‘Wellbeing’: New Junior Cycle ‘Area of Study’

As part of the JC reform package, ‘Wellbeing’ is to be introduced from 2017, according to the 2015 policy framework document. This new ‘area of learning’, as it is described in the framework’s edu-speak, will take up a considerable portion of the school timetable: 300 hours to be allocated to it in its initial phase of implementation, with this eventually being increased to 400 hours. Schools will have considerable leeway in how they choose to assess it, given its ‘sensitive’ nature. This new initiative may sound good – who would doubt the importance of a student’s well-being? It is about ‘young people feeling confident, happy, healthy and connected’ (p.22). But the feel-good language used to describe the new venture masks its vacuity. In this post I will focus on some of the objections I have to this new ‘area of study’ and will show why it is be a worrying sign of things to come in Irish education.

Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Until now, school in this country has remained a place of learning for the most part, where students study well-defined academic subjects – geography, history, maths – each of which has a syllabus based on a clear and objective body of knowledge. These academic subjects have stood the test of time, having been taught profitably down through the years, equipping students with the cultural literacy to make sense of the world around them and enabling them to take part in cultural and political discussions. Of course these subjects have not always been brilliantly taught. But this is a failing of individual teachers, not of the curriculum design itself. Moreover, the knowledge-rich, cohesive curriculum, as well as the anonymous grading, have always permitted well-motivated students to do well if they work hard, no matter what school they attend.

Ireland’s performance in international educational rankings has been impressive as a result of its traditional model: the Programme for International Assessment recently said that the teacher-led, direct method employed in the Irish system is positively correlated with good academic outcomes.

‘Progressive’ education, on the other hand, seeks to dismantle the classical subject- and exam-centred school system in favour of a skills-based or ‘whole-child’ curriculum, with the teacher acting more as a ‘facilitator of learning’ rather than a source of authority and knowledge. Countries such as Sweden and the United States that adopted the progressive approach have seen educational attainment decline in recent years in international comparisons. In its report on the 2015 assessments, PISA admits that enquiry-based, i.e. progressive, education does not work. This is mainly because students need to be carefully guided through academic material by the teacher. Under progressive education, it is assumed that students are best left to find things out for themselves by working in groups or making their own discoveries with minimal teacher guidance. This doesn’t work as teenagers neither have the maturity nor the prior knowledge to direct their own learning to such a degree. So far Ireland has held out against the siren call of progressivism, but the nature of the JC reforms indicates that this may not be true for much longer.

A worrying detail in the first JC reform policy framework, published in 2011, is that it cites Scotland and Australia as best practice, two countries that have since slipped down the PISA rankings, after adopting child-centred, progressive methods. And yet the Department of Education and Skills (DES) continues to push for these reforms in spite of the evidence that the progressive approach only serves to lower academic attainment. The DES seems to be ploughing on with the reforms in the belief that doing so will improve student wellbeing, even if this comes at the expense of academic standards.

Does Progressive Education Improve Self-Esteem?

But the belief that progressive education improves student self-esteem is mistaken. There is no evidence that true self-esteem can be taught in the way the DES envisions. A person improves their self-esteem by fulfilling worthwhile goals. Self-esteem thus tends to follow academic achievement, not the other way around. A student who does well in school will gain confidence and learn that self-discipline is necessary to gain rewards. The best way a school can build a child’s self-esteem is thus by setting high academic standards for all and especially by helping weaker students improve their performance. Of course school should be a safe, caring environment. But is this not best brought about through the ethos, discipline and values permeating the whole school culture? Isolating ‘Wellbeing’ as a separate object of study makes little sense.

Furthermore, introducing non-academic areas of study such as ‘Well-being’ runs the risk of lowering academic standards overall as it changes students’ expectations of school. Instead of seeing school primarily as a place of academics, students may begin to see it more as a kind of community centre or youth club where ‘fun’ and ‘self-fulfilling’ activities take place. This has already happened in transition year, where all teachers know how difficult it is to get students to engage in any kind of academic work at all, as transition year is supposed to be a time of self-discovery. I fear that this kind of anti-academic attitude will creep into the junior years of secondary school with the new reforms.

