Education at the cutting edge of a new vision

Posted on April 04, 2015 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

[Text of address to be given at Irish National Teachers Organisation Annual Conference in Ennis, Co Clare, on 6 April 2015]

Easter week marks the time when many education related organisations hold their annual gathering. It is an occasion of discussion, meetings, announcements, statements, sometimes protests but very often renewed resolve. Those involved in education whether as parents, teachers, administrators, policy-makers, researchers or special needs assistants know the value of learning and teaching in an environment that is safe, positive and supportive for those learning. The truth is that we are all learners from the very beginning to the very end.  In any life individuals learn from others, from reflecting on their own experiences, from conversations, from listening and doing, from books, from the internet and from much else beside.  It is also the case that individuals learn ‘with others’ for ‘for others’. After all, that is why we have schools.

Structured, formal, organised learning is vital but only one part of the overall learning dynamic. Nowhere in OECD countries, before they reach the age of 18, do young people spend more than 20% of their waking time sitting in a formal classroom setting.  In some parts of the world, children arrive in primary school ready to learn to read and write but already able to speak two or more languages. A great advantage of being English speakers is that we have easy access to a world in which the English language and associated culture is dominant. It is the lingua franca of international trade and knowledge exchange in the early 21st century. Yet, this can be a disadvantage for a number of reasons: (1) we can arrogantly assume that others ought to, and can, speak ‘our language’ in order to conduct business – trade, academic exchange, tourism etc., (2) we don’t feel the same pressure to learn another language (what is the point? we might say…), and (3) as a result of being mono-lingual we lose something of the richness and diversity of experience that can never be translated fully or adequately by dictionaries or google translate or any other means.

Education is more than formal schooling. It happens throughout life. It means – as the root word indicates – to draw out (and not, in the first place, to fill up).  Drawing out what is best in each person is a life’s work. Adults can help children by setting role models as well as imparting useful skills, knowledge and know-how. The ancient saying has currency: Tell me and I forget; Show me and I remember; let me do and I understand. Some, like John Abbott of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, speak of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ and urge education systems ‘to go with the grain of the brain’. There is much in the area of cognitive sciences and even recent brain research to lead us to question traditional methods and approaches to teaching and school organisation.  The idea of a detached, rote-learning and hierarchical way of organising schools and formal education does not properly keep with the way in which people naturally learn. Thankfully much curricular progress has been made in recent decades to change the way education happens – especially at primary level. Primary schools are brighter, better and possibly happier places than was the case a few generations ago (and this is not to undermine the contribution and quality of teaching in generations past).  My sense is that much work is still needed at secondary level in most OECD countries to transform the way teenagers are ‘educated’ at this crucial transitional stage of life.  Emphasis on terminal examinations, testing and a predominantly academic approach to teaching and learning may be unhelpful.

But ‘apprenticeship training’ type education is not a panacea. Whether construed as a formal dual-training system common among German-speaking countries or in what is termed ‘vocational education’ in many parts of the world, such approaches while very useful and beneficial to labour markets and individuals, may be too restrictive and inflexible especially in a world where skill needs and possibilities are rapidly changing.

The child entering Junior Infants in anational school this Autumn has at least 12-14 years of schooling ahead of them followed, most likely, by some form of further, higher or continuing education. Some people never stop being ‘students’ as they pursue courses and degrees of one sort or another all their lives. (I recently met a 90 year old retired teacher with an interest in teaching adults who registered as an undergraduate university student to brush up her skills!).  The key to learning is doing and active engagement of the learner in a supportive community. This is what I call ‘inside out’ education.

We are familiar with the phrase ‘Tús maith sin leath na hoibre’ – a good start is half the work. Yet, in most OECD countries governments invest relatively more in higher education levels than in primary or pre-primary. Now, there is a need to defend and advance investment in higher education and continuing education and learning throughout life. However, if we get the fundamentals right at the very earliest stages then it should be possible for young people to become better at learning in their teens and early adult years. In other words, societies should not spare on investment in the early years because, potentially, there is a large social and economic dividend that allows for a more efficient and balanced provision for education throughout the lifecycle. This is what I call ‘downside up’ education.

