The Education Conundrum: One academic's thoughts on a wicked problem by Greg Foley by Greg Foley - Read Online
The Education Conundrum
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Inspired by 25 years’ experience of working in the Irish university sector, this book is an exploration of all aspects of Irish education with a particular emphasis on third-level education. As well as dealing with issues relating to the very purpose of education, it deals with the organization of the education system and casts a critical eye on the teaching and learning ‘culture’. The book also focuses on the business and culture of science, especially the funding of science and provides insight into the vagaries of academic life including worries about managerialism and commercialism. A theme which runs through the book is the author’s perception that much of what we do today is based on the concept of plausibility. Whether it is the role of education in the economy or the way we structure our third level institutions or how we organise research around the notion of a ‘centre of excellence’, the underlying justification is usually one based on plausibility rather than real evidence. This leads to an alarming degree of groupthink within the education sector and a failure to address some of the truly important issues, many of which are as much societal as they are educational.
The book is about academic matters and it is written by an academic but it is not written in an academic style. It is structured as a large series of over one hundred short commentaries, divided among seven chapters, and written in a style that should be accessible not only to ‘insiders’ but also the general reader with an interest in any of the topics discussed in the book. The layout of the book will allow the busy reader to ‘dip in and out’ without having to commit to the whole book at any given time. The commentaries can be read by the reader in any order he or she chooses.
This book is ultimately the culmination of an increasing sense on the author’s part that he was being bombarded every day by ‘waffle’ and meaningless jargon: industry leaders talking about 21st century skills, policy-makers talking about the transformational effects of new technologies, politicians talking incessantly about that most meaningless of concepts, the ‘knowledge economy’, educators innovating for innovation’s sake and scientists with vested interests extolling the virtues of basic research. This book is a pragmatic reply to the jargon.

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ISBN: 9781630413521
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Greg Foley is a chemical Engineer with BE and PhD degrees from University College Dublin and an MS degree from Cornell University. He has been a Lecturer in Bioprocess Engineering in the School of Biotechnology, Dublin City University since 1986. He was also a Newman Scholar in UCD from 1989 to 1992. He has published extensively in the chemical engineering literature, mainly in the area of membrane science and engineering and in 2013 he authored the textbook, "Membrane Filtration: A Problem Solving Approach with MATLAB", published by Cambridge University Press. He has supervised and examined numerous MSc and PhD students and has contributed to as many as twelve different modules at undergraduate level. He has been nominated for the DCU President’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching on three occasions. Since 2011, he has written on all matters relating to education, science and academia in his blog, He lives in Dublin with his wife, Julie Dowsett, and son Leo.

For Julie and Leo and my parents, Dermot (1929-1999) and Kay Foley


How do we solve the problems facing education, especially university-level education, what we in Ireland call ‘third level’ education? I began writing about education when I started my blog,, in 2011. At the time, I was struck by the amount of discussion there was, both in mainstream media and in the blogosphere, about all aspects of education. Everyone who wrote about education seemed to have their own diagnosis about what the problems were and, importantly, what the solutions to those problems were. I was particularly struck by the degree to which groupthink had become a factor in the academic world itself. It was taken as given, for example, that online learning, problem-based learning and many other teaching ‘innovations’ were inherently good developments and it seemed to me that much of what was going on was innovation for innovation’s sake. Furthermore, there was a serious problem with the way in which innovations were validated. In reality, they were never scientifically validated at all. In everything I read, I always found myself asking, where is the evidence? It struck me that much of what we were doing was driven by plausibility, by what I refer to as The Plausibility Principle. Furthermore, technology was increasingly seen as the solution to our problems in education but few were seriously asking the quite reasonable question as to whether technology might be part of the problem.

