Irish schools need to modernise ‘20th century’ approach to learning, warns OECD

OECD’s Andreas Schleicher says education system must avoid producing ‘second-class robots’

Andreas Schleicher, head of education for the OECD, says Ireland’s education system is based on a 20th century model of learning. Photograph: Marco Illuminati

Ireland’s education system is based on a 20th century model of learning and needs to modernise to avoid producing “second-class robots” in a world of rapid technological change, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s education division has said.

Andreas Schleicher, one of the most influential figures in global education, said there was still too much focus in Irish classrooms on transmitting knowledge and not enough on equipping students to "think outside the box".

“It’s very much a 20th century kind of education, infrastructure and architecture, quite industrial in its outlook and its design,” he said.

“Students get taught one curriculum, it’s quite heavily focused on the reproduction of subject matter content, and not that much focus on getting students to think out of the box and link across the boundaries of subject matter disciplines.”


Dr Schleicher said rapid change such as automation and artificial intelligence means education systems need to do much more to equip students to flourish in the modern world.

He said a positive feature of the Irish system is the strong value placed on education by society and a “ reasonably” good track record in providing educational opportunities to less well-off students.

Key challenge

However, he said the heavy focus on higher education after school was “pushing everyone through the same pipeline” at a time when there should be multiple pathways available.

A key challenge for Irish schools will be getting students to think for themselves, and develop a strong sense of right and wrong.

In a modern world where "Google knows everything", he said the world will reward people for what they can do with what they know.

For example, while Ireland has a good track record on literacy in global studies such as the Pisa league tables of international educational achievement, he said this was only part of the picture.

“Just 15 per cent of Irish 15-year-olds can distinguish fact from opinion in a reliable way. So, you know, what value is literacy, if you can’t navigate ambiguity? If we can’t manage complexity?”

While much debate in Irish education focuses on class sizes, Dr Schleicher said there was "zero correlation" between this and the quality of tuition. He said classes were far bigger in high-performing countries such as Japan or China.

Instead, they were focused on utilising their resources in such a way as to meet the needs of students on an individual basis and promote more collaboration among teachers.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent