Leaving Certificate Results

Today’s top story is the issuing of results to almost fifty eight thousand (58,000) Leaving Certificate students.

This event is widely reported in national newspapers, radio and television news.  Much of the coverage deals with the failure rates for different subjects.  Of special interest is the success rates for Science, Engineering Technology and Mathematics- the so called STEM subjects.  It is reported that some 4,300 students have failed Mathematics.

The availability of a talented young workforce is often cited as part of the attraction of Ireland as a location for inward economic investment. Poor results do not help the international perception of our education system. Employers are increasingly looking for critical thinking, creativity and problem solving skills in their new recruits.  It is reasonable to ask to what extent the results of the Leaving Certificate Exam may be taken as an indication of a person’s future potential as an innovative thinker and an effective contributor to the knowledge economy.

Take for example the substantial cohort of young people who have failed Mathematics.  Are we justified in writing off the potential of these people as college students, future inventors, knowledge workers, scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators?  I feel not.

Letter to Sam (a fictional character representative of the 4,300):

Dear Sam,

Today you got your results and I guess it came as no surprise that you are one of the 4,300 students who failed mathematics. It must have been very disconcerting to listen to media reports on the importance of Mathematics for our future economy.  Surely, you must be thinking that it will be very hard to get a job or go to college. What now are your career options and prospects for the future?

Sam I’m not going to say that that none of this counts and that the results of your Leaving Certificate are of no consequence – that’s certainly not the case!  What I do say is that when you put things in perspective you have much more choice and more potential that you think.

Be very careful about accepting labels, especially labels that you give to yourself, at this stage in your life.  You may wish to say I’m no good at maths! – perhaps this is something you’ve always believed about yourself and now you feel vindicated, you were right all along and your Leaving Cert results prove it.  Well, that may be the case but it is also likely that other factors are in play.  Have you ever heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Perhaps it was your own belief about being no good that caused you to apply little effort or energy to the subject.  Of course, once you fall behind with Maths its harder and harder to catch up. So you need to genuinely ask yourself is it that you fell behind and simply need time to catch up or do you have a more fundamental problem with Maths.

Sam what are you good at?  Is it that you are good at sport or do you know about cars, or fashion or music?  Think about how you became good.  How did you develop these skills?  It took time and persistence even tenacity, lots of practice and most especially, you were interested and believed you could progress.   This is how you became a skilled footballer (musician, mechanic, hairdresser and so on).You know other people who wish to be as good as you are and you might even say look its easy.  Well to you its easy but it may be very daunting for other people – just like Maths is for you.

So you might ask is there really anybody who is genuinely no good at Maths or is it all about the perceptions, teachers and opportunities? The answer is complex – I mean yes and no – Maths generally involves abstract thinking and many people have a generalised difficulty with this form of thinking.  The best way to explain abstract thinking is to compare it with its opposite – concrete thinking. 

Here’s an example, a family of four are preparing to go on a motoring holiday and your task is to load the boot of the car.  As you might expect some people have brought two suitcases and what’s more the car has a very small boot and the cases come in all shapes and sizes.  Now in order to complete the task do you start to load and move each case testing where it will fit best (concrete thinking) or do you work out a scheme in your head as to how the whole lot will fit (abstract thinking)?  In this example each approach has merit.  Some people are ‘knackey’ they are good with their hands and they can visualise how things will fit together.  This spacial ability is closely related to mathematical ability it is a really useful skill.  However, some people use it in concrete situations and never really seem to be able to apply it in abstract form.  In my opinion people who have good spacial ability have the potential to be good at Maths but they don’t always fulfil this potential.

Regardless, Sam you need to know that you will be learning throughout your life and the setback today may be an opportunity in disguise. State exams are just one measure of the potential of an individual and the Maths exam is just one aspect of that measure.  To survive and thrive in this world we need to be intelligent in a multitude of different ways – we need language skills, social skills, kinaesthetic (movement) skills, awareness of nature, spacial skills and yes, mathematical and logical skills (see Howard Gardner’s works on multiple intelligence).  Build on your strengths – society needs people with all these capacities and everyone has something to offer.

Best wishes for the future 



One Comment

  • TSmith

    Good points, Leo. Numbers never have and never will tell the whole human story. Sam is indicative of many American students who believe they are not good at something, perhaps because the method of experiencing something like maths are removed from real world usage of the concepts, and as well, the methodology of instruction is geared toward a single learning style, at that maths student who already loves maths and has no trouble manipulating numbers.And now we have our great American education leader, Arne Duncan, systematically dismantling our education system, disrespecting the very nature of the work that our teachers do with students everyday, blaming our teachers for economic problems, insulting our teachers and costing them their jobs, and all to keep up a good steam of political nothingness, that is doing no one any good. Obama should should fire Duncan now, and go to work on poverty situations that are the root of illiteracy. A teacher needs to be in Duncan's job, not a business person.Thanks Leo.

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