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.

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Ireland’s Transition to Digital-Age Teaching and Learning

The visit with the CoSN delegation is off to a great start.  We spent time with national education leaders at dinner on Sunday and for the morning on Monday, learning about their vision and plan for bringing the country’s education system into the digital age, and then we spent Monday afternoon at a very innovative school that I’m sure is at the forefront of implementing the national vision for its students.

Minister of Education Richard Burton and Member of Parliament Ciaran Cannon set the stage, discussing their Digital Strategy for Schools, 2015-2020: Enhancing Teaching, Learning and Assessment plan, which sets the vision, and the just released (Sept 15, 2016) Action Plan for Education, 2016-2019, which provides specific objections and actions for the next three years.  We also met with the leaders of the “ExcitEd Movement,” Frank Walsh, Bernard Kirk, Gerald McHugh and Linda Cardiff, who are deeply dedicated and creative in addressing their mission, which includes:

  • Connecting: We are building a national network of groups and individuals with a common vision for education and a desire to be powerful advocates for change.
  • Championing: We seek out trailblazing teachers and students across Ireland and encourage others to be inspired by their work and follow in their footsteps.
  • Creating: We are collaborating with education and industry leaders to create a world-class digital learning ecosystem where innovation is nurtured and facilitated.

ExcitEd is clearly playing an important role in fostering changes, providing professional development, informing policymakers, and building learning communities among educators.

Next, we heard from Fred Boss and Ben Murray from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), which is responsible for developing the national curriculum standards, curriculum resources, and student assessments.  Their current focus is on revising the “Junior Cycle” curriculum — junior cycle is equivalent to our middle school grades.  They have developed a framework that applies to all areas of the curriculum, and are working through a multi-year plan that includes everything from “maths” (which is plural here) to visual arts to home economics.  One innovation is that they are introducing a series of short courses to provide flexibility to the schools and offer more choice for students.  They are very involved in portfolio approaches to assessment, introducing computational thinking and coding into the schools, fostering collaborative learning, and the overall integration of personalize learning supported by technology.

Their goals and challenges certainly are very similar to our work in North Carolina and that in many other U.S. states.  Ireland is the size of many U.S. states, with about 900,000 students in its K-12 schools.  It is more centrally managed that our systems, with one national set of standards, curriculum and assessments; national funding for all schools; and one contract for all teachers, negotiated with national unions (one for primary school and one for secondary school teachers, I believe).  Teaching is a highly regarded profession and many teachers stay at the same school for their entire careers–they don’t have the teacher recruitment and retention issues we have, although they do have concerns about the content knowledge level of many STEM teachers.  While the population is predominantly white, Catholic and English speaking (with all students also learning Irish), in some areas they have many new immigrants; from Somalia and Kenya in the recent past; currently from Syria and Iraq; along with many other countries.  So while there are differences between the education situation in Ireland and in the U.S., there are certainly many similarities that enable us to learn from each other.  They are also, for example, they are also moving away from an approach that was overly focused on and limited by standardized testing.

A final note — I’ll add a later blog about the school visit — the people are delightful, open and eager to share ideas, break bread together (along with beer and whisky of course), discuss their history and culture, and demonstrate the Irish skills of storytelling and great humor.