Junior Cycle Geography has not been kind to development education

September 2013, the start of a new school year, a year that promises to be turbulent and exciting for students and teachers. The Minister’s announcement of Junior Cycle reform last October signalled a period of change and uncertainty for Geography teachers, accustomed to the certainty of the Junior Certificate syllabus which has been in place since it was introduced over twenty years ago.

Back then it was a brave new world indeed, with a syllabus which facilitated a choice of settings and innovative pedagogy. It offered opportunities for development education which were availed of by the voluntary agencies, particularly in the course of the inservice which accompanied the introduction of the new programme.

Trócaire and Concern invested in course materials and resources which underpinned the promotion of innovative teaching pedagogies. Teachers were introduced to roleplay through the simulation of the planning process in the development of open space in the Liberties. The Ethiopian jigsaw puzzle allowed students to examine in groups the complex interplay of factors which hindered the development of that unfortunate country.

These resources and the accompanying inservice were consistent with the Guidelines for Teachers which accompanied the syllabus:

“This syllabus encourages active enquiry-based learning: project work, field work and street work all encourage students to find information, transform it and then analyse it. This develops a number of both cognitive and practical skills in an unobtrusive way. Solving puzzles and problems and drawing conclusions will encourage the use and development of more complex thinking skills.”

– Geography Guidelines (1990), online or download PDF.

Within a few years of the introduction of the Junior Certificate, a number of problems were identified. Chief among these was content overload, to the detriment of skills development. Teachers were under pressure to complete the course, the recommended time allocation wasn’t available in many schools, partly because of the introduction of new subjects such as C.S.P.E. and S.P.H.E. Pressure of time and the issue of assessment led to the omission of one of the central components of the syllabus, the fieldwork investigation. Reliance on textbooks led to the exclusion of two other key principles: the autonomy of the teacher to choose case studies and the importance of the local settings.

The examination has not been kind to Development Education. There has been excessive emphasis on information recall. Physical geography gets disproportionate attention, to the detriment of development issues. On the occasions when they arise on the question paper, they are confined to one part of a question, usually titled “A Geographical Mix”. A small return indeed on the initial investment of resources and training!

Some of the syllabus content has become outdated, even redundant. West Germany, Hong Kong and the Commonwealth of Independent States are no longer political entities. Many of the settings originally recommended as exemplars of developing economies are of questionable validity today, their countries numbered among the rapidly developing BRICs. And the Ireland of twenty years ago is scarcely recognisable today. But no revision of the syllabus has taken place. A substantial rebalancing of the syllabus completed some years ago is still awaiting publication.

The Minister for Education in a recent speech compared the Junior Cert curriculum to a “straightjacket” and the examination to

“a sausage machine, squeezing creativity and curiosity out of the classroom”.

He managed to convey a sense of injured innocence and astonishment which only stopped short of blaming everybody else for this alarming state of affairs.

In anticipating reform of the Junior Cycle programme, and the construction of a new Geography syllabus, can we wish for a new approach to development issues which will eventually realise the hopes, the ambitions and the investment of resources which accompanied the introduction of the Junior Certificate over twenty years ago?

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This Secret Teacher blog was written by PTOLEMY.