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Education Reform Ireland Post-Covid: Students Want Autonomy, Authenticity and Collaboration

Tina is a bilingual writer of unconventional fiction, a media graduate with a special focus on human sexuality and a content writer.

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On January 7, 1922, the Irish Free State, was born. Two years later, the Department of Education was established and with it the Leaving Cert.

No Change For 100 Years

Our education system has remained the same for almost 100 years. When we don’t change, change will come for us. The pandemic has forced us to change everything, but what can we unlearn post covid? What has become clearer with the pandemic is the lack of knowledge about how technology is changing us.

Climate Crisis in School

There is a climate crisis in our schools. We are wasting human resources by forcing every student into the same mould. We don’t awaken everyone’s talent in school, only a few. Too many people leave school thinking they are stupid and go on to live a life they don’t enjoy, but they have learnt how to get on with it.

Instead, we should help students find out what they love doing because that’s who they are supposed to be, and when we do, they won’t stop at a certain age, they will keep going for life. We need to educate students to find their passion because that’s how they will get on the right path in life. Talent is not found on the surface. We need to go deeper. Students need to be allowed to talk with each other, to collaborate, to make mistakes, to try again, to take responsibility, to self-regulate. We must allow students their own voice from at least the first year in secondary school.

No one Knows The Young Person Better Than The Young Person, Not Even Well-meaning Parents

It’s time to let young people grow up and not keep them locked up in childhood. Childhood is only magical until reality sets in and for children that’s school.

Most articles during the pandemic have concentrated on the students who suffer from school closure and having to study from home, but there are students who both like home education and also thrive in this much calmer environment.

HEN - The Irish Home Education Network

Catherine who is the public relations officer with HEN, the Irish Home Education Network, says that their organisation saw a huge increase in inquiries and membership in 2020. As an organisation, HEN is concerned with supporting families who choose to home-educate.

Homeschooling has got a lot of press this past year, a lot of it negative with parents giving out about having to be teachers when they are not qualified, but HEN sees things differently. First of all, it’s home education, not homeschooling.

“People choose to home educate for a variety of reasons, some for philosophical reasons, some because their children are unhappy in school due to bullying and/or toxic environment, some because their children are gifted or have special needs that are not met. Some children refuse to go to school, also for a variety of reasons. Many signed up to home education due to covid concerns.”

There are families where the parent takes on a ‘teacher’ role and the kids follow a set curriculum, and there are families where learning is purely child-led. Most families fall somewhere in the middle with parents tailoring content and resources to suit their children’s needs, desires and strengths.

Generally, home education is a collaborative endeavour with children having more independence and ownership in their education.

Are home educated students well educated?

What is well-educated? Is it someone who the teacher think is a good participant in the classroom? Is it high Leaving Cert points or deep knowledge and passion for a particular area? Or an empathic person with a high degree of drive to change the world with their particular expertise. Is it a young person who is self-motivated and has the ability to learn what they need to learn to move forward?

As home educated students have more opportunities to follow their interests and are not forced to waste time on subjects they have no interest in, they tend to be more independent, self-directed and this is an advantage in both third level education and the workforce, says Catherine.

Education Reform is Overdue

The pandemic has forced us to rethink everything, and education is overdue a reform. It’s not only the Leaving and Junior Cert that need to go, students must be allowed to make their own path through life, to make the choices that affect them, not have everything imposed on them until they turn 18.

Misha, a 17-year-old Leaving Cert student recalls starting school in 2008.

“I was so happy when the day was over, but when my mum told me I had to go back the next day and the next and the next, for years and years, I was inconsolable.”

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Misha has always felt like an outsider in school.

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“Studying from home has been great for me. I’m an introvert, and school is an extrovert environment.”

Misha is leaving school, but he wishes for more space to fail, blended learning options, smaller classes, feedback instead of grades and to let students learn at different speeds, to learn ahead or to teach slower learners. Misha feels certain aspects of a subject that could be learned in a week is dragged out for months, which makes quick learners bored.

But what about competition, do we not need some competition?

“Yes, of course, but we can all learn something, but being able to do something with the knowledge is what counts.”

