Assessment in Junior Cert Science – what a shambles; what a cod!

Here’s how to get 35% of your Junior Cert Science mark without having to learn any Science:

  1. Get the first 10% by having your lab book written up – it’s automatic and doesn’t necessarily mean you did any experiments. It certainly doesn’t mean you learnt anything; in fact if you missed out on any expeiments just copy them from somebody else and make up a date (try to ensure it was a day when the school was open).
    Technically we the teachers shuldn’t be signing off on this section unless we know it represents a fair reflection of the students’ actual work, but in practice this is rarely going to be the case. it may be that we see the results our students get as a reflection of our own teaching ability; we may have inherited the students from other teachers or indeed schools so may have no way of knowing how much of the previous work is legitimate; it may be a task too many for already busy teachers to monitor, particulary if the students themselves have little regard for the excercise or simply lack the necessary organisational skills to keep up to date themselves.
  2. Get the next 25% by having your two designated investiagations written up in the correct format. This isn’t very difficult and the average mark here is about 90%. The important thing to remember here is that it doesn’t matter how well you did the actual investigations or how clever your approach was (or indeed if you bothered to do the investigations yourself in  the first place) – all the marks here go for how you write it up.

If you think the final mark that students actually obtain may be somewhat inflated by the hoop-jumping above, you’re not alone. In fact some of us would go so far as to think it makes a mockery of the whole subject at this level.


We need to take responsibility for our own professional development

It may seem hard to believe but most second level teachers in this country have never seen another colleague teach their subject other than the teacher they had themselves as a student and possibly a few class observations when they were doing the hDip. Neither is there currently any obligation on us to initiate communication with colleagues in other schools either within the country or elsewhere.

This needs to change. Few if any of us are so expert in our teaching that we have nothing left to learn. In the past establishing a space for this learning to occur was the main stumbling block but now with the advent of technology there is no such excuse. The experts call it a PLN – a professional learning network – and it should revolutionise education. It works like this: sign up to twitter and start following someone (anyone – it doesn’t matter who; @thefrogblog wouldn’t be a bad starting point). Very quickly you will start receiving tweets and links from other teachers. You can then choose to ‘unfollow’ those who don’t appeal to you. It’s a very fluid process and in the main people don’t mind (or probably even know) if you unfollow them so don’t think you are signing up to some lifelong commitment. It’s quite likely you will chance upon a number of people who you know personally but didn’t realise were on Twitter.

Slowly you will begin to establish a list of people who you rate highly – you are now developing a PLN. You are in complete control and with time should come the confidence to contribute yourself. It’s only then that you realise the potential. Personally I find the posts of physics teacher @fnoschese to be of greatest benefit but that could all change tomorrow if my interests take a different turn.

I imagine many teachers have developed a PLN without ever realising what it was called and chances are that in the past it was through personal communication via a subject organisation like the ISTA. Probably the greatest assistance to my professional development over the years was a discussion group for teachers of physics in Britain and Ireland as part of the Institute of Physics. It was a place where I could post any problems that I had in either understanding a concept or indeed explaining the concept to students. But its greatest feature was in reading the comments that other teachers wrote which made me realise that concepts which I thought I understood were completely wrong and in many instances were perfect examples of the type of misconception which I was trying to eradicate in my own students’ heads.

The amount of time I was able to give to this varied enormously but now with the advent of Twitter and the smartphone all of this information is literally at the touch of a button.

One consequence of all this however is to make me realise that my style of teaching is highly questionable from a pedagogical point of view. It might be all bells and whistles, the students may love it and I get a great sense of satisfaction from it, but all the research shows that this traditional model is pretty ineffective. Frank Nochese (mentioned above) refers to it as ‘pseudoteaching’ and I like to turn that around and suggest that what my students are doing in the main is ‘pseudolearning’; I think they’re learning, they think they’re learning and the exam results are keeping everybody happy, but it only takes a little prodding to realise that much of this learning is superficial – concepts are not really understood, they are merely ‘learned off by heart’. And that’s not good enough. The use of assessment as a learning tool instead of its current function which is simply to assign grades is another example of how I have fallen behind as a professional.But that’s for another day.

The point is, whatever we call it, we all need to be in constant communication with colleagues. We all need to give and receive feedback. We all need to strive to improve.

Currently there is little external incentive to develop a PLN, neither are there any penalties for not doing so, but one would hope that it is only a matter of time before this changes. Watch this space.

Assessment: the tail that wags the dog

chasing tail


All this talk about whether leaving cert results or aptitude tests are better for gaining information about a student’s ability to become a doctor reminds me of the story of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight.


A cop walking his beat one night finds a drunk on his knees, searching for something on the street. The cop asks the drunk, “What are you doing?” “Looking for my car keys,” says the drunk. The cop asks, “Where did you lose your keys?” “I don’t know,” the man answers. The cop, a bit perplexed, asks, “Then, why are you looking here if you don’t know where you lost your keys?” Responds the drunk, “Because the light is better here, under the streetlight.”


Why does our education have such a focus on assessment? Because that’s the only bit we can put a number on.

And we do love to put numbers on things.

The danger arises when this very dubious practice becomes ingrained in us to such an extent that all the stakeholders assume it is a ‘natural’ process.

Certainly students associate ‘points’ with intelligence, and identify ‘good’ teachers as those whose students get ‘A’s.

Of course there are very valid reasons for doing this; the point is that in so doing we are reinforcing the notion that this is right (and again that word ‘natural’).


Assessment then turns into the tail that wags the dog.


Look at the aims and objectives of any syllabus at senior or junior level – they are full of wonderful aspirations.

This particular one can be found at the beginning of every leaving cert subject syllabus:


The general aim of education is to contribute towards the development of all aspects of the individual, including aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure.


I wonder how much time authors spend reading this when they set out to write their textbooks.


Palaeontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould looked at the origin of the I.Q. test in his wonderful book ‘The mismeasure of man’.

He used the term ‘reification’ to describe the fallacy of putting a number on something that couldn’t be quantified (in this case intelligence) and with this very simple process an incredible transformation takes place. Because the concept has now got a number everybody assumes that the concept must be measureable and therefore the concept must be valid.


Wasn’t it Margaret Mead who said that she was taking her daughter out of school so that she could get an education?