Students are coming to third level education with wonderful grades but without the basic ability to write a coherent sentence.
What I’m going to say here will not be palatable to several categories of reader. If you’re a primary or a second-level schoolteacher in Ireland, it might be best if you leave now. If you’re the parent of a would-be college student (or simply a parent) waiting on Leaving Cert results in a fortnight’s time, you might want to head for the exit with the teachers. And if you’re that young person waiting on the Leaving results, follow the others. Department of Education and Skills personnel may leave also as may any representative of a third level establishment. Stay if you wish, but, what’s coming up here will likely offend and incense you. That’s the trouble with the truth. It hurts.
Yesterday, thejournal.ie gave a potted version of a report that appeared in the print version of the Daily Mail. That report related to remarks made at the MacGill Summer School in Co Donegal by Professor Brian MacCraith, President of Dublin City University (DCU).
Professor MacCraith, the report states, said that Irish schools fail to prepare their charges for third level study and that most of a student’s first year at university is wasted correcting problems picked up in secondary school.
This follows a news item in the Irish Times on 29 June stating that the School of Communications in DCU is to put more emphasis on teaching undergraduate journalists the basics of English grammar and spelling. Despite achieving the hefty points required (445 last year), students starting out on the BA in Journalism programme at DCU display ‘significant weaknesses when it comes to the basics’, according to Patrick Kinsella, Head of School and Chairman of the BA in Journalism programme.
Both news items when reported sparked debate and discussion. And, as is always the case when any sort of criticism is levelled at our education system, the blame game starts. Third level blames second level; second level blames primary; primary blames parents; parents blame teachers. And so it goes. Round in a circle. Throw in criticism of the curriculum, of the design of the Leaving Cert itself, of the Department of Education and Skills and the Government in general, and the unhealthy mix bubbles and seethes in a black cauldron of dysfunction.
I work with third level students. It is a sad fact that a student can achieve an A1 in higher English in the Leaving Cert and not be able to put a coherent sentence together. And it is also a fact that they come to third level believing that they can. And why wouldn’t they? They have just been awarded an A in English by the system that tested them. They come to university believing they are the best because the system has told them so. They’re inclined to be a tad arrogant about it. They’re woefully deluded.
The standard of English of your average first-year university student is appalling. I know because I correct their work. And I despair. A lot of their writing is unintelligible rambling. Many of them use ‘big’ words which they consider sound very lofty and learned; but they use them in completely the wrong context and generally misspell them. I have corrected work that ran to several pages without a single capital letter or full stop. I could retire this minute if I had a bob for every misplaced apostrophe. And don’t even start me about dangling modifiers. What frustrates me is that very often there are good ideas and original thoughts buried deep in the mire but very few readers will invest the time it takes to unravel it all. And, like it or not, the poor writing gives a bad impression of the person and their intellect.
It’s difficult to have to burst bubbles. Difficult to have to massacre their work with a red pen. And even more difficult to develop their skills and learning when the basics are missing.
This is where the debate starts to get nasty. Third level tutors and lecturers argue that it’s not their job to teach the basics. Students should come to third level with a solid foundation of basic education gained over the years of primary and second level. The primary and second levels don’t generally accept that there are any shortcomings at their end and consider that third level institutions are elitist and pompous. (‘Up themselves’ is probably the more popular phrase). On Professor MacCraith’s recent comment, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland reportedly countered that the charge was ‘exaggerated’. Parents enter the fray as well and blame anyone and everyone except themselves or their child. The whole thing becomes a huge whinge-fest, with each whinger pointing the finger at the other.
And the truth is that all component parts of the system must take collective responsibility. They all stink. If there is blame to be apportioned, let them all take some of it. That a student leaves second level with a truckload of CAO points and still can’t write a grammatically correct sentence is indicative of systemic failure.
The standard of teaching in this country is not ‘standard’. It varies enormously and some of it is unbelievably awful. Some of our teachers – at all levels – have extremely poor literacy themselves. As an external examiner for the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC), I see students’ work but I also see teachers’ work in the form of resource materials and assignment briefs.
I also see corrections that teachers make on students’ work. Many of the corrections are incorrect. Sometimes I can’t believe what I see. Sometimes I point out the errors and I’m invariably met with defensiveness and arrogant hostility. They believe they are right simply because they are ‘the teacher’.
But who produces teachers? Third level. Third level gives them their degree and their H.Dip and lets them loose – to impart their poor literacy to another generation. It’s a vicious circle that has resulted in a marked decline in literacy standards across all sectors of society. Read the OECD education rankings published last year. Between 2000 and 2009, reading levels in Ireland dropped from 5th place to 17th place out of 39 countries. Scary stuff.
Parents have to take responsibility too. The style of modern parenting has changed bringing about an enormous social shift. A few years back, a team of research psychologists analysed data gathered by the Monitoring the Future Survey* over a 30-year period. Presenting the results of the analysis, Professor Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the report, stated that modern parents ‘are more likely than any group of parents before them to praise children – and maybe overpraise them’. Overpraise. There’s the rub.
Professor Twenge’s fellow researcher, Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, commented that: ‘Today’s teenagers have been taught to reach for the moon without being warned that many of them will not make it.
Modern parents, it seems, tend to over-compensate for what they perceive to be deficiencies in their own upbringing. Typically, today’s parents grew up in a comparatively tough regime where praise was scarce, self-esteem was low and modesty in all things was espoused. The pendulum seems to have swung to the opposite side. We are now experiencing what some call the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ syndrome – a sense of entitlement without effort. Just turn up. A generation who have never been challenged and who have been raised on a diet of positive affirmation, ego massage and inflated self-esteem. Professor Twenge and her colleagues contend that, whereas self-esteem programmes that are run in schools have a positive effect on those who need them, they have a negative effect on those who don’t. ‘I am special’ programmes help those with low self-esteem but ‘I am special’ teaches narcissism to normal children. In other words, parents need to be realistic about their children’s capabilities and ambitions.
And all parties in this debate need to lose the arrogance. All of them need to admit that no single component of the overall system is better than the other.
A system that tells a child they’re academically wonderful and sends them off to third level without the basic ability to communicate their thoughts lucidly and coherently stinks. The components of that system should be scrutinising themselves, admitting their weaknesses and working collaboratively to find a fix.
The tragedy of it all is that this lack of basic literacy does not generally reflect a lack of intellect. The intellect, though, seldom gets a chance to shine because it’s trapped beneath a landslide of falling standards and an inability to communicate. And those in charge of the rescue operation are shouting at each other and blaming each other for the disaster. They’re not rescuing anyone. They’re merely moving the rubble around.
Perhaps it’s time for one single person or agency to take control and organise the rescue mission properly. In the meantime, the shouting and roaring achieves nothing as the ground continues to slip.
*an ongoing survey in the US monitoring behaviours, attitudes and societal trends. Latest findings here: http://monitoringthefuture.org/press.html