A glimpse back before looking forward

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My experience in Ireland was amazing and will have a profound impact on the manner in which I approach my work in the future.  The Irish landscape is one of intense beauty and filled with people who have a genuine spirit.  These factors were present in both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.  Equally evident was the remnants of a violent struggle for understanding and independence.

We had the opportunity to learn about the Minster of Education’s shift to a constructivist learning environment.  This change is being both embraced and resisted.  The resistance appears to be the universal resistance to change that we also face here in the States.  The change will be slow but it seems to have strong backing and support.  It was exciting to learn how this change will help to propel the Irish educational system.  We had the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the system during our time spent with the Education Centre Directors Bernard Kirk (Galway) and Dr. Frank Walsh (Athlone).

Although the Republic of Ireland has a large amount of centralization in regards to curriculum, that is not the case with technology infrastructure.  It is my opinion that the country and the people of Ireland would benefit greatly from universal contracts like student information systems and network connectivity.  Both are currently left to the individual schools to negotiate.

Northern Ireland seems to have the opposite issues as the Republic.  For the most part, Northern Ireland had a well formed technology hub that manages most of the technology needs to the schools.  This work is all carried out by a group known as C2K.  In the North, they seem to be very conservative in their approaches to learning, still emphasizing the use of high stakes testing.  This has led many schools to utilize assessment data to modify instruction and more effectively tailor instruction to the learning needs of the students.

In both visits, each held a large amount of promise and direction for the future.  It will be exciting to follow Ireland’s development over the next couple years as they implement these significant changes.

The New and The Old

What an incredible experience – 6 full days of learning, 20 separate meetings with policymakers and ed tech leaders in Dublin and Belfast,  dialogues  with the Minister of Education in Ireland and the Minister in North Ireland, in depth discussion with a Member of Parliament and two inspiring school visits.   The difficult part will now be to distill all this learning into an informative and meaningful   report for our colleagues in the US.

I’ve had a few days to think about our experiences – and want to leave you with a final reflection that occurred on our last day in Dublin.   Cynthia Larsen and I had a few minutes of free time and we found ourselves entering the beautiful gates of Trinity College. Created by royal charter in 1592, the university is known for nurturing ground-breaking research, innovation, and creativity.

In the midst of the stone buildings and Victorian architecture we were surprised to see signs for a Maker Space taking place that evening.  We spent time chatting with the groups setting up their exhibits and learning about their vision and commitment to provide new learning opportunities… and we watched as families arrived to visit the exhibits.

Here we were standing on the campus of the oldest university in Ireland – and witnessing first hand 21st century new models of learning.   Seeing the Maker Space tent against the backdrop of Trinity College’s stone towers clearly symbolized that Ireland is forging new paths of innovation at the same time that it is honoring its tradition and history.

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Education Politics in Ireland

The blog postings by my friends and colleagues from the trip have captured the many positive experiences we had, meeting creative and dedicated education leaders; hearing about well-thought-out systematic plans for furthering digital learning in schools; learning about innovations in informal learning, such as at the Science Gallery at Trinity College and the widespread use of Coding Dojo Bootcamps; witnessing the commitment to listening to student voices, the synthesis of the arts and sciences, the attention to special needs and new immigrant students, the respect for teachers and the high status of the teaching profession, and so much more.

We also had the privilege of meeting with Member of Parliament Ciaren Cannon and Minister of Education Richard Bruton in the Republic of Ireland; and Member of the Assembly Pam Cameron and Minister of Education Peter Weir in Northern Ireland.  All great leaders committed to improving their national education systems and to the importance of preparing their students for the digital age.  All of which leads me to be optimistic that our Irish friends will make great progress in furthering digital learning and improving education for all their children in the coming years.

