Education Talks: Listening to students makes better reforms

In the Republic of Ireland curriculum has remained unchanged for over 20 years, but recently there was a major curriculum reform to address important needs. Listen to Ben Murray, Education Officer at the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), who was involved in the curriculum reform and assessment design for the Junior Cycle level, to talk about these inspiring changes.

What inspired you to make changes to your curriculum?

The first thing is we engaged in some national research and that research showed us that students, in particular at the lower-end of post-primary education were lacking in motivation, they were lacking in engagement, in the learning process. We have a sort of a high-stakes exam system which was dominating what was happening in teaching and learning in the classroom from the 12 to 15-year-old bracket.

With also recognition that students needed a set of skills to engage in their learning currently in schools, to engage in learning beyond school, to engage in a working life, and a set of skills that they need in the future, to face new and unpredictable challenges that may come their way beyond their schooling life.

Which skills are at the centre of the new curriculum?

So we identified a suite of 8 key skills. These skills include being literate, being numerate, being creative, communicating, working with others, managing their information and thinking, managing themselves and staying well. 

So what we perceive has been really important in our curriculum design to make sure there was a balance between those sets of skills that would be developed across all subjects with all students, and then the content that they also needed to engage with. 

Assessment framework in the new curriculum

In order to provide a meaningful assessment framework for these students, what we decided to do is embark on a dual approach to assessment where we have still the written terminal exam that takes place at the end of third year when students are 15 but we also have on a parallel track with us two classroom-based assessments that are undertaken by every student within every subject.

So these classroom-based assessments allow students to showcase their skills development in something like for example, in English, we have an oral presentation where students can showcase their development in this area and this assessment is put forward and put on their Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement along with their other classroom-based assessment, and with their written terminal exam results as well.

Teachers can now embark on collaborative activities with their students so students can take part in some collaborative events that can be put forward as part of their classroom-based assessment so for the first time, we can use these key skills explicitly in the way we assess our students.

What supports for schools and teachers will be necessary to introduce these changes?

We currently have a suite of resources and supports available for teachers. The first thing that we do is we are currently preparing and polishing examples of student work that would go online so students, parents and teachers can all see samples of real-life student work to be able to understand standards and expectations for students. That is the first thing we have. We also publish and we will be publishing a set of assessment guidelines, that goes with every subject, to complement the subject specification.

The second support is that following on from a classroom-based assessment, teachers are to engage in what we call the subject, learning, and assessment review meeting. So this is, in essence, a moderation process where teachers will bring samples of their work, of students' work to this meeting and have a professional dialogue, a conversation around why they made particular judgments on students' work and open up the conversation to try to get teachers to have a common understanding of standards and expectations.

How have you involved students as part of these changes?

When we write a new curriculum specification, we precede that with a background paper. That background paper looks at the states of development of that subject in national and international terms.

It looks at the kind of research that talks about those developments in that particular subject, across different domains and part of that background paper, we go to talk to students to ask them their views about how they have engaged with the subject, why they didn't engage with the subject, and what they think might be important to include in a subject specification going forward.