Core skills, not "up skills"

There’s some considerable debate here in Ireland about the need to “up skill” our economy, in the light of loss of jobs to lower cost economies. I however contend that there is not so much a need to “up skill”, but to “core skill” – to get back to fundamentals and thus ensure that we have a solid foundation of lifetime skills.

One of the key attractions which as a nation have used to attract and retain our comparatively high levels of foreign direct investment in Ireland has been the availability of a talented, well educated and technically oriented workforce. If we in Ireland aspire to build a future for our own young people as a leading nation for innovation; with high value services; succeeding as a knowledge-fuelled economy; having good, stable and well paid jobs; and with the ability to afford high quality social support for the weaker members of our society, then education in core intellectual skills are inextricably intertwined with our future.

Our young people should be able to reason, to deduce and derive, to correlate and spot patterns, to explore and to be inquisitive, and to be articulate and confident. In my humble view, these are more life centric skills than learning facts and perspectives by rote: knowing something off by heart, but not understanding why, why not, and so what. Skills taught in schools should be for life. There are many things which can be learnt during adulthood, but some skills which are difficult to learn without a solid foundation during the teens and 20s.

Without these skills, we will have little to offer the 21st century global economy. If our young people are weak in core skills, many of them may not find well paid careers in Ireland nor overseas: these jobs will go to other nationals in other economies.

In my view, and I admit as an elderly grey traditionalist, mathematics is a critical catalyst to careful reasoning and deduction. Mathematics is too vast to be learnt by rote and instead requires insightful thinking and intellectual clarity. Taught well, it enables core intellectual skills for life. It also makes learning easier, not just for mathematics, but many other subjects, since understanding comes from reasoning, rather than learning by rote.

The decline in the Irish attainment of mathematics and core sciences has been gradual. It has perhaps gone unnoticed by many, but major employers across a range of business sectors of strategic importance to Ireland are seriously concerned to see substantial decreases in the number of our students taking technology courses, and in particular the fall off in those taking mathematics. If we all aspire to build a future for our young people as outlined above, then competence in mathematics is a cornerstone. Competence in mathematics underpins not just engineering and the physical sciences, but also sectors such as alternative energy and green systems, financial services, medical research, and cross disciplinary areas such as bio-engineering. For so many areas of our potential national prosperity and quality of society, competence in mathematics is critical.

With further government budget cuts imminent, there is a very serious risk that teaching in mathematics and the core sciences will dramatically suffer further. This is especially so at secondary school (high school, in Ireland) level, since these subjects are perceived as resource intensive and difficult to teach. The Principals of eleven secondary schools of one Irish county have recently jointly written an open letter to all the parents of all their students stating that in view of Government cutbacks, they may no longer be in a position to teach honours mathematics and sciences at all in their schools. There is further anecdotal evidence of schools consciously cutting their teaching programmes in areas which are nevertheless critical to the future of our nation, as their way of meeting newly imposed budgetary constraints.

Incredibly, almost 20% of our schools no longer offer honours mathematics to their students. In 2007, only 14% of Irish university applicants to honours degrees had achieved honours mathematics capability in school.

It is also widely accepted that several factors need to be urgently and collectively addressed to resolve this issue: the professional development and inspiration of mathematics teachers; the teaching and examination methods of honours Mathematics; and other implicit disincentives to students such as points, grading and curriculum factors.

Points, in particular, deserve mention. In Ireland, we have a highly unfortunate and ill-conceived national system of awarding points in our school examinations for grades obtained, regardless of the intellectual difficulty of any particular subject. Earning points by studying honours mathematics is widely projected as overly difficult when equivalent points could be earned for less effort elsewhere. Students are in some cases explicitly advised by some teachers and advisers to take a cluster of subjects which together may overlap in content and collectively make points accumulation easier, regardless of career aspirations. Students who score particularly high totals of points, are under considerable pressure to undertake university degrees which require high numbers of points to apply, regardless of their career aspirations: “don’t waste your points”. University courses with limited places (due to resource constraints) usually require high levels of points. Courses which offer wonderful career opportunities do not necessarily require extremely high points, and high scoring students usually as a result do not take them.

Examinations are ill constructed. Substantial question choice enables teachers to omit major sections of a course syllabus, thus focussing students on a more limited syllabus which is likely to be sufficient to earn examination points. I’m aware of university professors aghast that some first year university students, ostensibly with high numbers of points, arrive into technology degree courses without any knowledge, for example, of trigonometry: some teachers omit trigonometry from their teaching, correctly believing that high points can still be achieved by filtering out questions during an examination.

In my view, our economy can no longer afford to be impartial in the content of its educational services. Some topics available at our schools can be learnt at any stage in life: others are much more difficult to do so.