In recent decades ‘progressive’ educators have got their way in the American public school system, replacing ‘outdated’ academic subjects like geography with more ‘useful’ subjects such as driving skills and self-esteem modules. This has resulted in the shocking knowledge deficit among generations of Americans. Many subjects in American public high-schools have been shorn of their academic meat and rigour in an effort to entice students to undertake them, as most subjects are now optional, with challenging subjects being avoided by students who do not want to unnecessarily strain themselves. American college-entry test scores have declined alarmingly since so-called progressive education was introduced, and American students have been doing poorly in international educational rankings such as PISA as well.

Replacing Knowledge with ‘Skills’ and ‘Values’

The introduction of ‘Wellbeing’ is a sure indication of the dumbing down of Irish education. The shift from knowledge to skills in the JC framework is therefore a bad move. According to the framework, the ‘range of subjects to be offered in the junior cycle programme in individual schools will vary in accordance with the teaching resources in the school and the needs and interests of the students’. Thus, if JC students aren’t interested in geography and history, they won’t have to take them. The new JC will be guided by ‘twenty-four statements of learning, eight principles and eight key skills’. This focus on skills unnecessarily complicates learning and teaching. Instead of focusing on imparting content knowledge, teachers are now expected to tick all sorts of skills-based boxes. These skills are difficult to define, let alone teach or assess. It’s likely that this new focus on skills will result in an increase of bureaucracy for teachers without helping students make any gains in learning.

Vague, ill-defined self-esteem courses are unlikely to be value-neutral. The description of ‘Wellbeing’ in the policy framework puts forward politically-correct notions about how students should live. For example, it is proposed that students should have ‘the awareness, knowledge, skills, values and motivation to live sustainably’. This may sound innocuous, but the desire to have students live ‘sustainably’ will most likely mean that they should be taught to live ‘in an environmentally-friendly manner’, given that progressive educationist bureaucrats will be designing the course. Thus the promotion of progressive causes becomes the norm. While you may agree with such progressive causes, is it the government’s job to promote them? The introduction of ‘Well-being’ means that students will spend less time on algebra and more time on  ‘developing awareness of personal values and an understanding of the process of moral decision making‘, whatever that means. It looks like we’re following the US example, where self-esteem courses have contributed to a ‘values wasteland’ in schools where moral relativism reigns, with students having to solve questionable ‘moral dilemmas’ and being indoctrinated in the latest progressive fads.

The vagueness of ‘Well-being’ will thus allow the progressive educational establishment to design a course to fit its own agenda. As opposed to traditional well-defined academic subjects, what body of knowledge does ‘Well-being’ represent? Who are the experts in this area? Are they self-help gurus or psychologists? What is to prevent this from becoming another ‘doss’ subject in much the same way that Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) were before it? Unfortunately it will have more hours devoted to it, and thus more time wasted on it. I remember these SPHE and CSPE classes from my own school days as being a grand exercise in stating the obvious, subjects that were assigned to hapless teachers who weren’t sure themselves how to fill the time. The curricula were so light on content that they could have been covered within a matter of a few weeks.

Conclusion

The introduction of ‘Well-being’ is part of a broader trend towards progressive, ‘enquiry-based’ learning in Ireland, and this is why it is so worrying. The curricula of other subjects are being ‘revised’, i.e. watered down, and the ordinary-higher level distinctions are being abolished for the most part. I hope the general public becomes aware of the threat these reforms pose to educational standards before it’s too late, but it seems that most people aren’t interested in education policy as it can be quite a difficult area for outsiders to penetrate. Thus in years to come when Ireland’s position in PISA falls, teachers will be blamed.

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14 thoughts on “‘Wellbeing’: New Junior Cycle ‘Area of Study’”

  1. Very well-argued. I also object to the learning outcome of “living sustainably”, but for different reasons. I think we should all be trying to live more sustainably, and that the government should be doing more to protect our environment for those of us now living, and for those who will come after us. Putting this kind of thing onto the curriculum achieves absolutely nothing; it is a cynical passing on of the buck. It is also done, partly, and this is where I think you’re right, in an effort to confuse the public about the nature of “progressive” education. It ties “progressive” education in with social issues that have nothing at all to do with how/what children are taught in school. By conflating progressive social views with progressive education, the Department – as in other jurisdictions – have piggy-backed their reform into place, cheerled by the very liberals who should be decrying it as the anti-scientific, backward, socially-regressive nonsense that it is.
    If the Department really wanted our children to live sustainably, they would live up to their own responsibilities in this area. Rather than telling children “we’re in the process of wrecking your world but you can fix it” they would strengthen our science curriculum and encourage effective teaching methods so that children can grow into adults who actually understand the natural world around them, its processes, their own biology and how decisions at personal, national and global levels affect all these things. Instead we give them poster competitions on how to combat paper wastage.

