Three students at the forefront of a classroom are given a task. They are provided with a box of thumbtacks and a small candle. Their objective is to simply stick the candle to the nearby noticeboard. The lazy student of the three proceeds to try and pierce candle with thumbtack and upon failure, promptly quits. The mathematician of the group sets out constructing futile calculations, regarding slopes, slippages and sticking ability. The third student realises the need for thought. Eventually, she reaches instead for the box in which the thumbtacks came, tacks it to the board and places the candle inside. Excuse the pun of “thinking inside the box”.
Such enigmas are noted for developing creativity, yet sadly the same cannot be said of the Leaving Certificate. The mathematical student in this parable can be used to represent the model Irish senior cycle student. While there is little doubt he was one well versed in formulae derived of Pythagoras or even Albert Einstein, this doubt multiplies once you assume his knowledge of the German’s greatest law “Imagination is greater than knowledge”. However, it would be wrong to assume that success in the “real world” does not require a certain degree of the hard slog as can be seen by hypothetical lazy student. Yet a system of learning which strangles creativity, producing uniformed students at a uniform level, serves only to prevent the future minds of society from “standing on the shoulders of giants”. This is something the afore mentioned Einstein certainly achieved, the quote in the case born of his equally creatively talented predecessor, Isaac Newton.
Yet to recognise just how essential creativity is to success in life, we need not meticulously and indeed monotonously scan the pages of history as a Leaving Cert student of the subject would. We need only look to the enthusiastic faces of the annual BT Young Scientist Exhibition. These secondary students courageously broke the restrictions of rote learning, and were well rewarded. In the case of 2005 winner Patrick Collison, the sale of his innovation as such, netted him €3 million at the age of nineteen.
Craig Barrett, credited with breaking the mould when as Intel CEO in 1989 founded the Leixlip silicon manufacturing plant, was recently interviewed by the Irish Independent. When asked about the Irish education systems ability to produce the innovative minds that the sector requires, he claimed our report card would say “could do better”. A poor reward for a sector deemed to have the best hope of keeping last year’s 35,200 emigrants at home (Central Statistics Office 2013). Just like the final student from the opening parable who reinvented the norm by thinking inside the box, the current Leaving Certificate requires a radical overhaul to meet today’s demand for creative thinking.
The Leaving Certificate’s accumulation of points system is emblematic of the outdated, soulless, “Celtic Tiger” pursuit of social status and material goods. This shortfall is matched elsewhere as we consider problems regarding subject choice to course chosen. Subjects are entered into based on points earning ability rather than genuine interest. The Ancient Celts maintained strength tests to determine who would stand as the tuath’s champion, yet their descendants can receive third level entry based on totally unrelated topics. You can enter a business degree with your leading subject being art, yet knowledge of Monet’s quick brushstrokes may not be enough to sweep away stick accountancy tests.
To compound the debacle, comes the 2010 introduction of 25 extra points for higher mathematics by then Minister for Education Mary Coughlan. This, of course, results in a multitude pursuing a subject they know their strength may not lie in. Instead, students should be working in line with their own strengths and interests, the reality of a happy career. Small wonder then that 15% of Irish third level students drop out before the end of their first year. This increases to a one-in-four rate when it comes to the maths related courses of computer science, according to a study published by the Higher Education Authority.
We must accept the current, ungrounded nature of the Leaving Certificate system and commence improvement now- by making relevancy of subject choice to college course a necessity. If a woodworker were to employ his tools in a mechanic’s job, do you think the chiselled look would cut it? In addition, if he were to use the outdated instruments maintained at Leaving Certificate, which have long since been superseded by new technology, he would simply be rendered unemployable.
Post Leaving Certificate, the explosion of freedom is yet another third level, real world aspect that students are left poorly prepared for. Even high achieving senior cycle students rely on the directed nature of class, homework, class, test- all rigid and predetermined to further reduce individuality. This culminates in a one day exam which is taken as total representation of the students two years of work. Contrast this with the seasonal, portfolio-based assessment of college systems or the self motivated recognition and seizing of opportunity naturally present in life in general. Are Leaving Certificate students striving for a certificate of potential or just a potential certificate?
Truly the unbroken line of secondary education from first year right up to Leaving Certificate is a chain: each link the same, shackled to outdated conformity, a chain which must be broken to move forward towards understanding the modern needs of the workforce.
However, with the 2014 calendar year came the proposal by the Department of Education and Skills for the new, broader, gradually examined Junior Certificate to be officially titled as the JCSA- the Junior Cycle Student award. While the verdict is still out on this, it is my belief that it is a step in the right direction. Hope now exists for the recycling of the Leaving Certificate system. We have explored thinking outside the box and indeed inside the box. All that remains is to open the box that is the Leaving Certificate to the “realities of third level education, and modern life in general”