While all of these developments were occurring, there seemed to be inadequate recognition that changes in society, especially the massively increased third level participation rates, had changed the very nature of third level education. Whereas in the past, third level education was the preserve of the few, now it was education for the masses. In principle, that is a good thing but the consequence was that third level became an extension of second level and it wasn’t long before fourth level expanded, both at master’s level and at PhD level. Yet people still talked of a university education in the same way that they did thirty years ago. But employers were, not surprisingly, seeing a drop in graduate standards and they were particularly struck by the prevalence of poor mathematical and writing skills. The main response to the challenges presented has been to try to make education more relevant and to ‘engage’ with students’ lifestyles. There is no sign that this is helping.

Groupthink was also to be seen in academic research, a key component of the university system. Various ideas, which were plausible, were taken as truth. Basic (fundamental) research was promoted, mainly by academic scientists with an obvious vested interest, as being the key to economic success. The dominant paradigm became that basic research led to applied research which led to products which led to jobs. In the meantime, research began to be organised around the concept of a ‘centre of excellence’. Again, this policy was taken as so self-evident that the possibility that it might be wrong was never even discussed, at least not seriously.

When the economy collapsed in 2008, panic set in. Now, according to the commentators, we had too many third level institutions; we weren’t producing enough PhD graduates; not enough people were studying mathematics; we weren’t producing enough computing graduates; teachers and university lecturers were hopeless, universities were too detached from the business world etc. But, frankly, commentators were speaking largely from ignorance and talking about issues about which they had said absolutely nothing during the boom years. Meanwhile, word got around that ours would be a ‘knowledge economy’. That was the only way out of this ‘hole’. And, the people to get us out would be our scientists. But in Ireland we had, and have, hundreds of thousands of unemployed people, many of whom are former construction workers and it is hard to see a role for them in a ‘knowledge economy’, whatever that is.

By the time I started my blog, the media was full of comment and opinion and I felt I had to become part of the public discourse. I had a strong sense that the discussions were dominated by the people who knew the least about the problems we faced. Academic economists had played a very public role in informing public opinion on matters relating to the financial collapse but who was speaking with any degree of authority about the education system? It certainly wasn’t the people at the ‘coalface’ but bureaucrats, politicians, newspaper columnists and the occasional blogger. I felt like I was drowning in a sort of ‘goo’ of waffle and jargon.

But it seemed to me that those advocating solutions were not recognising that education is what sociologists and economists refer to as a ‘wicked problem’. Wicked problems are hard, if not impossible, to state and have no definite solution. Ask 100 academics what the key problem is with university education and you will get dozens of answers and that is even before you look for solutions. It struck me that the problems that education faces, not only third level education, but all forms of education, are many and when we argue about educational issues, we need to adopt a humble tone – we need to recognise that there is no consensus on what the problems are and certainly no agreement on the solutions. We need to accept that we are dealing with a wicked problem. Wicked problems can only be addressed with pragmatism and creativity. Retreating to the comfort of our own preferred ideology gets us nowhere.

This book is my contribution to the wicked problem of education. I use the term ‘education’ in a broad sense because in parts of the book, I discuss aspects of academic research, especially scientific research and science itself. I also talk briefly about mathematics and engineering. Research plays a key role in universities and is inextricably linked with education. No discussion of third level education can be conducted without reference to research. I also talk about the academic life itself because universities are people-driven organisations. Third level education cannot be discussed meaningfully without reference to academics and what motivates and drives them.

Although this book is about academic matters, it is not an academic book in the usual sense of the word but simply a record of my own, very personal, hopefully informed, views on a variety of education-related topics that I think are important. I offer thoughts, criticisms, observations, suggestions and the occasional solution. If there is a guiding philosophy that permeates the book it is that we should be led as much as possible by evidence and we must be pragmatic in our willingness to embrace solutions. Education – including academic research – is potentially too important for it to be driven by ideology. We must seek solutions that work and are affordable.

The book can be read in any way the reader chooses: most of the commentaries are standalone and references are included at the end of each commentary. Little is lost by reading them out of sequence – in fact, that may well be the best way to read the book. There are seven chapters in the book, each one representing a different facet of education and the education system. While the book is written with the Irish education system in mind and based on 25 years working in that system, many of the themes addressed are of universal interest. Therefore, I would hope that many aspects of the book would be of interest to an international readership.

The book has emerged after many a long conversation with my unfortunate wife, Julie Dowsett. She does not need to read it because she knows its contents very well indeed from listening to me rant, and challenging me relentlessly, as we stood in the kitchen before dinner. It has also greatly benefitted from many a long chat with my long-time friend, and former colleague, Dr. Padraig Walsh whose passion for education is unique. No one knows more about Irish third level education than Padraig. I’ve also had many a conversation about education and science with my friend and former colleague, Dr. Susan McDonnell and her UCD colleague, Dr. Dermot Malone who played a big part in my own chemical engineering education. In DCU, I have benefitted from many a good chat with too many colleagues to mention. Apologies if I have ‘gone on’ a bit at times. This book will serve as a permanent record of the rants to which you have been subjected at staff meetings.

Greg Foley

School of Biotechnology, DCU, December 2013

1. Education and Society

1.1 We are where we are

One recent Christmas, after a somewhat demanding semester in which I had a lot of teaching as a result of staff shortages, I was driving home and I began to wonder how third level education had become so complicated. It should be simple - an organised and enthusiastic lecturer guides motivated and committed students through the learning process. But it’s not like that anymore and here’s why.

Those of us who have studied at third level have had experiences of lecturers who were just so dire it was almost like a Monty Python sketch. When I studied in UCD in the 1980s, we had one lecturer who just told anecdotes about his career in the metallurgical business – while leaning back in his chair, legs crossed, staring at the ceiling. He always wore a white lab coat. Another, a well-known businessman at the time, simply used the business pages of The Irish Times as his lecture ‘notes’. Not much preparation required there. Then there was the bloke who used to put up an overhead of organic chemistry reactions and simply look out the window in silence: he religiously got through four overheads per lecture. One eminent professor mumbled his way through lectures (on seemingly random topics) aided by overheads that he appeared to have written on the DART. There were others. Of course this was unacceptable, although, paradoxically, some of our lecturers were ‘so bad they were good’. We knew they were useless and we set out to write our own course notes which then got handed down and modified from class to class. That was a good learning process in itself. (By the way, nobody was ever held accountable for all of this, something I return to later.)

The generation of lecturers that followed recognised that this wasn’t good enough and became far more committed to their roles as educators. At the same time, third level participation rates increased and we had to work harder to coach weaker students through the system. Lecturing became ‘teaching’. Some lecturers began to put so much work into their teaching that they felt disadvantaged in a system that seemed to – and does - value research above all else in the race for promotion. This and the unspoken recognition that many students were simply not capable of surviving in a traditional university system meant that teaching ‘quality’ became important and began to be taken seriously.

But, quality in this context is hard to measure. It really needs a third party presence in the lecture theatre and a robust assessment of student learning – not an easy task. Instead, teaching quality, at least in the context of career advancement, became equated with teaching activity, especially innovation. It became important now to be seen to be active in ‘teaching and learning’ research even though few academics were really trained to do such things. That hasn’t stopped many of us doing some education research that, in truth, fits into the ‘Mickey Mouse’ category. Mind you, there are those who would argue, quite convincingly, that much education research, especially that pertaining to teaching practice, is actually pseudoscientific nonsense [1].

Pilot schemes abounded (often never to be sustained), invariably worked well or were well received and ‘learning innovation’ became the new buzz phrase. Much of this innovation involved the use of technology, not necessarily because there was an obvious need for it, but because there was a sense that all of this technology ought to be used for something. Now, it was possible to have an academic career without doing the really hard business of research/scholarship in your own area of expertise. Instead of doing research in biology, you could do research on innovative ways of teaching biology – and you had classrooms full of subjects.

