Monday, January 24, 2011

Speaking of Education...

Communicate Science - Guest Post

This is not an article about promoting maths to second level students. 

The Teaching Council just this week suggested that higher level maths should be a prerequisite for trainee primary school teachers. No one disputes the benefits of encouraging young people to be more fluent in basic mathematics and of persuading those with ability to study higher level maths rather than being one more person to take part in the most popular examination in the state, ordinary level maths.

In fact, my proposal for encouraging more and better prepared young people to opt for careers in engineering and science, as well as developing an essential skill for all students is to establish an English language oral examination.

I wear as a badge of honour that I once gave a presentation using acetates and an overhead projector. They were simpler times. The dream of having complete control over the flamboyance of how your new slide appeared on screen for your audience was then just a utopian vision, along the lines of the paperless office or a world where the hat was, once again, an accepted everyday item of clothing. My delivery was, I’m sure, awful. Nervous, rambling and perhaps an injustice to the work I had so diligently prepared.

How much better I have become in delivering presentations is not for me to judge but I know I have improved. This is due to a combination of practice and the professional and personal self-confidence which naturally comes with life experience.

An English oral examination is, I think, an idea worthy of further study. Perhaps it would just do what better schools have always done, to teach students how to present themselves to the world in a coherent and impressive manner. But perhaps it would put an emphasis on this skill in schools where, for whatever reason, this crucial skill is not given the recognition it deserves.

The examination might take the format of a presentation on a single topic of the students choice without slides but allowing one prop that can be carried by hand followed by a spontaneous discussion. The Leaving Certificate is often criticised for being about rote learning. A discussion based on a random glance at the morning’s letters page in the Irish Times might shake things up.

The goal is to encourage in young people the skills necessary to be able to present ones ideas confidently, to discuss specialised topics with laypeople and to hold up ones side of random, polite conversation. These are skills necessary for many career paths. One of the key competences of a scientist or engineer must be to use effective communication and interpersonal skills to work with others of all levels and to effectively present and discuss ideas. A sound basis in this skill at an early age will help people in any career path and will certainly assist students entering the science and engineering fields.

Kieran Lettice is an engineer and renewable energy consultant. 


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