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    1. Good to see someone else criticising it – I’ll have a read of your blog now. I think Wellbeing is being used to promote the Department of Education’s pet projects. Surely climate change is already covered in geography? Why the need to harp on about this even more?

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      1. “Harping on” is right. Most of what schoolchildren hear about global warming, and environmental issues in general, isn’t about increasing their knowledge of the carbon cycle, chemistry, thermodynamics or ecology so that they can have an informed opinion when the time comes to make major consumption – and, more importantly, political – decisions themselves. It’s about cultivating the right “attitude”- in this case that the individual, through small gestures like turning off tap while brushing their teeth, can avert climate catastrophe. I was at inservice a couple of years ago where the facilitator encouraged framing learning outcomes as “attitudes”. This is straight-up education as social engineering where the government attempt to bypass adult society and instil inconvenient values in the young. It’s cynical because these values are inconvenient and unpopular and have no traction with adult voters; they must know on some level that the idea you can’t teach kids values in school that are not only unlikely to be shared by their parents but also by most of society. Yet still, even though they don’t live them daily, people want recognition of these values. They like to think they live in a “good/ responsible/progressive” country. Putting things on the curriculum is a salve to our communal conscience. It’s like we’re all St. Augustine; Lord make us virtuous, but not my generation.
        Most cynical of all is the attempt to justify the hollowing out of the curriculum, and the abdication of schools’ responsibility to educate, in the name of “doing something about mental health”. Every school child in Ireland hears regularly that his or her mental health is fragile. The mental health of their family members is fragile. They must be constantly on guard. Every aspect of daily life – from taking a walk, to making a phone call, to drinking a glass of water – is now undertaken as a Little Thing, a small step to ward off the catastrophe of Mental Health Problems. Which are awful. But are no big deal (“it’s okay not to be okay”). And which are, most importantly, coming to get you at any moment. This curriculum of wellness is making young people into psychological hypochondriacs and/or “Viking” characters who pride themselves on their mental fitness and look down on those who succumb to mental illness.
        And yet, there really is no either-or when it comes to schools caring about children’s learning and their wellbeing. It is the culture of the school that makes the biggest difference. A school can develop a culture of kindness, caring and respect while still spending nearly all class time transmitting knowledge and developing children’s creative and sporting abilities.

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  2. I cannot agree with any of the sentiments in your blog. It seems to me all you value in education is academic results and don’t seem too bothered by the wellbeing of the students in our care. We live in a progressive world whether you like it or not. You seem to embrace some things like Twitter, but don’t want to embrace others. We have to equip our students so that they can live in the world they find themselves growing up in. Wellbeing is a key area in our modern context. Schools would be doing an injustice to their students if they didn’t strive to ensure their wellbeing was being looked after. Your focus seems very academic, very content driven, very exam oriented. I prefer to see my own children happy and healthy and able to play a role in their communities, instead of straight A students.

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    1. Where did I say that all I want are straight-A students? I say that academic achievement tends to help students build confidence. Those without a decent academic education in modern society will be left behind. I say that: ‘The best way a school can build a child’s self-esteem is thus by setting high academic standards for all and especially by helping weaker students improve their performance.’ Of course I recognize that ability differs, but I think all students can be brought up to a certain standard and that this is school’s primary function. I’m not against extracurricular activities – I recognize that school sports add greatly to school spirit. But I’m against Wellbeing because it takes up too much time, is vague and wishy-washy and will contribute nothing of value to a student’s education.

      Wellbeing will not even achieve its stated aim of improving wellbeing. If you look at the countries that introduced self-esteem modules and followed the knowledge-lite policies that we are about to implement, you will see that the wellbeing of their students hasn’t improved – in fact, students in those countries are worse off than before, as literacy and numeracy rates have fallen and the population’s general knowledge about their own history and culture has declined. Wellbeing is in any case a very vague concept that cannot be taught in the way envisioned by the Department of Education. As I said before, ensuring the wellbeing of students is more about cultivating a strong school ethos of respect, kindness and gratitude, and making sure that bullying and intimidation is unacceptable. Schools would be much better off getting their behaviour policy right before anything else, and making sure it pervades the school at all times. Teaching about such things as ‘moral decisions’ in Wellbeing is hardly going to make a difference to students’ lives. It’s been tried before in CSPE and SPHE and it didn’t work – students see it as a doss class and their behaviour doesn’t improve.