Semesterisation and Modularisation arrived and education was divided up into easily-digested, bite-size chunks. Exams became more frequent and shorter, the use of continuous assessment became widespread - often as a buffer against high failure rates - and the large class sizes spawned assessment methods that de-emphasised basic skills such as writing a paragraph of coherent, grammatically correct English. Examiners became more ‘compassionate’ and condoned failure became widespread. Modularisation facilitated the proliferation of degree programs and the third level institutions began to design ‘novel’ programs to ‘chase’ good students. Soon the number of programs outstripped the supply of qualified students and many students undertook programs for which they were totally ill-suited. As third level education became the norm, the second level system was corrupted, becoming purely a means of entry to the universities and institutes. Rote learning became an art form and was perpetuated at third level. The ‘spoon-feeding’ culture flourished and third level became more and more like second level.

Universities became increasingly bureaucratic, education became more and more ‘managed’ and concepts like ‘learning outcomes’ were introduced, despite any evidenced-based discussion of their merits [2]. Academics looked on much of this with cynicism but shrugged their shoulders, filled out the forms and went back to their research. Students remained largely oblivious.

At the same time, all sorts of people began to talk about the ‘knowledge economy’ and how the 21st century would require radically new ways of working and thinking. It all sounded plausible but where was the beef? Employers still talked about the need for a strong work ethic, a willingness to learn and good basic skills but educators didn’t seem to be listening. Instead, everyone was obsessing about ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’.

When I played cricket – many years ago - we used to laugh at the captain who ‘chased the ball’. Wherever the last boundary had been scored, that’s where he would place his fielder. This kept the fielders busy but didn’t solve the problem that the bowler needed to be taken off. Our education system has become like the ball-chasing cricket captain.

1. "Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn't always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it", Tom Bennett, Routledge (2013).

2. ‘Learning Outcomes’ will be a topic that I return to on a number of occasions in this book. They are essentially a concise list of statements that specify what measurable knowledge and skills a student should have when they have completed a module or program. The module outcomes must be aligned with the degree program outcomes, something that causes a great deal of angst for people who are unfortunate enough to be assigned that particular task. I’m not too sure at whom all of this stuff is aimed because students certainly don’t read it. I know because I’ve asked them.

1.2 The paradox of third level education

I have had a few letters, mostly concerning education matters, published in The Irish Times. I feel very strongly that academics should get more involved with national issues and I see writing to The Irish Times, or engaging with the media generally, as time well spent. If we educators won’t talk about the education system we can’t continue to sit back and complain about those who do.

The danger in doing this is that you will be labelled as a crank that has too much time on his hands, time better spent doing proper research. But a letter to the paper may only take you twenty minutes and I would suggest that most academics lose a lot more than that in the ‘noise’ of their day. The only academics who really seem to get involved in national debate on a consistent basis are economists but that is probably their raison d’être.

Anyway, in one of my letters to The Irish Times, I stated my view that the primary cause of the third level crisis – and there is one - was the unsustainable student numbers. My basic point was that by increasing the percentage of school leavers that attend third level, the standard must decline. To me, this is self-evident and examples of this effect are to be found in many walks of life, especially sport. How often do we despair when we hear that sporting authorities are going to wreck our favourite competition by increasing the number of teams, thus making many of matches redundant or of poor quality? Just think of the soccer World Cup and how so many of the matches are rubbish.

It is harder to say things like this when it comes to education because it sounds like you’re making some sort of value judgment about people when you say they are not able for honours degree education. But there is no getting away from the fact that many people who are simply not ‘up to it’ are coming through the third level system. Furthermore, many do not want to be there. Unfortunately, the people actually working with students know this but aren’t articulating it often or loudly enough, to some extent out of a sense of powerlessness. There is also the fact that there is not much to be gained by getting involved in policy matters. Reputations and promotion prospects are largely built on research performance and academics care a lot about how they are perceived as researchers.