However, their political situation in both places is very complex when it comes to education.  In the Republic of Ireland, the Church plays a major role in education, especially at the primary level. The schools in Northern Ireland are segregated  — Catholic and Protestant students are educated separately.  In both, there are centralized plans, curriculum and funding — all the schools are state funded and all the teachers are state employees.  But there is very local control of what is taught and how, with very limited levers for policymakers to ensure widespread changes take place.  More importantly, the political situation in both is in flux, so that there is a lack of certainty about continuity of commitment and funding for digital learning.   Comparing Ireland to other places, such as Portugal, Finland or Singapore, is a reminder of the importance of sustainable commitments to well-defined plans to improve large-scale education systems.  Education improvement is hindered when educators need to tack to ever-changing political winds.  I hope our Irish friends are able to obtain the political support and the ongoing funding they need to continue to build upon what they have started and implement their plans successfully–that appears to be the major challenge they face, a challenge very familiar to those doing similar work here in the U.S.

Constructivist Experience

Aisling Murrary from the Science Gallery said that their goal is to have students who experience one of their exhibits say that “I left with more questions than answers.” After spending the past week learning not only about ICT in schools, but the history and culture of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, I have a lot more questions than answers. Therefore, it was a great experience and one that I wish many of my colleagues could have had.

On the plane ride home, which was extremely long, I started to organize these questions so I could dig deeper, but found myself thwarted by lack of Internet access. This made me reflect on how important it is that we provide good, reliable and robust Internet access to all of our students, so when they discover an area of interest, they can explore it and create new understandings. I started to think about how that network infrastructure has to happen, but without inquiry-based teaching and learning, the need isn’t there. For example, if I had gone to Ireland with a sightseeing tour group, I probably would have been fine with reviewing the photographs that I took and watching the in-flight movie. But, the CoSN Delegation was like being in the classroom we want for all of our students.

Takeaways

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Frank Walsh, Ciaran Cannon, Bernard Kirk (Passionate leaders of edcuational technology .)

The six day delegation was comprised of numerous introductions to both the Republic of Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s technology pathfinders and forward thinking educational organizations. Just as in school districts in the United States, there were noted variations in pedagogical approaches, supporting structures, resources and paces of progress towards discovering and implementing best educational technology practices. However I came away believing that all three countries are committed to support the transformation of education to align with the digital age, and that all three place the intellectual and emotional growth of all learners at the center of decision making.

Some of the innovate takeaways I noted during the delegation:

  • C2K (Provides a wide range of infrastructure and easy access to online resources to Northern Ireland schools that support and enhance the use of information and communication technologies for teaching and learning by working with with private and public sectors.)
  • Future Classroom’s Creative Learning Centres (Funded by the Dept. of Culture, Arts and Leisure, there are three CLSs in Northern Ireland that support teachers and parents to bring innovation and creativity into the schools.)
  • The new Junior Cycle / Post-Primary Education in the Republic of Ireland (Part of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the New Junior Cycle was created to meet the needs of the students and focuses on collaboration, creativity and choice. Poster of Junior Cycle Key Skills.)

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    Using Kahoot for Formative Assessment

  • Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrellstown just outside of Dublin, Republic of Ireland (The Principal’s choice not to have parents purchase textbooks but instead purchase an iPad for each child. Teachers design learning experiences that directly align with the Junior Cycle. Inside the school are interactive whiteboards in each classroom and an iPad in the hands of each student. An informal observation of a few classrooms revealed differentiated instruction, collaboration, and several examples of formative assessment using technology)
  • Trinity College’s Science Gallery in the Republic of Ireland. “….A new type of venue where today’s white-hot scientific issues are thrashed out and you can have your say. A place where ideas meet and opinions collide….
  • Learnovate Technology Centre in the Republic of Ireland, where research and industry come together in ways that support teaching and learning.

 

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Trinity College

On the last day we had 30 minutes of free time before the group met for dinner.  I chose to walk through the campus of Dublin’s oldest university, Trinity College. I was surprised to see on a Friday evening, a Maker Space tent in the middle of the quad. It was open to all who wished to wander through to learn and create. Once inside the tent I examined microscopic parasites and their thick outer coat that ensured their survival in a variety of  environments. Content to let others learn more I moved to an exhibit showcasing the BigFoot App created by researchers at the ADAPT Centre at Trinity. Apparently research reveals that we often perceive our digital footprint to be smaller than it’s actual size. The Bigfoot App was created to help you understand your online privacy needs by providing you with analytical data of actual usage. Using the data, you can make informed privacy setting decisions while using social media. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to begin tracking my own digital footprint. One more way to protect my online privacy, one more “coat” of protection in a digital environment.

