Are Irish classrooms innovative enough?
Schools are equipped for tech, but we need to give greater consideration to how it is used
Ireland does well on basic science, maths and reading literacy but we are lagging behind in the number of high-performing children. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto
What are the limits of human ingenuity? Could our intelligence be our own downfall? What jobs will be defunct within a decade, and what previously unimagined jobs will take their place?
These are among the key questions facing educators in Ireland today, but large parts of the education system, particularly at second level, were designed for the industrial age, and we need to equip students with a whole different set of skills. So, is Ireland stepping up to the plate, and how do we compare with other countries?
Ireland’s education spend, as in much of the rest of Europe, is falling. Dr Ruth Freeman, director of strategy and communications at Science Foundation Ireland, says that this is not a good place for us to be. “It is important that education is valued and that we don’t cut our expenditure on it.”
Still, there is cause for optimism, she says. “There are lots of well-informed people in the Department of Education, while the digital strategy for schools comprehensively covers what needs to happen around teaching, learning and assessment for ICT [information and communications technology], including the professional development of teachers and ICT infrastructure.”
Schools are equipped for technology, but we need to give greater consideration to how it is used, says Damien Owens, registrar at Engineers Ireland. “Young people are more tech-savvy than any previous generation, and they can find information online, including in YouTube tutorials, if they’re stuck on an issue.
“They’re more resourceful, although they’ve become used to information being presented in a short and snappy format, meaning teachers have to become ‘edutainers’, both educating and entertaining. Because of this, we should be more flexible in our assessment methods, instead of just relying on the terminal exam.”
Prof Michael O’Leary is the Prometric chair in assessment at DCU’s Institute of Education. Along with his colleagues Anastasios Karakolidis and Dr Darina Scully, his work is focused on new and innovative ways of carrying out assessment and includes research for the licensing and certification firm Prometric as well as devising new methods for the Irish education, from early childhood to postgraduate level.
“Forget about the assessment for a moment,” he says. “A more important question is: what is important for people to learn? Yes, knowledge is important and can be assessed with pen and paper tests. But critical thinking, oral communication skills and ability to collaborate on problem-solving skills are harder to assess in a three-hour exam.”
One of O’Leary’s research projects is focused on the use of animations and simulations in assessment to measure higher order and complex skills. “If we wanted to assess people’s knowledge of the human heart, we might give them a picture and ask them to label it. We can’t ask someone to carry out real heart surgery and deliberately make a mistake. With an animation, however, we can rotate the heart, examine it from different angles, and simulate advanced medical work. Technology allows us to manipulate the animation.
Policymakers are aware that we need to improve the so-called “key skills” of young people, but pace of reform in Ireland has been somewhat slow, with new methods of assessment for the junior cycle facing significant resistance from teachers who are concerned about having to mark their own students’ project work.
“In some countries, teachers can watch over their students for months and years and provide a summation of the student’s work at the end of it. The Leaving Cert is a perfectly good exam for assessing knowledge, comprehension and application, and there are some very fair elements such as everyone sitting the same exam. But the trouble with the Leaving Cert is that it restricts what is emphasised in secondary schools and steers away from collaborative work or, sometimes, creative thinking. And yet, in this world, very few people work alone and they often problem-solve together.”
“Everyone knows our attainment with regard to literacy, maths and science, but how do we measure innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship?” asks Deirdre Butler, senior lecturer in digital learning at DCU.
“The ability to self-regulate, communicate skilfully, construct knowledge rather than just consume it – these are the skills we need.”
The strategy is underpinned by a fact that the teacher’s own training will determine how these technologies are used, so if a teacher thinks that knowledge is fixed, they will teach it as fixed, but if they see it as dynamic and fluid, they will examine different learning experiences.
Butler wrote the consultative paper which launched the 2013 Digital Strategy for Schools. “We need to be able to educate people to tackle problems that don’t yet exist, so we need to design the type of experiences that enable students to do this.”
The thinking is in the right place, says Butler, but there has to be more support for teachers. “They can’t do this overnight. They have to understand the key skills and become immersed in those learning environments.”
Dr Miriam Judge is a lecturer at DCU’s school of communications and her work looks at ways to improve teachers’ digital skills, including the implementation and impact of using tablets and ebooks in the classroom.
“There are some schools who are doing wonderful things with technology and others who are quite traditional,” she says.
“But policy alone won’t bring about change, and what matters is how prepared the teachers are. There are so many other topics that need to be covered during teacher training. Older teachers will tell you that during the first big tech initiative, which launched in 1997, the big mistake was not to give computers to teachers. How could they be expected to use technology in the classroom if they had not upskilled?”
How do we compare to other countries?
Ireland does well on basic science, maths and reading literacy, according to successive Pisa (programme for international student assessment) surveys. We perform particularly well on reading literacy.
More and more, however, international studies are attempting to push the boundaries of how we assess children. In 2015, Pisa included an assessment of student ability to collaborate in order to solve problems; tellingly, Ireland did not take part in this.
Ireland is performing well on average. There are fewer low-achieving children than before. But we are lagging behind in the number of high-performing children. To improve here, says Prof O’Leary, we need to innovate in terms of how we teach and the type of skills – such as critical thinking, applying knowledge, higher cognitive level thinking processes like synthesis, evaluation and analysis – that we teach.
“I don’t think we are the worst or the best,” says Judge. “We are somewhere in the middle, and given what we have been through with austerity, the fact that we have managed to hold our own in some capacity is good.”
Some of the best practices have happened in Gaelscoils. “Because there are not a lot of Irish textbooks out there, teachers have started to create their own resources. Our European partners are not creating resources at that kind of level.”
Judge is working on a project called Micool (Mobile intercultural co-operative learning) which involves six other European countries. “When I compare Ireland to the other five, we are on a par with all the others except Switzerland, which is quite advanced on account of the resources they have.”