Those higher up the ‘ladder’, in university management, are either oblivious to the realities or ignore them. They listen to business and industry leaders but they should be listening a lot more to the people working with the students. They may be becoming disconnected from the realities of undergraduate education and perhaps no longer understand the real issues relating to student learning. Instead they deal in broad brush strokes and tend to focus on strategic issues – all very understandable but problematic nonetheless.

Our response, as educators, to the burgeoning student population has been to focus on the weaker students and adjust our teaching and assessment methods to ensure that these students have a realistic chance of progressing. This is partly for quasi-political reasons but also out of a sense of compassion for young people who are in a situation that is not really of their choosing. Indeed, there seem to be some deep cultural forces at play that make us want to make life as easy as possible for our students. Perhaps this reflects a wider trend towards pandering in western society. Condoned failure is rife, mainly out of a sense that it would be somehow ‘unfair’ to enforce exam regulations rigorously. Indeed, I often find myself advocating a ‘get tough’ policy but when it comes to examination board meetings, I capitulate and adopt the compassionate approach. It is not easy to insist on a student repeating a whole year for the sake of a dozen percentage points in one module of many.

The result of all of this is that the more gifted students are not challenged and do not develop as they should during their four years in college. They do not need to develop as independent workers and thinkers because those skills are no longer required to get through a system that is designed for the weaker students. We therefore have a paradoxical situation whereby our obsession with third level participation rates is actually lowering the overall educational standard in the country because so many people are being educated to a level that is not right for them. For many, third level education is too difficult while for the really talented, it is too easy.

1.3 The 21st century

Here’s a point of view: The 21st century is radically different. We now live in a globalised world. Everything and everybody is connected. We are part of a vast global network. There are six billion mobile phones in the world! The workplace of this century is highly complex and competitive. The boundaries between disciplines have become blurred and the future will require a multidisciplinary or even an interdisciplinary approach. To survive, we need radically new and innovative ways of working. The engine of economic growth will no longer be the production of goods, but knowledge. But as knowledge becomes ever easier to access, this century will be dominated by those can think creatively and critically. Our education system must do much more that transfer knowledge; it must leverage the digital revolution to foster the creative and critical thinking skills required to harness that knowledge. There is no alternative – to do nothing is to be left behind.

This all sounds convincing but I think it is wrong. (In fact I cobbled it together as a kind of ‘brain dump’ of sound bites.) I think it is spoken most often by those of an age-group that has spent its formative years in the pre-computer age. I think language like this is a result of being seduced by technology, ‘blown away’ by it in a way that young people are not. Google is a marvel for those of us who consulted the Engineering Index or the Science Citation Index in the 1980s [1]. But those born in the internet age just see digital tools as exactly that – tools that they use every day and mostly for socialising and other non-academic pursuits. When you talk to students, they actually understand the need for old fashioned graft and hard work, the need to study, to practice, to think problems through, to write well and to be numerate. They don’t see digital technology as being transformational; it’s just there to be used as required.

Indeed, when you think about it, the 20th century was a truly remarkable period in the history of humanity. The advances in science, technology and medicine were absolutely staggering. There was an unparalleled level of innovation and invention. So why do people look back at the 20th century in somewhat disparaging terms and talk about the 21st century as requiring a radically new and improved approach to education and work with an enhanced focus on innovation? Yes, the world faces huge challenges especially in areas like hunger, energy and climate change, but the world faced enormous challenges in the past, notably in the area of infectious diseases. We overcame these challenges with 20th century skills. So what’s different now? In my view, nothing much. The coincidental occurrence of the turn of the century (and millennium) and advances in digital technology have given people the sense that a transformation – a sort of ‘phase transition’ as physicists might say – from one world to another has happened. I think this is completely imaginary and what has occurred in the last 20 years simply reflects a continuation of an evolutionary process begun during the industrial revolution. The world doesn’t work on information alone and while advances in digital technology are important, they do not change everything.

Many of the achievements of the 20th century were a result of education systems that are now seen as obsolete. No doubt,