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?


Shhh, I got me this sweet deal goin’ on


Don’t tell anyone. I got a got a sweet deal with my bosses and I want to share it with just you.
Keep it to yourself.
These are in no particlular order. What have I left out?

  • See where I work nobody checks up on me.
  • I get paid over 60 grand a year and my job description hasn’t changed since I first began fifteen years ago.
  • Truth be told it probably hasn’t changed much in over one hundred years.
  • The material I teach hasn’t changed much in three hundred years. One of the sections I teach is called Modern Physics. This section is almost exactly one hundred years old.
  • My holidays cover over one third of the year. Fully paid.
  • I got job security for life. Nobody can touch me.
  • Over 90% of what I teach seems to serve no purpose whatsover, which is just as well because nobody remembers it after they leave school anyway. Has Hooke’s Law saved your life lately?
  • In theory I teach some of the most interesting subject matter that exists anywhere in this universe; in practice the writers of the Junior Science and Leaving Cert Physics syllabi couldn’t have done a more botched job if they deliberately set out to remove everything but the dry-as-dust ‘facts’ that we are left with.
  • I can take up to thirty days sick leave per year without needing to provide  a cert.
  • Promotion in my job is based on how long in the tooth I am; therefore those longest in the tooth are the highest paid.
  • I can close my door when I step into my classroom for the very first time and hardly anybody ever gets to look over my shoulder between then and the day I retire.
  • Once or twice over the course of my career an outside ‘inspector’ may get to call in to see how I’m getting on, but not unless I get a couple of weeks notice so I can prepare for his visit so that I give him the impression that those few highly prepared and highly artificial classes are the norm.
  • In a world which now cannot function without technology I too have moved with the times; where I once used chalk and a blackboard I now use (drumroll . . .) markers and a whiteboard.
  • In a world where I can be in touch with a colleague half a world away quicker than I can make contact with a colleague across the hall, there is no onus on me to do either.
  • I teach in a pretty well-to-do school where almost all students are interested in going to college, and where discipline issues mostly revolve around top buttons not being done up properly. I get paid the same as colleagues in schools where very few wish to learn and where discipline issues involve physical and verbal intimidation on a daily basis.
  • I got a sweet pension which is fully secure. I don’t really know anything else about it because, well, I guess I don’t need to.

You gotta promise me you’ll keep this secret; I don’t want the word getting out.

Why aren’t we teaching about global warming in schools?

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it’s over. The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

From George Mondiot. Published in the Guardian, 16th March 2009.

In Britain there are a whole raft of differnt syllabii (at secondary level) for each subject, and different school boards have the option of choosing which one to follow, thus making interdisciplinary subject material very much a hit or miss affair.

In Ireland there is only one syllabus for each subject, so you would think someone at the top would be looking at what gets covered in each subject, and how the overlapping material can best be presented to complement this. In fact as teachers we are encouraged to find this out for ourselves, which I’ve no doubt some do. But most of us (while admiring the sentiment) simply put it to the back of an ever-growing ‘to do’ list.

Take Global Warming.
At Junior Cert Science level the words “global warming” do not appear.

The words “greenhouse effect” do make an appearance on the Leaving Cert Physics syllabus, almost as an after-thought in relation to chacteristics of Infra-red radiation.

I think it is dealt with in a little more detail in Leaving Cert Chemistry, but hopefully someone can add more detail.

What I am particularly interested in is to what extent is the following idea taught in our schools?

It is over-consumption on the part of the wealthier nations which is having catastrophic consequences for the poorer nations.

Is it covered in CSPE / Religion / Geography / anywhere else?

If not then I suggest that there is an obligation on us as teachers to try and change it.
One could incorporate the following

  • Science: The science of Global Warming / Extinction and evolution (after all, life will go on long after we’re gone)
  • CSPE: The ethics involved. In particular we need to address the fallacy where people believe that just because they don’t hurt anyone directly in their day-to-day lives, they are not not guilty of any wrong-doing
  • Geography: How/why civislisations have imploded in the past due to distruction of their own resources
  • History: I don’t know enough about History or how it is taught, but I imagine a lot of wars in the past were fought as a result of dwindling resources in one area forcing a whole population to move to seek food in another.

