After watching the final TV debate among presidential candidates, I have to agree with my colleague on Inside Education, Barry Hennessy, who says that the debate format is not best the best way to decide who is fit to be president of Ireland. One limitation, according to Barry, is that the order in which you are asked the questions determines how original your answer sounds to the audience and how much time you have to think of a response to a particular question. Although it might seem like a TV “reality show” Barry thinks that a better way would be to assign each candidate to a room, with members of their team and present them with scenarios that might arise during their presidency. The candidates would then be asked to respond to the scenarios and recorded (for TV) doing so. The outcomes of the various, simultaneous responses would then be shown to viewers who could decide, based on the responses, who they want to be their first citizen for the next seven years. Typical scenarios that could be presented to the candidates for response include:
- Figures have just been released which show that the level of emigration has reached higher levels than have been seen for several years. How would you respond?
- There has been a serious Stardust-like fire tragedy in Cork city. The details are initially sketchy but it is clear that there has been a major loss of life. Outline how you would respond over the course of the week following the event.
- At the Olympic games in London, an Irish athlete who is favourite to win an event, comes in fourth. Prepare the press release you would issue in response.
- You are invited to give a graduation speech at a prominent University in the United States. Write and practise delivering the address.
- You have been invited to meet with the President of a country which has been criticised for its record on human rights. Do you accept and if so, do you raise the topic of human rights? Elaborate on your response.
- You are on a visit to Sligo and your itinerary is almost full except for one hour. You have invitations to visit (i) a local school, which has just been awarded a green flag, (ii) members of a local travelling community who have just moved into a new halting site, or (iii) residents of a HSE nursing home which is threatened with closure. You can only schedule one of these visits. Which invitation will you accept and why?
- Consider this piece of (hypothetical) legislation that has been passed by the Dáil and by the Seanad. Would you convene the Council of State about this legislation? Justify your decision.
Because candidates can use team members to plan their responses to the scenarios, such a means of assessing potential presidents will be more realistic than the debates where candidates are on their own, responding under pressure and consecutively. In professional education, such realistic scenarios are used in the health professions to assess if graduates are ready to practise in their field of specialisation. In medicine the scenarios are known as Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCES).
At the end of pre-service teacher education courses, teacher educators have to assess if prospective teachers are ready to assume independent responsibility for teaching classes of children. For the children who will be in those classes, this decision is as important, if not far more important, than who will become president. Is a range of written exams, assignments and teaching practice the best way to assess how ready potential teachers are to take independent responsibility for a classroom of children? Teaching practice is widely used to assess a candidate’s potential as a teacher; but even being assessed on teaching practice is potentially subject to variations in aspects such as the class level you have, the cooperation of the children, the support you receive from your class teacher, how well you ‘click’ with the class teacher, the subjects you teach for your supervisor, the knowledge of your supervisor, and so on. And teaching practice differs from real teaching in that it is an intense experience over a short period of time and it occurs in a classroom where someone else has established the ground rules.
But if realistic scenarios such as those listed above for presidential candidates could be developed for deciding if a teacher is ready to teach, colleges of education would be better placed to stand over the teaching readiness of their graduates. They could be administered in a controlled environment for consistency of assessment. Unlike a presidential election, the criteria for assessing how prospective teachers respond to the teaching scenarios could be provided in advance and they would need to be consistent and explicit. The scenarios to ascertain if prospective teachers were fit to teach could be based around situations such as the following:
- You are teaching fourth class and the curriculum requires you to teach the class long multiplication. However, several children in the class cannot yet do short multiplication. It is now February. Outline what you will do in relation to teaching long multiplication in the remaining months of the school year.
- In the month of October a mother complains that you are giving too much homework. It takes her son over two hours to do his homework each night and that is with help from his mother. How would you respond?
- You have to tell a father that based on standardised test results and your observations, you would recommend that his daughter, who is in second class, attends learning support classes in reading. Role play how you would do this (given that the father has no prior idea that his daughter has any problems with her reading).
- The teacher next door to you complains that the noise levels from your class are consistently high and disrupting her class from doing their work (a video of such a classroom could be shown as evidence). You are aware that you are having difficulties managing your class. Plan a strategy to improve the management of your class, identifying what is wrong and how you will address it.
- Show a project done on “My Home Town” to the student teacher. State that this is a project that was done by a sixth class boy about his home town. Provide specific feedback on the project for the boy that would enable him to substantially raise the quality of the work he has done.
- This 12-year-old girl (young actor who has been given specific prompts and background information) has approached you to complain that she has been bullied over several months. Respond as you would to an actual student who made such a complaint.
Using such scenarios brings the assessment of prospective teachers (and presidential candidates) closer to the work that will be required of them. This provides more evidence of how they will conduct themselves in that role.