Thoughts on the Leaving Certificate Exams

“Teaching for the exams” has long been considered a dirty phrase in teaching. I believe it’s time to re-assess this, in a balanced way.

Before my words are misrepresented, I believe in the importance of teaching subject content, skills, attitudes and behaviours that facilitate student learning and growth. In my subject, learning appropriate skills, attitudes and behaviours help students understand what being a physicist/scientist/mathematician entails, allowing them to decide if this is an area they would like to study in third level and beyond.

Subject content and how it is presented also plays a role in this, although to a lesser extent in my opinion due to it’s broad span and limited depth. Nonetheless the content is useful because it is easily assessed, meaning it can provide concrete feedback to students regarding their performance within the subject. Content can also provide a framework through which the skills, attitudes and behaviours can be developed, which is how I’m currently approaching my subjects.

So, using my logic thus far, the LC exams are beneficial because they can test student knowledge and provide them with feedback related to their performance.We know that the results of the LC are also used by educators to tailor the direction of subjects and, to a certain extent, determine whether a student have the prerequisite body of knowledge to progress to a third level course in a certain area.

But in my opinion, this misses the point of the LC.

The LC’s importance for me lies in the fact that it is the first high-stakes performance of many students lives. And as such, it should be treated accordingly. Students should be taught how to handle the performance aspect of the LC exam as it is the first of many high-stakes performances in their lives.

With this in mind, the idea of teaching a student to get a good grade in their subject sells them short because it doesn’t prepare them for any future challenge. It simply teaches them that there’s always a shortcut, and that tricks can replace hard work, graft, self-control and grit. They are being taught that difficulties and challenges don’t have to be faced or worked through, rather there’s always a work around, a hack or a way to avoid them.

Instead we need to teach students core resilience skills, strategies on how to study, prepare themselves for challenges, reflect on their learning, assess their learning, handle their emotions when they encounter difficulties, how to focus and concentrate, and much, much more. In other words, students need to learn strategies that performers (athletes/dancers/artists) use to excel, so they can too.

The questions this raise are who is going to teach them these skills? And, with an already packed curriculum, when will they be taught?