Misha says collaborative learning and problem-solving is also more important. It’s great to be clever, but if someone has a better idea, we need to learn to not take it personally and instead let the better idea flourish. We learn to take things too personally in school. School also instil fear of making mistakes, we have to stop learning for grades and instead let students be more in charge than the teacher of our own learning.

“Give us more options, let us choose. When we are in charge, it’s easier to reflect on what we have learnt. I also wish teachers could stop telling students that being successful is an individual thing, it’s not, we should think of how we can all contribute to a better world.”

Misha is going to opt for both the exam and predicted grades, and he thinks everyone should be given their first-choice course if they can argue for why they are a good fit.

Not Everyone Agrees

Perhaps a majority of teens would agree with Misha, but a secondary school teacher and a parent in their local community strongly disagree.

“I’m finding remote learning super challenging. There is hardly any engagement. I go through the content and let them off and work on their own. Only half the class send in their work. It’s so frustrating and I’m losing my confidence as a teacher. I just feel crap at what I do.”

“Teachers are magic. It takes lots of wine for me to homeschool my child”

Alexandra, a 16-year-old, 5th-year student, thinks students should get paid for the work they do in school.

“I think students should get paid for going to school. We spend 7 hours in school doing things we are told to do, wearing clothes decided for us and we have to follow rules and regulations without much say, I think that deserves some sort of pay.”

Alexandra was in 3rd year when the pandemic was declared. She didn’t do the Junior Cert which she doesn’t mind. What she does mind, and what has been the hardest are the restrictions and safety regulations.

Alexandra was pleasantly surprised to learn that she likes and even prefer studying from home. It comes with a lot of benefits, she says.

“I can sleep longer. I don’t have to wear the school uniform or a mask. We don’t waste time, when the teachers have gone through the material, they let us off to study on our own. I have no problem telling myself to do my work. I show up, I manage my time, I’m respectful of others’ time, I’m self-disciplined and I take responsibility for my work, if I don’t study, I don’t learn, simple.”

Alexandra also likes the chat part of online learning, as she can ask a question when it pops into her head instead of waiting for her turn and forgetting the question.

You say you're from a low social economic family, how has it affected your education?

“Ok, I don’t have all the latest gear, but so what? I’m not a victim.”

She certainly isn’t. Alexandra is curious, self-driven, she can admit when she doesn’t understand even if it makes her feel stupid, but in the chat, she doesn’t mind admitting uncertainty.

“Post Covid, I think we should have an option to attend classroom-based classes and online classes.”

Alexandra thinks teachers should get used to coming into smaller classes because some students will choose to tune in from home. Online classes and seminars should be possible in secondary school too, at least from Leaving Cert.

Alexandra wants to continue online classes because they are more flexible, and she doesn’t have to wear the uniform and a mask. She dislikes both. Alexandra finds it difficult to breathe properly while wearing a mask, especially after climbing stairs. Her face is always wet, red and itchy and the acne has gotten so bad she often cries when she looks at herself in the mirror. This makes learning from home an easy option for her.

“But unfortunately, we don’t have a choice. Everything is decided for us and we should just be quiet and grateful.”

Alexandra isn’t the only one complaining about the mask. Most students complained, and the teachers act like police as well as teachers.

She misses her boyfriend and thinks it’s crazy that they both live in Dublin, but can’t meet due to pandemic restrictions.

“Teenagers need each other, but adults don’t understand.”

What changes would you like to see in education post-Covid?

“I would have continuous assessments, it’s stressful to study for two years for one big exam at the end. I would make blended learning an option for all who needs it, for example, a lot of introverts and naturally anxious people who struggle in school.”

Alexandra is comfortable going to school, but lots of people are not, and blended learning is possible. We have the technique, says Alexandra. No excuses, she mimics how teachers sometimes express themselves when no excuse is good enough.

What else would you change?

“I would have smaller classes so everyone can be comfortable opening up and engage and do more collaborative work. I would have students in different rotating interest groups working with a variety of issues and each group would be in charge of learning about say for example mental health, we would do presentations, invite speakers, visit workplaces etc”

I would bring real life into school. We are not in school to prepare for life, we are already living life. It’s noticeable that Alexandra studies politics, but her dream is to be a psychologist.

“I want to help people who struggle in life, who don’t fit in. I think all schools should have a psychologist so everyone has someone to talk to.”

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Tina Brescanu

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