agents of change. It emphasises the need for change to be focused on improving the quality and range of the educational experience for all children and young people.

Curriculum developments and reforms, particularly when they’re on a large scale, can be controversial and contested, but many are not. Many relate to aspects of learning that teachers and schools are already interested in and working on, because the need for change has been seen and acted on in the classroom, school, or other setting.

There is a strong tradition of practice in schools of keeping pace with, and informing, curriculum developments, especially in Ireland, where teachers and schools are still directly involved in the curriculum-development process at national level, through the NCCA.

Education systems, including Ireland’s, have very significant strengths, which parents, learners, researchers, and the general public recognise.

The kinds of curriculum developments set out in this article reflect the need, in constantly changing times, to keep the curriculum under review — to modernise it, improve it, and meet emerging challenges. All this is with the aim of addressing the most important question: How can the educational experience of learners be improved for all and for the common good?

John Hammond is acting chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

How we teach our children: Education is learning how to change

TOMORROW:

What other countries do, with a focus on Finland.

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