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HAVING received my Leaving Cert results a few weeks ago, I am perhaps more aware than most of the column inches that have been devoted lately to our education system, in particular the controversy surrounding higher level maths.
With all the talk of reform, what has stuck me is that no one has thought to ask students what they think about the current system or indeed to compare Irish students’ standard of education to their European counterparts.
My peers and I are being conditioned to contribute to this country’s economy in a process that is expensive, being continually reformed and for everyone’s sake, not least taxpayers, must not be mucked up.
However, we are rarely, if ever, asked to give our opinion on our education and this is counter-productive. After all, who knows the system’s faults and failings better than us? We’ve spent, quite literally, our lives learning it.
Contrary to popular belief, honours maths doesn’t bite, honest, I’ve passed the exam. Neither does it require hours of extra study. It is not the preserve of genius and I don’t believe it to be the most difficult exam in the Leaving cert. However, it is certainly the subject with the worst image.
Therefore, I really don’t blame people for dropping down to ordinary level after the first week of fifth year. Part of the current problem is that it is more socially acceptable to drop to ordinary level than to do the higher exam. This results in thousands of people taking the ordinary exam every year who would do very well if they took the higher paper.
So you have a glut of people getting high grades at ordinary level resulting in papers with increased difficulty, tighter marking schemes and a failure rate like this year’s. As a result of this trend, those for whom the ordinary paper was originally designed are now being failed.
The second problem with the current maths system is how it’s taught. The Government regards primary and secondary education as being mutually exclusive – a viewpoint that is damaging and needs to be changed immediately.
For what it’s worth, I believe the damagingly low level of students studying maths-related courses in third level and honours maths in second level is a direct result of how maths is taught in primary schools across the country.
Greater emphasis is placed on primary teachers developing the requisite Irish language skills than on basic maths skills. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It’s impossible to impart a love for a subject you never spent much time on and so never fully understood.
Likewise how can you instill confidence in your students when you never felt comfortable with maths yourself?
I hated what I presumed to be maths in primary school. Maths class consisted of rote learning a series of tables that I didn’t understand, that didn’t prepare me for second-level maths and only served to turn me against the subject.
Words could not express the loathing I felt for the subject and I am reasonably certain I was not alone in that sentiment.
I am going to presume most students are not as fortunate as I was to have had an excellent maths teacher in first year (most schools confine the few good teachers they have to fifth and sixth-year students) and continue along the path I would have gone down.
This would involve dropping to ordinary maths as early as possible. Why spend time on a subject you have been taught to hate? hose who do persevere approach maths as they have been taught in primary school – by rote learning. This is the antithesis of what maths is.
Project maths will be ineffective – there’s no point in putting a new tap on a leaky pipe. Indeed, as the system currently stands, the final two years of the honours maths course are the best. You need to start teaching maths early – not tables, real maths because it’s a way of thinking.
To expect students to retrain their thought processes for one subject in less than two years is a tall order.
When taught at its best maths embodies the skill-set that politicians sell to us as being unique to the ‘smart’ economy: problem-solving, independent and imaginative thinking that inspires confidence in one’s own abilities. These are the skills missing from our current education system as it stands.
I know... I’ve just left it.
I didn’t graduate from a fancy fee-paying city school. Like almost every other student in the country I hopped on the school bus every morning to the nearest town. My parents don’t have notebooks bursting with contacts or the fabled tree growing money in the garden that once upon a time I really did believe to be real.
Even so, I’ve managed to do reasonably well these last few years. Contrary to popular belief, the Irish education system is not terrible. When compared to our English and French counterparts we graduate with more discipline and are well-rounded.
Another important distinction is that Ireland is the only country I know of where a good education is available to all regardless of wealth or class. The Leaving Cert, for all its faults, is fair. Money can buy you notes, but it can’t learn them for you. I believe myself to be a fairly typical example of the class of 2010 – my peers and I are diligent, bright, determined. We can help improve the system we’ve just left. Maybe if the Government consulted us more often the system wouldn’t be just good because I believe it has the potential to be great.
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