“Just so you know from the rest of us who’ve been through the whole school system, the stuff you’re learning day-to-day, all the subjects and all the quotes, when you get out into the real world, that stuff is vital. Frankly, hardly a day goes by where I don’t have to quote a theorem or mention a poem.”
You may be vaguely familiar with this quote. Dara O’Briain, while making light of the oft-risible education system, sarcastically uttered it to a student in the crowd during one of his shows. In one, almost throwaway, comedic remark O’Briain managed to encapsulate the banality and absurdity of our supposed education system. We’re meant to be learning, we’re told we’re learning but how much are we actually learning?
As I type this, thousands of 6th year pupils up and down the country are possibly studying, possibly dawdling and definitely anticipating the end of June when the shackles of second-level education are removed from them. If they are studying, and let’s assume they are, then just how are they doing it? Some may be insouciantly leafing over Hamlet, some may be tackling some tricky project maths problems and some may be practicing for the dreaded oral exams. A lot of the pupils will be learning off pre-meditated questions they have prepared in anticipation of topics they know will be on the paper come June. In fact, more than a lot of them will. A whole bunch of them will.
Rote learning as it is known, is the technique employed by so many pupils, and not just ones sitting their Leaving Cert. Rote learning is defined as “memorization by repetition”. Basically it’s vapidly consuming information and regurgitating it on exam day. It’s a technique inculcated into the minds of students by well-oiled and indolent teachers. It’s used simply because it works. The way our Leaving Certificate is structured and its predictability, encourages and almost fosters rote learning. Exams are so predictable and repetitive that teachers know what topics to focus in on beforehand. Take English for instance. Every year predictions are made on which poets will appear on Paper 2. This means that students simply learn off two poets and neglect all of the others. This is a tactic that more often than not works but just how much do you learn from it?
Rote learning is horribly unnatural. It’s indicative of the superficial world we inhabit. Humans are seen as commodities, some more valuable than others. The education system in its present state inhibits creativity, free-thinking or debate. It fosters obedience and efficiency. It teaches us how we can be good, submissive and complaisant members of society. We don’t learn to further or better our understanding of the world, we don’t learn on ways to improve the world; we learn how to get a job and how to shut up.
The prosaic rote learning technique implies that humans are robots, they take in information and they regurgitate the same information. Very rarely on any exam is a student’s individuality or opinion allowed to shine. English paper one is the only paper where students are allowed to properly express themselves. And even then, some teachers have been known to encourage students to formulate pre-meditated essays before paper 1; a move that can help with marks but greatly hinders any last morsel of creativity.
History provides ample example of this monotonous regurgitation. Topics are easily predictable and many students are encouraged to ignore certain sections of history, not because they are of any less historical merit, but because they “won’t come up this year”. Pupils are also told never to show their opinion when answering questions but merely to “stick to the facts”. Does this approach really help with a student’s apprehension or understanding of the subject? After the Leaving Certificate ends and the pupil heads to college or is thrust into the workforce, or even in these austere times into the dole queue, how much history will they actually remember? And, how much will they appreciate it?
When speaking on the topic of education, the late, great American comedian and social commentator George Carlin said of the education system in its current form; “They don’t want a population that’s capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. That doesn’t help them. It goes against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re being fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fuckin’ years ago.” The “they” the magnificently perspicacious Carlin was referring to are the elite classes.
He went on to say “You know what they want? They want obedient workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime,”
So is Carlin right? Is there a concrete reason why the education system is so banal, uninspiring and repetitive? A passive and subordinate society is always in the interest of the ruling classes. As Carlin says, they don’t want people intelligent enough to be able to figure out that they are being, as he so befittingly puts it, “fucked over”. It’s an interesting theory to mull over.
The Leaving Certificate is set for a change however. In light of its increasing predictability, part-time Minister for Education and full-time gobshite Ruairi Quinn has announced a reform of the Leaving Certificate system. Now as you may have guessed, I am not Quinn’s biggest fan, but I am willing to listen and examine his points.
Way yonder in December, Quinn had this to say on the predictability factor: “This leads to ‘teaching to the test’, for example anticipating what poets will come up in the English examination. Teachers, under pressure, will concentrate on predicted questions that are likely to arise.” Well at least he acknowledges that there’s a problem. The State Examination Commission also recognised “Problematic predictability”. What measures will be taken to combat the issue are yet to be revealed and they won’t be in place for at least three years.
While they are steps in the right direction I don’t think they go far enough. We need to encourage critical thinking amongst teenagers. We need to help creativity grow and love of the arts and sciences foster. The system in its current form dissuades students from free-thinking and recalcitrance. It’s especially important in this current climate of bankers’ bonuses and politicians’ broken promises that we have a society that asks questions, that realises the importance in improving the world not just for the self or for the few, but for the all. With an overhaul of not just the education system but also the way we think about education, we might just achieve this.