‘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.