Every parent wants the best for their child, and most of today’s parents grew up with the unspoken but widely accepted notion that their children would be financially better off than them.
But it hasn’t worked out like that. Forget about getting a foot on the property ladder: today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings can barely manage to get a foot into a rented house and, if they do, they face exorbitant costs.
Research from the Nevin Economic Institute shows real wages falling relative to the cost of buying a house. The very idea of generational upward mobility may be dead.
This is far from the only issue facing young people today. A recent report from DCU found that the Leaving Cert programme was not preparing students for university and failing to develop skills like critical analysis, confidence and technological literacy.
Increased automation, artificial intelligence and robotics in the workplace is expected to make many white-collar and prestigious jobs obsolete by 2030, although previously unimagined jobs may rise to take their place.
Meanwhile, unchecked climate change threatens any kind of stability or international order that older generations have long taken for granted.
So, how can today’s parents give their children the best shot? And how can you future-proof your child in such an uncertain world? We asked four educational thinkers.
Our children will make the world and they will adapt it to their strengths and weaknesses
Instead of trying to fix difficulties that students have in certain areas, strengths-based education takes what young people can do well and tries to make it better.
Arthur Godsil, former headmaster at St Andrew's College in Booterstown and co-founder and director of Godsil Education consultancy, believes this is the way forward.
“Our current education system is based on the skills needed during the industrial revolution and it’s not really fit for purpose today,” he says.
“We need to work with what children do well and build on their skills, instead of suggesting that they’re only as good as the points and grades they get. If a student is good at maths but not languages, give them more maths.
It’s a system he used at St Andrew’s. Godsil says not only did students excel in their strongest area, but their confidence was built up and their grades improved across the board.
“This is harder to do at second level than in primary school, but not impossible,” he says. “ Parents should ask schools to extend their child’s learning where the child really enjoys something, and particularly if that child has learning difficulties.”
Alan Smeaton, professor of computing at DCU and the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, agrees.
“Every year we take in hundreds of undergraduates at DCU, and the main reason they drop out is because they have made the wrong choice,” he says. “They think they want to do computer science, or they do it because their brother did or they think that’s where the jobs are.
“We hear about the importance of key skills, but are we overhyping them? Yes, problem-solving and creativity are important, but as a parent it is important to identify what your child is good at – and enjoys – and nurture that.
“If that’s creative arts, that’s fine. If its’s maths, that’s also fine. They will be future-proofed if they are happy doing what they love.”
He says he sees great kids at the DCU Centre for Talented Youth who are interested in neuroscience and gravitational waves, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily more intelligent than the children who thrive and grow at the GAA summer camps.
“The world may change but it will always be made of people who are more numerate, or more artistic, or more personable, or more introverted and introspective,” he says. “Our children will make the world and they will adapt it to their strengths and weaknesses.”
More than 30 years ago the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck studied students' attitudes to failure: some students rebounded while other students seemed devastated.
After studying the behaviour of thousands of students, she coined the term “fixed and growth mindsets” to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.
When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.
Alice O'Connor, a career guidance counsellor at Stepaside Educate Together, sees how this plays out in classrooms every day.
“If children have a fixed mindset, they will switch off if they’ve absorbed the idea that they’re not ‘naturally’ good at something; they believe that abilities are innate and unchanging,” she says.
“I wasn’t naturally good at Italian in college but I worked on it and did a master’s, and now I’m fluent: teaching a growth mindset means children will embrace challenges across all their life experiences, including in subjects they particularly love.”
Arthur Godsil adds that students shouldn’t only be praised for top grades, as it sends out the message that they only get rewarded if the outcome pleases parents and teachers.
“Instead, a growth mindset means we praise them for their effort, encouraging them and acknowledging that it may not have been easy for them and that we are so happy with the work they put in,” he says.
Incidentally, Dweck’s research shows there is no contradiction between a growth mindset and strengths-based education; on the contrary, those with a growth mindset believe their personal abilities can be developed and they embrace the idea that effort and work is needed and will be rewarding.
Children need to be taught, from an early age, how to determine what information is real and what is fake
Amid all the cutting-edge talk of tech and critical thinking, many educationalist believe old-fashioned resilience will be key.
Jane Ohlmeyer, professor of history at Trinity College Dublin, believes these traits will help young people at time of unprecedented change.
“I’ve raised two children, and I understand that any parent is concerned about the challenges they will face. It’s not about mollycoddling them but instead empowering them to understand the world we live in. A broad basic skill base is the foundation,” she says.
“The basics of maths, language, science and some humanities should be on an equal curriculum, and the humanities provide that crucial context about the world we live.
“Children need to be taught, from an early age, how to determine what information is real and what is fake. Critical thinking is key in a discipline like history, which takes information and distils insights we can apply to today’s world.
Alice O'Connor adds: "The education system is changing and there's much more emphasis, especially in the Junior Cycle, on respect, resilience and self-awareness. These are the building blocks of a successful life."
Our education system may be geared towards producing academic excellence – but what kind of citizens do we want?
“Future-proofing is not about teaching them to get jobs but about values that sustain them in the world,” says Alice O’Connor.
“Appreciating culture, and knowing where they came from, and understanding art and hurling and 1916, will sustain them through life. Most of all, relationships, and how they get on with other people, will carry them through life more than any technical skill or rote-learned knowledge.
“Is the measure of success 625 points despite having developed anorexia from the stress and weight of expectations to be perfect? Values of community, responsibility and resilience matter more than academic success, and will ultimately help them more.”
Jane Ohlmeyer agrees: “Education happens at home as much as in school. Values are a key part of this, and responsible citizenship is most important, with a particular focus on caring for the environment, understanding what makes a good and healthy democracy and, increasingly, good digital and internet health, which can help them grasp the hazards as well as the opportunities.”