Teachers should be encouraged to foster reasoning, deduction, derivation, correlation, exploration and curiosity, intellectual clarity and insight, fluency and confidence. Mathematics and the core sciences are clear catalysts. Teachers who achieve consistent success in their students in these subjects should not only be acclaimed but also receive fiscal reward – if this cannot be done through Government pay, it may be possible to do via industry sponsored competitions. Teachers whose own core skills are weak should be offered re-skilling and professional development. Considerably more use should be made of the web – including podcasts and vidcasts to complement the music on students’ personal players – to cultivate dynamic, current, interesting course material: social free educational networking can compensate to some extent weaknesses in any specific teacher in a particular school.

Our country needs to get back to basics: core skills taught well, rather than nebulous “up skills”. Mathematics and the core sciences are one critical foundation.

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About chrisjhorn

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5 Responses to Core skills, not "up skills"

  1. Kevin Godden says:

    It is very interesting to read something which starts to question and probe into this whole ‘up skilling’ thing that we hear so much about.It is amazing to listen to the radio, on any given day you will hear the term in one form or another lobbed into the conversation every few minutes – but further discussion of what it actually means, how it’s going to happen or how exactly it will cure all of our economic and social ills is steadfastly avoided! I do agree that we must look to out core skills first, especially as you mentioned, Maths and the Sciences. I would also be very quick to add written and verbal communication to this list.I wonder what your thoughts are on the ever increasing specialisation which is occurring within our educational system, especially in third level? I ask this because I sometimes wonder that just as over emphasis on the leaving cert exam and the points system has damaged the quality of education in second level, that over specialisation in 3rd. level, especially in technology and science courses may lower their true educational value and again leave us at a disadvantage. Maybe to really succeed in the emerging global economy we will need to be more than very highly skilled but narrowly trained ‘technicians’ (for want of a better word)?The problem is that there is no shortage of very highly skilled people all over the globe and they live in low cost economies too! We will need ‘high skills’ just to survive, but to really succeed we may need more – we may need to really innovate. Sometimes I worry that an educational system made up of narrow specialised streams (although individually thought to a very high level) might not be the best to prepare us?Just my 2cents worth…

  2. chris horn says:

    Kevin,I commented on premature over-specialisation in the Irish Engineering profession in an earlier posting http://chrishornat.blogspot.com/2008/09/why-is-engineering-not-taught-by.htmlI absolutely agree that fundamentally it is all about innovation (rather than just invention, entrpreneurship R&D, ..) and the good core skills (such as maths) are foundational. I want to write a follow up on innovation skills when I get a chance!If you're interested, I did allude to what I conceive of re. innovation sklls in todays (mondays) Irish Times Innovation magazine, particularly in the last few paragraphs. See http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/innovation/2009/0202/1232923379992.htmlbest wishesChris

  3. Anonymous says:

    I read your post with interest having just returned from a short business trip to Ireland. The cost of doing business in Ireland has soared beyond belief. In comparison, I was recently at the Cebu PH facilities of a large US printer manufacturer where I found buildings full of well educated young Philippines with very good language and technical skills who were happily working for $10.00 a day. These were mostly third-level graduates. They reminded me a lot of Ireland in the mid-1970s. This company is gradually closing down it's US and Mexico-based R&D and support operations and moving them to the Philippines.Frankly, at this present time, there is no reason for any US firm to continue to maintain facilities in Ireland other than to maximize the return on their existing investments in labor and capital in a reasonably secure and stable legal and political environment.Up-skilling, core skilling or whatever is not by itself going to cut it in the real world out there. Unless Ireland significantly reduces its unit labor costs in the near-term, there is no long term future for any multinational in Ireland.

  4. Gerard Brandon says:

    I am with you completely on the misuse of “up skilling” as if that is a panacea that will provide deliverance to the growing masses that line the unemployment lines. It is not only core skills that we need to address but there is a need to engage in a fundamental review of our “<>Core Competence<>” as an economy. What is the Unique Service Proposition of Ireland Inc., and what do we need to do to create value from that USP? I use the term Service rather than Selling as we are ultimately providing an International Service rather than Production as we have been in the service of international production companies and not creating wealth from innovation and production.Core skills need not be just science based. Skills such as thinking big or learning to see everyone as a potential partner and not just as a friend or employer need to be encouraged. Out-sourcing skills should be taught – not to reduce employment – but to leverage skills from management of such resources so that we can compete against those who already do so.None of the above are on any “up-skill” FAS course, nor any other skill course. However they need to be if we are ever going to punch above our weight again around the world any time in the near future.

  5. Anton Mannering says:

    I think you are right on the money about mathematics. It is the core of everything from science to art and music.I returned to full-time education for a science based course in 2001 as a mature student. The course had core modules in the first 2 years in Science maths, physics and statistics. I was absolutely stunned to find out that most of the class had dropped honours maths in the final year and picked up an “easier” subject to get more points.The course I was in had a limited capacity. They got on the course but their lives were that much harder because they were covering things for the first time instead of it being a refresher.I should point out that I also struggled but that was more because I hadn’t done any Maths at all for years, I dd notice that those for whom it was a refresher breezed through.

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