22 May 2012

foghlama in Éirinn, Éire foghlama

A Dublin 17-year-old discusses the difference between "education," a self-motivating, inspiring, possibility-building activity he is engaging in at Bridge21Learning, and "school," where uninteresting, irrelevant information is "shoved" at him.

A primary school teacher from Cork demonstrates how his youngest students are creating e-books they have written, illustrated, assembled digitally, and narrated (as alternative output), and then notes that the secondary school most will attend insists that students do all work writing with fountain pens - to encourage proper handwriting.

A first-year university-level student explains that after lectures "no one understands," he and his fellow students meet in a comfortable lounge under a high ceiling, go online, and figure it out together.

CoderDojo Thurles
A group of primary students in Tallaght, crossing years four through six, work in a room with "computers" ranging from somewhat elderly laptops to iPod-Touches, and research, investigate, create stories on films, write, while supporting each other.

In Dualla, primary students from year two through six, work together in a classroom and push each other forward, academically, artistically, athletically, while linking themselves to the world through technology. They enthusiastically share their work on all with clear, sophisticated voices.

On the absolute edge of Europe, where County Kerry meets the Atlantic at St. Finan's Bay, the 24 student Gaelscoil An Scoil ag An Ghleanna was a magnificent place of freedom, democracy, familial community, and learning. A huge Titanic sculpture/display graces one corner of the upper students' classroom, demonstrating and students await Skyping with Dublin and America.

And at the Tipperary Institute of the Limerick Institute of Technology, late on a Thursday afternoon, the widest possible range of primary and secondary students gathers voluntarily, to work individually and together, to build computer programming skills at one of the many CoderDojos which have appeared across Ireland, and increasingly, the world - a movement born of Irish invention.

Ireland is a nation which has valued education for all of its history. It is also a nation which has been remarkably creative in importing, adapting, and reinventing ideas, from Christianity and Beer to Literature in English and Contemporary Software.

That ability, crossing fields of knowledge and hundreds of generations, was not created by "vocational education," but by a broad view of the world which was transmitted to anyone in the population who wanted it. When the British made education illegal for Irish Catholics, students met in fields and caves for "formal" education, and kept singing, dancing, quoting poetry, and debating to keep the art of teaching fully in play.

This is a nation who's heroes are authors - not just any authors - but some of the most inventive to ever write in the English language. It is a nation which has led Europe in software development. A nation chosen as a home for multinational corporations every bit as much for a thinking, adaptive, creative workforce as for any "tax haven" reasons.
I, and American school leader Dr. Pamela Moran, came to LIT - Tipperary to present at the 2012 ICTEDU Conference, to share and compare our experiences in the States with those of Irish educators when it comes to rethinking both education and technology, as well as the point where those things connect. Yet we found a profound disconnect, or a series of profound disconnects - between levels of Irish education, between intentions and policies, between "Dublin" and classrooms, between the future of Irish students and many of their "presents."

That is not to suggest that we were disappointed in Irish education - far from it. In school after school we found wonderful students led by humane and very human teachers, students allowed to find success across the range of human skillsets. We saw beautiful art, heard magnificent music, and found places filled with a passion for learning... but...
We found an educational system crying out for the need to carry the inventiveness and excitement of primary education forward into lifespan learning. An education system needing to join the present - contemporary technology, global connectedness, universal design for learning - to the uniquely human Irish traditions of humanity, literature, arts, and music. An education system needing - desperately - to free itself from the straight-jacket of compliance to testing norms so that students can find the wide variety of paths to success which will equip a small island with the range of talents it will need in the future.

Irish Primary Education appears brilliantly inventive - if a bit "technology challenged" (for a nation which sees itself as a technology leader) - but the post-primary system, of desks and handwriting, test-driven-curricula and 40-minute time blocks, is constricting the possibilities for teachers and students and "our" collective future.

Our students will live their lives in the mid-to-late 21st Century,
they need to learn to manage the tools of their time - not the mid-19th Century
This is both about access - offering the best we can possibly offer to the widest variety of students - and economics - the building of a creative society which leads - not a factory society which builds copies of American designs. It is both about the joy of learning and about the purposes of education. In our minds, we measure our success as educators by the range of choices available to our young people in their adulthood - are they able to choose careers, homes, lives, routes, passions? are they not tied to the limits of doing others' work or emigrating.

Education should not be about creating a workforce for corporations - they may train new workers if they must - but even if Irish Education Minister Ruairi Quinn wants schools as only job preparation, we all know that creative workers, able to adapt and adjust, able to utilize the tools of this century, will surely top test-takers with fountain pen skills.
We did not come to Ireland to show Irish educators how to recreate anything in the American education system. We do not think Ireland should copy Washington's policies or London's policies - both are leading conservative reductionist efforts which seek to strip the humanity from education for all but the children of the wealthy. Rather, we came to Ireland to help push Irish educators toward accomplishing the true goals of the system - an inclusive, creative, supportive, fully-rounded program which helps to develop Irish-European-Global citizens with the skills and learning tools and strategies they will need during their lifespans. We came to connect, to join, to learn from, to share, and to encourage Ireland to pursue its own course toward its own future.
So, we ask Irish educators to slow down, to look deeply at their schools, their students, and the world of today, and to not be afraid to change Irish schools - despite the inspectors, despite the Leaving Certs, despite whatever the sad commentary is from Dublin's government buildings.

- Ira Socol

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