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Think Tank: We need to educate the whole child

October 18, 2010

The primary school curriculum is falling short and blunt one-size-fits all homework assignments can quash frustrated pupils’ desire to learn.

There is little evidence to suggest that homework as we currently know it has any real benefit. Serious concerns exist among principals and teachers about its impact. It is becoming evident that the role of homework in our education system requires serious analysis.  Homework can cause a lot of stress between parents and children and can erode the quality time they have in the evening. It is often based at a challenge level suited for average to high achievers. This results in many children being frustrated by the difficulty it presents. Inexperienced teachers may sometimes over-prescribe homework and the more a teacher gives, the more valuable teaching time is lost correcting it.

Some teachers admit they give homework because they feel parents expect it; while some parents consider a teacher who gives a lot of homework to be good. But effective teaching in the classroom, which differentiates both children’s learning styles and learning abilities, far outweighs the value of repetitive homework that is not pitched at the child’s ability or individual learning style.  The teaching of Irish also needs to be viewed afresh. We have decades of experience in failing to deliver even minimal standards of proficiency. As a starting point, a national policy towards the Irish language is required and must, in the first instance, deal with the default negative attitude in society towards the language. Children come to school full of enthusiasm. Within a few years, the negativity they have absorbed puts an end to their desire to learn.

Suggested strategies could include spending less time in formal teaching of the language, teaching physical education exclusively through Irish (benefiting both subjects) and separating Irish culture from the language as an academic subject. Culture, a compulsory subject, should include drama, songs, music, stories, seanfhocail, jokes, games, humour and slang.  Social, personal and health education is currently allocated an inadequate 30 minutes a week in primary schools. It is probably the most important subject for children in today’s world of early sexualisation, negative body image, eating disorders, drugs, alcohol, bullying, depression and family dysfunction.

The Stay Safe programme has been well funded, with teachers trained to deliver its content over the past 18 years. Yet a recent survey shows that more than 10% of schools do not teach the programme. This is unacceptable given all we know now in relation to child abuse.  Physical education is allocated one hour a week, which is also inadequate. There are still poor facilities in many schools and no facilities in some. Childhood obesity and its related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, are on the rise in Ireland. There is a need for a national strategy to deal with obesity and, while schools have a part to play, they cannot be the full solution. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that girls, in particular, drop out of playing sport after leaving primary school. This needs to be addressed by the sporting bodies and by PE experts at second level.

The subject titles  Irish, English, maths, history, geography  through which the curriculum is organised have not changed much since the 19th century. Curriculum integration is a familiar concept at primary level. However, the Junior and Leaving Certificate examination system continues to exert a downward pressure on the upper end of primary school.  The time has come to find new ways of structuring the curriculum. Categorisation into traditional subject headings does little to enhance the education of the whole child. Of course it is the ideal model when success is measured by a child’s ability to reproduce information that has been learnt by rote. This blunt model does not prepare children to play a meaningful role in society, however.

While acknowledging that some aspects of curriculum continuity between primary and post-primary schools are being addressed, there is still an overall lack of continuity, not just in the area of content, but also in timetabling, pupil-teacher interaction, pastoral care and teaching methodologies. This begs the question of whether the school is meant to serve the educational needs of the child or if the child is meant to fit into various schooling systems.

The Sunday Times – Pat Goff
17 Deireadh Fómhair 2010