Throughout Ireland, north and south, throughout the “English-speaking” world, throughout most of industrialized nations, debates about the future of education are raging. In most nations the dominant narrative of this debate focuses on concepts such as “rigour,” and “privatization,” “higher standards” and “testing,” “teacher accountability” and “efficiency.”
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Though Ireland has avoided the worst, the most reductive, of these conversations, unlike Britain, the United States, and Australia, they remain significant. In April Ruairi Quinn told the Independent that “teachers are not overpaid, but certainly said they are nowhere near productive enough,” and continued, "We've reduced entry teachers pay by 15 per cent plus – they're not overpaid. But still, they could be more productive, we could get greater outcomes from them." In other words, if there is a problem with Irish education, the problem lies with inefficient teachers. This is just as the Tories in Britain and the Republicans in the US claim – German evidence notwithstanding – that the problem with those nations’ economies lies entirely with lazy, overpaid union workers.
No wonder this month’s Organisational Review Programme (ORP) of the Department of Education found Quinn’s organization “too focused on the management of short-term issues,” which has, “crowded out the development of strategic, longer-term thinking.”
Ireland is wasting time and energy worrying about “efficiency,” “saving money,” “teacher pay,” and battles over the Junior and Leaving Certs, instead of investing in imagining, and moving towards, a lifespan educational structure which will carry Ireland into the future. In this, this nation is hardly alone, but perhaps the stakes are much higher for a small island nation which knows the ability of education to transform a society, which saw the changes of the 1970s and 1980s, in all levels of schooling, lead a societal and socio-economic revolution.
So, on 19 May, in Thurles, County Tipperary, a group of Irish educators, students, technology leaders, and other stakeholders, will gather for a different conversation. This year’s ICT in Education Conference | Comhdháil ICT san Oideachas (ICTEDU) is devoting its day to the broadest possible definitions of technology and education, with “technology” defined as it was by the ancient Greeks who developed the term, as “the art of manipulating the world,” and education defined as individual and social models of learning which we engage in all of our lives.
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To begin those conversations, we will not focus on “rigour” – the making of things difficult for the sake of difficulty, nor on “efficiency,” an odd concept to embrace as we discuss the raising of our children, nor on “standards,” which involve statistical tests originally designed to ensure the consistency of barrels of Guinness. Instead we will begin with the idea of creating “learning space,” real, virtual, even imagined, where every student, at every age, has the opportunity to not just succeed, but to thrive.
I am coming to Ireland from the United States to help in this conversation with an American local schools superintendent (Dr. Pamela R. Moran) from Virginia. Though we come from a nation which, we believe, is doing almost everything wrong educationally from the perspective of government policy, we come with real experience in changing those conversations, and, in many of the educators of Ireland, we have found kindred spirits.
Dr. Moran and I have worked in our schools to create a sense of learning space which transcends classroom walls both physically and technologically, which helps students learn how to conjure their own learning environments anywhere, which develops creativity as well as skill and a knowledge base through human communication tools both ancient and brand new. We call this idea “The Iridescent Classroom,” a learning environment which glows transparently with contagious creativity and contagious excitement for knowledge, a learning environment which embraces this century’s primary learning and growth model, search, connect, communicate. Search for information and expertise, connect with that knowledge wherever it can be found, communicate what you have learned, what you are learning, and how your thinking is changing.
We do not, however, bring something for Ireland to copy. We do not even “copy” within the 26 schools which Dr. Moran administers or the various schools I work with, nor even from classroom to classroom down a school corridor. Instead we offer seeds, which we hope will take root in the rich, scholar embedded soil of Ireland, and will grow here in new ways which may enlighten all of us. As Seán Cottrell, director of the Irish Primary Principals Network, argued in an opinion piece this month, this is not the time to worry about comparing Ireland to the often fraudulent test results from nations like China, but to instead rely on Ireland’s rich expertise and rich, unique history to continue to move toward something new and powerful for Ireland’s future.
Please join us, if possible, in Thurles on 19 May. This will hopefully be an important addition to Ireland’s conversation about what education must be, and how this society invests in this essential creation of the future. You may register at http://www.lit.ie/ictedu as well view a video describing the beginning of this discussion.
- Ira Socol