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.