I’m sure there’s much more. the point is that Global Warming is only the most important concept to face mankind in the last generation, and we in school are doing almost nothing about it. And it’s just not good enough. Step one is simply to find our voice. And we’re not even there yet.

Ernst Mach: the problem with Science Education


1859 marks not only the 150th birthday of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but also a somewhat less well-known occasion; It was the year Ernst Mach published the first of his 500 publications (his last was published five years after his death, in 1921).

Most will know of this man through his association with the speed of planes;  Mach Number is the speed at which an object is moving divided by the speed of sound.

But Mach has offered much more to the world of Science; he lived in a time when Philosophy and Science went hand and hand, and he made many contributions not just in these areas, but also in Psychology and Educational Theory. He wrote a number of text-books for school science, but was very critical of the tendency of cramming as much as possible into the syllabus.
This quote sums up so much of what is wrong with our schooling: 

I know nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much . . . What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure supports, but complicated enough to produce confusion.

Mach was also an advocate of what are known as ‘thought experiments’, these later became famous through Albert Einstein and his idea of sitting on top of a light beam.  Indeed Einstein went on to give credit to Mach for his ‘philosophical writings’.  It’s probably no coincidence that Einstein’s views on education were not that dissimilar to Mach’s:

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

Of course this was all over one hundred years ago. Obviously it’s all changed since then.
It would appear that we have some explaining to do.

Trainee teachers get a raw deal



Does a medical student get to work on a patient/diagnose a patient for the first time unsupervised?

Does a trainee mechanic get to work on the brakes of a car for the first time unsupervised?

So why is a trainee teacher who is on teacher practice in a classroom, usually unsupervised?

Because the main teacher has buggered off, that’s why.
Sooner or later the Department of Education will have to clamp down on this, and we as professional teachers will have to toe the line. Now some of us spend this time productively, while more of us use it to have an extended coffee break, or if we get lucky we can even leave the school early or arrive late in the morning.

In fact if we plan it out properly in advance we can even give ourselves the day off.

Point is, this shouldn’t happen. In a training hospital there is an understanding that the ‘master’ doctor (isn’t ‘master’ a horrible term – or am I just too PC?) assumes responsibility for the trainee; shows him (or her) the ropes, and gradually exposes the trainee to a greater level of responsibility. Why do we get away with not doing this?
Yes of course I am generalising, but does anybody even know to what extent? Do some schools have a policy on this?

The temptation is often to give the trainee teacher a transition-year class and the rationale may be publicly that it is unfair to an exam class to expose them to a new teacher, which certainly seems reasonable, but then a transition-year class is always going to be more difficult to motivate – and discipline (could this add to the attraction of ‘fobbing it off’ onto a hidip?). So if we are sticking a new teacher with this class, the onus should be on me as the main teacher to remain in the class at all times.

It does create a slightly artificial atmosphere, but what I have found is that most of the time the students quickly forget about the teacher at the back, and just get on with on it. If the trainee-teacher has problems controling the class this will soon become obvious, with or without another teacher at the back.

Isn’t there also an insurance issue with leaving an unqualified teacher to run a practical session in a lab?

This brings up a second issue.
Why are these trainee teachers teaching classes at all?
Wouldn’t they be better off observing as many teachers as possible to critique the different teaching styles? After all, they can be ‘blooded’ at any stage but chances are they will never again have the opportunity to sit in on a colleague’s classes. I’m arrogant enough to think that a new teacher could learn something from observing my teaching style; maybe it’s only how not to teach a class – but that’s still a valuable lesson that otherwise may never be learnt.
A colleague of mine is hoping to initiate a group of like-minded teachers who are prepared to let colleagues sit in on their classes, but purely from a timetable point of view it may prove unfeasible.

At least it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

It’s almost 40 years since we first put a man on the moon.
Is it possible to create a space/forum/platform for teachers to discuss these issues?
How would we respond?

Some cool science resources

Just got back from wonderful New Zealand yesterday and came across some of these impressive deals.

Digital calipers from aldi for €10, available from Sunday 13th (checkout blowtorch available also for €10). Why would anyone use the old-fashioned vernier calipers when you these cut out all the confusion. Ideal for ‘measuring the resistivity of wire’ experiment.


