Having taught history in secondary schools for 25 years before moving to the world of research and higher education, Graduate School of Education Assoc. Prof. James Nehring is a teacher at heart.
It is with this perspective that he approached four secondary schools in Northern Ireland. Nehring, a Fulbright Scholar, spent three months visiting, observing and interacting with four high-poverty schools to study how educators are navigating the mismatch between teaching curriculum necessary for succeeding on standardized tests and teaching students the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in modern society.
“The knowledge that’s required today to work and live in a modern economy and society is substantially different from what mainstream schools have been teaching for many generations,” said Nehring at the Parliament Building in Belfast, where he presented his research to an audience of educators and influential legislators from both Protestant and Catholic-aligned parties. “Having students memorize facts and figures to pass standardized tests leaves little time to teach students real-world skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, leadership, initiative, self-direction, intellectual openness and reflection.”
Pressure for test performance is especially strong in schools serving communities with high poverty levels, suggesting that the learning gap is widening even further on important skills that go unmeasured, he added. The research is an extension of similar studies that Nehring is leading with Graduate School of Education colleague Stacy Szczesiul in the United States and Israel – countries with a wide variance in educational outcomes between privileged and marginalized groups. His findings in Northern Ireland showed that preparing for the state exams limits higher-level learning. Teachers and administrators expressed frustration that state exams are a drag to teaching well.
“In courses where traditional external exams were used, the intellectual demand for students was very low,” says Nehring. “In courses that were assessed using portfolio, projects and performances, the intellectual demand for students tended to be quite high. We saw this consistently in classroom observations and it was corroborated by interviews with teachers, administrators and students.”
In the two Catholic schools, Nehring found a powerful, shared vision rooted in faith and cultural traditions. The school culture exuded a strong ethos of caring, illustrated through student projects such as raising funds through parishes for a hospital in a developing country, sending student ambassadors overseas and presenting school theatrical productions. The integrated school offered opportunities to teach complex skills because it made cross-community engagement part of the curriculum and school day.
Nehring found that in subjects assessed by an external exam – math, science and history – instruction focused on memorization. In subjects such as drama, music, engineering and home economics that are assessed by portfolio, projects, or performance, students learned deeper level skills not measured by the government.
Nehring’s research was funded by U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Program and the US-UK Fulbright Commission in London. The Integrated Education Fund – an independent charity supporting the growth of integrated education in Northern Ireland – arranged the presentation with the Legislative Assembly.
“This important research will have a significant impact on the wider political and policy discussion relating to the delivery of education in Northern Ireland,” said Samuel Fitzsimmons, communications director of the Integrated Education Fund.
Nehring’s hope is that the results of the study influence school accountability, student assessment and social integration.
“I would like to continue this work and build on the relationships with people from various backgrounds in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Themes from Nehring’s research, as well as his work as a 30-year secondary and higher education teacher, will be shared in his book, “Why Teach?: Notes and Questions from a Life in Education” which will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this summer.