Friday, September 30, 2011

The Future of Education

With everything that's going on in Ireland at the moment, people are rightly a little bit fed up. The lads and ladies up in the IMF and EU are calling a good few of the shots, so things seem a bit futile and there is a sense of powerlessness about the direction we're going in.

But there is one area in Ireland that we can do something about, that will have massive implications for the country, and that need not cost us much to change.


There is now a unique opportunity to bring about significant changes in our education system, due to three different factors:

1. Economic Arguments:
The business sector have come out clearly to state that the type of graduate they would like is not really being produced by the current education system. Rote learning and a good memory will get you through exams, but in the modern world employers are looking for much more from graduates, and if they don't find it here, there are plenty of other countries that they could go.

I read with interest the recent announcement by DCU that they are planning to create a new generation of 'model graduates' based on the needs of the economy and the business sector. While many people reacted negatively to this story, the details of their new  "Generation 21" scheme are actually on the right track.

They are looking for our graduates to be:

- Creative
- Enterprising
- Committed to continuous learning
- Solution-oriented
- Effective Communicators
- Globally Engaged
- Active Leaders

Hard to argue with that. For perhaps the first time in history, the needs of business are matching the needs of the education system. We need to grab this chance.

2. Social Arguments:
A bad education has an impact on all students, but the negative impact is greatest on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we want to combat the ridiculous situation of Irish citizens being illiterate (some studies show 23% of Irish men are not functionally literate), we need to change the education system. Education systems that encourage children to take an active role in their learning, support them to work in teams and foster innovation and creativity have been shown to lead to better outcomes for students. More importantly, educating children in this way is shown to improve achievement particularly for for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finland is a great example of this system of education in action, and they have the smallest gap between highest and lowest educational outcomes.

All of this is backed up by global momentum and some legendary people on the side of educational transformation. My man crush Ken Robinson is one such legend, and if you haven't seen his talks on education you need to watch them right now: "Schools Kill Creativity" and "Bring on the Learning Revolution".

Getting this right is probably the most important thing we can do to transform the outcomes for children in the coming years.

3.  Political Will
In Ruairi Quinn we have a Minister for Education who gets this. In the short space that he has been in power he has already set out his stall to change the focus of education, and backed proposals to radically reform the Junior Cert, making it 40% dependent on project work and only 60% dependent on exams.

What next?
So the need is there from both the social and economic viewpoints and there is a growing momentum building to bring about change. The next steps are, therefore, vitally important, as the danger is that changes will be made to the system without providing the appropriate supports to make the changes work. This would be disastrous.

As luck would  have it, solutions are emerging that will help schools to transition into this new model of education. These need to be supported to ensure any changes we make to the education system are effective.

One such solution is provided by 'Bridge21' , an innovative organisation led by an award winning social entrepreneur, John Lawlor. John's aim is to smash the victorian classroom and support schools to implement an education system that is team based, technology mediated, project based and cross curricular. They are already working in Irish secondary schools right now, and initial results indicate that it's making a real impact. As we make the move to a new system of education, solutions like the Bridge21 model will be vital to success.

This is an exciting time for education in Ireland. Many of the pieces are falling into place. We have some momentum, we have some solutions, and we know how important it is for the country. All we need to do now is make it happen.