Dynamo torches from lidl for €10, available from Monday 14th. Use them at Junior Cert as an examle of energy conversions, and at Leaving Cert for demonstrating Electromagnetic Induction. I haven’t bought one yet but hopefully they can be taken apart to see the internal workings.

VHS to DVD converter for €168 from Maplin (Maplin doesn’t have an Irish website for some reason, but they do issue newsletters with their special deals). If, like me, you have a bank of VHS cassettes with numerous programs on each cassette, then is the ideal way to start afresh. This time around I use one DVD per program, and use an elecrtronic labeller (which I also got from lidl) to label each DVD. Our science department got one of these a couple of years ago but I reckon it was probably twice the price.
Maplin also currently have Infrared Thermometers for €33 and multimeters for €8 (I would check that ‘crocodile leads’ fit into these sockets before buying).

I was thrilled to see that Maplin have started stocking educational products from mutr. So many so-called ‘Science Toys’ that you see in toyshops look fantastic but are actually crap. Mutr (middlesex university teaching ressources) on the other hand are the business; I’m not even sure they do it for profit, certainly many of their products are unique and very reasonably priced.
Get your Christmas shopping done early this year

Do you teach a modern language? If so subscribe to Joe Dale now!



There are a whole lot of education blogs out there, but one of the very best has to be Joe Dale’s “Integrating ICT into the MFL classroom“. He gave a presentation at the CESI conference this year and people had to be turned away at the door.

Every subject needs to have a Joe Dale; someone to keep us up to date on best practice in relation to ICT issues, and who you know is a full-time teacher who practices what he preaches.

Here’s my contibution to the ‘Modern Language’ database:
Eddie Izzard – Learning French

‘Course you can’t show this wonderful clip unless you have Youtube.
Don’t mention the war

Is there an equivalent Science / Physics Teacher blog out there?
Patricia Donaghy has done her part; is a registration page for educational blogs where you can go and search by topic.

I guess over time more teachers will get the hang of this sharing lark.


Ten Great Ideas

Been thinking about my previous posting.

What are the ten great ideas in Science that we don’t emphasise?

The average student remembers bugger-all about science, but if we were told there were ten things that a student had to remember, what would they be?

1. Kinetic Theory – Everything is made up of atoms and vibrate at temperatures above -273 degrees Celsius.

2. Evolution

 3. Global Warming

4. Each atom is 99.9999% empty, and so therefore all objects which appear solid are almost completely empty space.

5. Deep Time: The age of the universe, the age of the Earth, the age of first life, and the age of humans

6. Science does not offer Absolute Proof

7. Fundamental Attribution Theory: Humans are genetically hard-wired to apportion blame for our own mistakes to others while wishing to take the credit for achievements which are outside our control.

8. Quantum Theory

9. What Science doesn’t know

10. Mass Extinctions

Where does the ‘stuff’ in trees come from? is an interesting site which “uses media and telecommunications to advance excellent teaching in American schools.”

One of the issues they address is the area of misconceptions in Science.
This is a wonderful video which asks where does the material that makes up trees come from.

College graduates from Harvard and MIT were asked and not one of them gave the correct answer. In fact their answers were very similar to those given by six year olds.

It makes us question what other serious misconceptions we are responsible for, and leads us to question what and why we are teaching.

If we put together the ten most important ideas in science, how many of them are emphasised in our science courses?

College students answering these questions kicks in at about the 8-minute mark.

A primary school kid gets a look at solid air (dry ice) at 53:20. The look on his face is worth waiting for.

The video is 1:21 long. Access it here

quiz with a difference

Saw this recently in a physics education journal (IOP Classroom Physics).
I’m probably the last person to have come across this, but still . . .

When giving a quiz why not give the answers and have the troops figure out the questions?
It gets them thinking, as opposed to simply vomiting back up the facts they learned off the night before.
Here are some sample questions / answers for junior cert magnetism:

1. Iron, cobalt and nickel
Which elements are magnetic?

2. They repel each other
What do two north poles or two south poles do when they are near each other?
3. It lines up with the magnetic field
What does a magnetic compass do?

4. A region of space where a magnetic material experiences a force
What is a magnetic field?

5. Increasing the number of coils on an iron core
How could you increase the strength of an electromagnet?

6. Away from the north pole and towards the south pole
Which way does a compass needle point when near a magnet?

7. You end up with two smaller magnets
What happens when you break a magnet in half?