As I left the campus families with young children were entering the quad, making their way towards the tents. I had no doubt that each child would spend the evening discovering and leaving with their own takeaways. 

 

Why Leadership Matters

We have learned so much during our visit to Dublin and Belfast. When it comes to moving education systems forward to meet the needs of all of today’s learners we share many of the challenges that our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland encounter. We saw many pockets of success in this critical arena as well. What we share with our Irish colleagues is the realization that we all still have much to do to assure that all our students experience learning in school that is relevant to the lives our students lead today and for where they are headed in their futures.

In order for this type of change to become a reality – regardless of the location – visionary leadership, followed by action, is key. One of the great privileges of this journey was the opportunity to meet with so many leaders who are passionate about transforming learning and teaching to meet the needs of today’s students. We come away with great hope for the education systems in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and admiration for the visionary leadership of so many in both parliaments and education ministries as well as organizations like Excited (http://excited.ie/) and C2K (http://www.c2kni.org.uk/). Special admiration and heartfelt thanks goes to the principals, teachers and students we met who are showing the world why this cause is so important. These are the people who meet this challenge every day and go forth with heroic determination and persistence.

 

Le Cheile Secondary School

It was wonderful to see students at Le Cheile Secondary School after spending the morning learning about the Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020 and the Junior Cycle. After all, they are the reason we do the work that we do.

We reached the school almost at the end of their school day and were greeted by Principal, Dr. Aine Moran. She quickly took us to visit a several classrooms before the students were dismissed. As we entered the classrooms, all students rose from the chairs to greet us. I was quite impressed with this, and their uniforms added to the effect. Most schools in Ireland have uniforms.

After spending the weekend in Dublin City Centre, and seeing a predominantly white and some Asian population, I was surprised to see the number of students of color. We were told that this school is in a rapidly growing area that is seeing many immigrants from Nigeria, Kenya, Iraq and Syria.

This is not your typical school in many aspects, but a couple of things stood out. The first was that it is a “School with No Books.” Dr. Moran believes that books, even e-Books, hold teachers back from truly transforming instruction. She recruited teachers who would design their own teaching resources and be nimble, creative and student-focused to respond to whatever their student’s learning needs were. Many of us do not have the opportunity to recruit 100% of our teaching staff, but seeing what the Le Cheile teachers were doing in their classrooms, drives home the point that if we move towards a constructivist pedagogical orientation, effective use of digital technology will happen. Without this change in orientation, we will be simply substituting what we have been able to do with paper and pencil.

The second thing is that it all starts with good Leadership. Dr. Moran is building this school (physically and academically). She is not just the administrator that is working around construction of a new building, but the Instructional Leader of the school.  She quoted our Keith Kreuger as saying “Educational software is only one tool in the learning process…not a replacement for well-trained teachers, leadership and parental involvement”. But we know that it takes the Principal to make the other 3 P’s (The People, The Policy and The Plant) to work effectively together.

The School with NO Books..

Our delegation continued on its second full day of meetings and visitations in Dublin, Ireland, culminating in a visit today to the St Patrick Natural School , a Catholic Primary School, and Le Cheile Secondary School (A School with No Books) yesterday following a “Setting the Stage” meeting  with the Minister of Education who shared  the vision for education in Ireland focused on educating the “whole child” rather than the rigor of high stakes testing.

“…Students must be at the center of the educational experience , enabling them to actively participate in their communities and society, and to be resourceful and confident learners in all aspects and stages of their lives.” 