      You set up strawmen in your comment. Obviously I value the wellbeing of students, but I don’t think that vague, wishy-washy ‘areas of study’ such as Wellbeing will do any good for students. Students should be taught real, objective knowledge that will make them culturally literate and permit them to attain good jobs. Dumbing down the curriculum actually does most damage to disadvantaged students for whom school is very often the only place where they pick up the cultural knowledge that middle-class students take for granted. This is why I’m in favour of strong knowledge content – we need to make sure that students actually learn as much as possible in school to maximise their chances of succeeding later in life.

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  3. While I appreciate what it means ales to write cogently and at length in a blogpost like this I would like to make a few observations:

    The area of Wellbeing is founded on a desire (unsupported by the majority of teachers) to maintain CSPE as a central subject for Junior Cycle. This negotiating strategy of the then ASTI leadership morphed into Wellbeing without resistance from the union side outside of some grumbling at executive level. Therefore we have ourselves to blame for the problem.

    The selective use of PISA stats does no one in education a service. The scores change little, the rankings fluctuate from press release to press release. To compare students in Ireland to those in Beijing or Singapore when cultural, and indeed statistical variations cloud the result is meaningless. We cannot use PISA to support what we think after on set of results and two years later grouse about how we have slipped down the table. PISA scores tell us nothing, and most definitely nothing about student Wellbeing.

    Finally, dismissing 120 years of progressive education puts you on an exceptionally sticky wicket. Your narrow description of what progressive education is forgets that today teachers just want to teach, away for strict doctrines. And in my view there is nothing progressive whatsoever about Wellbeing, in fact it is it’s very traditionalism that makes it hard to manage. If a more progressive template has been used PE teachers in particular might have been more amenable to the change.

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    1. Hmmmm. There was a reason, wasn’t there, that the ASTI were so keen on retaining CPSE as an exam subject and it had nothing to do with its merits as an area of academic study? 😉 We were outfoxed on this one; one of the principal joys of Wellbeing is that anyone can teach it. No need for a specific degree – the kind the Teaching Council now insists you need to teach a subject to first years – anyone who’s done a nice in-service (provided by the department’s Wellbeing edupreneur partners) can deliver this area of learning all the way up to Leaving Cert. Genius.

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      1. There was no outfoxing to be done. ASTI negotiatiors introduced wellbeing (and the dreaded descriptors). The best place to raise these issues is inside the process, not hurling from the ditch as the game is being played.

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  4. Thanks for you feedback. ASTI is still not happy with Wellbeing, as far as I can tell, expressing concerns over the wooliness of it and the way it will lead to diminished time for other subjects: http://www.asti.ie/fileadmin/user_upload/Letter_Re._Junior_Cycle_Scanned.pdf.

    This wasn’t necessarily a post in support of ASTI anyway: I don’t know exactly what they’re looking for (although I support their opposition to reforms going ahead in their present form). But on a broader level, I am concerned about the general trend towards knowledge-lite curricula, where Irish education becomes less about academic work and more about feelings. Wellbeing is merely a symptom of this general trend, and a very damaging one. The proliferation of ‘short courses’ and the way in which most subjects are being made optional means that Irish education will become less cohesive. Students can replace history and geography, say, with ‘Artistic Performance’ and ‘Digital Media Literacy’, or with other short courses designed by the school itself (p.21 http://www.juniorcycle.ie/NCCA_JuniorCycle/media/NCCA/Documents/Framework-for-Junior-Cycle-2015-2.pdf). Again, this reminds me of the American situation where students can opt for questionable modules like ‘driving skills’ or ‘community studies’ instead of having to take traditional subjects. I can foresee a situation where this happens in Ireland too: students will avoid more traditional subjects that are perceived as being too challenging.