This plan for students is wrapped around 8 Key Skills that establish the foundation for success for all students and teachers in the Teaching and Learning Process. Through processes that include continuous professional development (CPD), technology will ultimately be embedded in all curricular areas, and students will be able to access digital resources both during the school day as well as after school hours. It is believed that “books become crutches for teachers and stifle their creativity” according to the principal of Le Cheile Secondary School, ” and books are only one view of the syllabus”…therefore, all resources, to include Teacher or student created, will be readily available through the web, cloud,  and Learning Management Systems.

We observed engaged learners utilizing iPads, laptops, interactive white boards, and android tablets in classrooms facilitated by energized teachers who were grateful for such tools as Kahoot, Google Drive, Scratch, Skype, to name a few. Collaboration, creation, active learning, problem solving are the norm despite the over arching challenges of lack of infrastructure capacity, technical support to keep devices working, updated equipment, and ongoing funding support for sustained Professional Development.

It is always a great day when we have the privilege of seeing and listening to the sounds of “active learning” !!

STEM in Ireland: The Role of Science Foundation Ireland

Our visit to Science Foundation Ireland http://www.sfi.ie was only created fifteen years ago to be their national funding agency for scientific research and engaging the public around science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Yet it has quickly become a key partner in promoting the use of ICT in learning. Similar to the U.S.’s National Science Foundation, SFI plays a key role in supporting key pilot initiatives to encourage youth to be interested in STEM and especially STEM related careers.

According to Margie McCarthy, Head of Education and Public Engagement, Strategy and Communications, the Department for Education & Skills (the ministry of education) is the lead on STEM in school, but SFI works on ancillary strategies related to youth and the public, such as supporting student coding efforts, maker movement, Science Week and highlights career options in STEM initiatives.

The Smart Futures http://www.SmartFutures.ie or http://www.Steps.ie is a government-industry program that highlights STEM careers by bringing in role models. For example, the focus on science brings gamers, food science experts and medical device developers to speak at schools on their careers and what skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Similar efforts are done for careers in math, technology and engineering.

Likewise, SFI has invested in the ExcitED.ie initiative which does both initiatives throughout the year and an annual conference focused on sparking innovation with technology, especially focused on the maker movement and coding. I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2014 ExcitED conference and seeing the bubble up enthusiasm of students and teachers. We will be hearing more about that strategy later this week.

The take-away message, which is well known in the U.S., is that the research and informal science/research agencies, as well as industry are key partners in reaching students about the value of STEM to their readiness for college and career.

Inspired in Dublin

Prior to embarking on a full agenda of the CoSN delegation in Ireland, I had the opportunity to stroll through St. Stephen’s Green in the heart of Dublin. Immediately I was struck by the similarities of Stephen’s Green and the Boston Public Gardens, a place I occasionally visit with my husband in Massachusetts. Both boast of manicured walkways, lush greens, duck’s paddling in water ways and families enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon. Like the Public Gardens in Boston, Stephen’s Green was populated with reminders of heroes and events that helped to shape a country. I found myself stopping to admire a bust of Countess Markievicz in uniform. As I read about this commissioned officer of the Irish Citizen Army, and how she participated in the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916, I couldn’t imagine the opposition she must have faced and the hardship she endured as a soldier and a woman. I tucked the feeling of inspiration away and continued on my way. However, to my surprise the Countess would reappear in the most surprising way.

The following day our agenda brought us to the Dept. of Education and Skills where we were introduced to Ireland’s 2015-2020 Digital Strategy for Schools and had an informative meeting with Minister Richard Bruton. Next we went directly to Leinster House, home of the National Parliament. During this tour we were able take a peek into the impressive Dáil Chamber and on our way out we followed a long hallway which led to the top of a grand staircase. Halfway down the stairs, lit by a magnificent chandelier was a full length, larger than life portrait of a beautiful woman with soft eyes. Dressed in a long pale gown, and holding a delicate pose, the Countess Markievicz took me off guard. Such a contrast from the stern face carved into the bust in the park. Is this the same woman? The one that was forced to surrender to the oppositions and kissed her revolver before handing it over? What a remarkable human being. Once again I felt inspired, but this time unwilling to tuck the feeling away. Instead, I will take it back to Massachusetts.