    PISA may not be perfect, but it gives a pretty good assessment of a country’s education system. It primarily measures levels of literacy and numeracy as well as scientific performance: are these not objective standards of education? Is it not the primary function of an education system to cultivate a student’s abilities in these areas? PISA is actually sensitive to cultural differences: obviously each test is taken in the language of the country being assessed, and literacy in that language is based upon varying bodies of prior knowledge, depending on the country in question. So in China, for example, a high level of literacy will require mastery of mandarin Chinese script and the cultural associations attached to it. This is very different from what is needed to achieve a high level of literacy in, say, French. But the end result is the same: the ability to decode and comprehend passages of text in one’s native language. By the age of 15, it is reasonable to expect that all students should have reached a certain level of literacy in their native language. PISA sets out to measure this across countries, which is a valuable undertaking, in my view. It sheds light on which teaching methods maximise student learning in terms of literacy, numeracy and science. While teaching these abilities is not the only aim of school, it should in my view be its primary function. Obviously you know how a student’s wellbeing benefits from doing well in school: it opens up so many opportunities and possibilities that aren’t available to those who do poorly in school.

    You say that teachers ‘just want to teach, away from strict doctrines’. This is actually the traditional approach to education, on my understanding: the teacher has knowledge to impart to students and should do so in the most effective way possible. The traditional approach assumed that the best way to do so was direct instruction in an orderly, disciplined environment. This did not preclude student participation: there was and is much student-teacher interaction under traditional styles of education, but the teacher remains in control and generally teaches from the front.

    It is progressive educators who initially developed ‘strict doctrines’ in order to overthrow the traditional direct method of teacher conveying knowledge to students. In the eyes of progressives there should be minimal adult guidance so as not to interfere with the natural development of the child. Rousseau, Dewey and AS Neill, for example, advocate a reduction in explicit teaching in favour of letting children follow their own inclinations to find things out for themselves. This was based on the idea that children are naturally good and that human culture corrupts them. This is in contrast to the common-sense approach to teaching that you seem to advocate whereby the child is a novice and the teacher is the expert and thus the teacher should just teach children what they don’t know. In fact, the Michaela school used the motto ‘just give it to them’ in a conference recently to describe their traditional no-nonsense approach to education. This is in contrast to the progressive doctrine which says that teachers should merely be a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’. Again, the traditional approach doesn’t preclude a lot of teacher-student interaction: it’s just that the teacher remains in control, guiding the instruction the whole time. This is all explained well in: Progressively Worse and by Robert Peal and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them by ED Hirsch.

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    1. What you raise in the relation to the ASTI and Wellbeing is part of the process of scrambling around for things to find wrong with JC reform to justify unjustifiable opposition. As I said in a reply above, the facts remain that Wellbeing, descriptors, and even locking down meetings in and out of school time were introduced by the ASTI.
      On PISA I’m afraid I profoundly disagree. The process is flawed statistically and culturally. A search for evidence of these flaws will show that many of those you laid as traditionalists are actually opposed to the process.
      Again, I’ll take issue with your reductive traditional/progressive argument. What is clear is that every functioning school and even classroom is a blend of both. That defining the work of a teacher narrowly is not helpful.
      Wellbeing will be a mess but not only because it is ill thought through; more pertinently it will be a mess because most teachers will have no input in the design.

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  5. Thank you for a very interesting and insightful examination of this new subject. Of particular concern is the fact that the government, through often unsuspecting schools, is now assuming responsibility for aspects of children’s education which which once belonged primarily to parents. It is worrying at best to see how parental rights are being subtly undermined. Parents have a right to educate their children with regards to moral and societal values, and to know that the school recognizes and respects them as the primary educator in this area, do they not? Including well-being and mental health as part of a school’s responsibility indicates a drastic shift in how the role of a school is now being defined, and I fear that Irish parents are completely unaware of this.

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    1. Hi there, I’ve been reading through your blog too and have likewise found some very insightful pieces there – I look forward to reading more.

      That’s a good point you make that the family is supposed to be the primary educator, according to the constitution. I think this is particularly important in relation to moral and religious values: the line between education and indoctrination in this area can become very blurry, and that’s why the state should stay out of it and schools should focus on delivering objective traditional subjects. Another blogger also shows how Wellbeing seems to be aimed at propagating progressive values (https://ellenkmetcalf.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/well-being-isnt-just-about-health-its-about-everything/).

      It also seems to be part of a wider part of therapeutic culture where people are encouraged to dwell on feelings and emotions rather than facts and reason. Obviously this is particularly worrying in education and has had disastrous consequences in the US. Of course it’s important to have support structures in place for students who are struggling with psychological, personal issues, and bullying has to be preempted. But I think these things can be addressed without devoting inordinate amounts of school hours to them. The way that they are being mixed up with notions of ‘how to live sustainably’ is also dubious.

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