What will Ireland, Europe, the world look like in 2035 or even 2085 for a child in Junior Infants this Autumn? One thing is sure – going by our experience since the time we might have been in Junior Infants ourselves – it will be a very different world to the one we recognise today. Hopefully it will be a safer, cleaner, fairer, happier and more prosperous one. Economists are good for measuring some aspects of human economic activity. These relate to those activities that involve paid work and sale of goods including one’s labour. We are less good at measuring human progress and well-being to which GDP may contribute but not necessarily.  The coming generations will not thank this generation if we fail to provide a home and school environment that is worthy of 21st century Ireland and one in which the centenary of the first Dáil will be marked by an undertaking that

    It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their    proper education and training as Citizens

Now, how many teachers can say that this goal has been achieved in 2015? Matters are a lot better – economically, socially and otherwise – than they were in 1965 or 1919. However, the democratic revolution and programme promised, and believed in, 100 years ago was never born or delivered. And I am not talking about lines on a map or flags over a building. I am talking about the fundamental human rights of children, women and men – catholic, protestant or other, gay, straight, new Irish, old Irish, British or other on this sometimes troubled but always beautiful island of ours. I am talking about rights to equality of treatment and opportunity, to health, to education, to homes, to decent employment.

As teachers to over half a million children in primary schools here in the Republic of Ireland and to over 175,000 children in Northern Ireland you know as well as anyone how social inequality, poverty and exclusion impacts on the learning experience of children. You also know what a difference properly funded and well supported schools, teachers and other professionals can make to helping children make the best of their abilities. 

The damaging and unnecessary scale and composition of cuts to public services in both jurisdictions (which served to prolong the fiscal crisis and undermine investment for the future) have taken their toll. No senior bondholder was left behind but many children were. However, the effects of austerity can be reversed and the lessons learned if we chose to. There is an opportunity, now, to reshape public debate and policy in both parts of the island.

  • We need an honest conversation about what sort of education for what sort of society is required.
  • We need an honest conversation about what sort of public service is needed for 21st century Ireland adequately funded and efficiently run and accountable to citizens.
  • We need an honest conversation about what sort of economic strategy is required to deliver quality employment and services in the coming decades. 

Teachers are in the front line on a daily basis with the coming generations. Your professionalism and care can leave a lasting impact on the future parents, craft workers, scientists, carers, service workers, trade union leaders, civic leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians and yes – even economists ! In Ireland – north and south – we have a proud tradition to valuing teachers and teaching. However, the salaries paid to teachers are only part of the story about living standards. There are crucial differences in what I call the ‘social wage’. How many delegates present here from Northern Ireland, for example, have private health insurance? And how many delegates from the Republic of Ireland have private health insurance? There is no evidence from comparative statistics of the OECD that teachers in Ireland are overpaid compared to other higher education graduates in this country.

And that is the way it should be if we value teaching and wish to retain and enhance its attractiveness and role in the community as a magnet for entrants to training.

By way of a brief technical diversion, I refer you to indicator D3 on page 456 of Education at a Glance Indicators (a very long ‘glance’ in over 570 pages each year!). Irish teachers were paid less well than higher education graduates in Ireland in 2012 according to the OECD data Although the comparison is for teachers at what OECD calls ‘lower secondary level’ the comparison holds true at primary level as well given the common pay scale in operation at first and second levels. Moreover, the ratio of salaries of Irish teachers to higher education graduates in Ireland is significantly lower than is the case on average across OECD.

It is clear that the fiscal, employment and debt crisis of 2008-2013 is not entirely over and continuing restraints and difficulties will arise in addressing the burden of public and private debt. However, I suggest three fundamental and non-negotiable principles:

-          No further cuts to public services and goods including health and education (that might seem obvious but it is well known that the European Commission, among others, want ‘further fiscal consolidation’ within the fiscal rules of the EU).

-          Protection of living standards of households and the beginning of a gradual process of reversal of wage cuts in the past with priority - I suggest -  for the young, the vulnerable, the precarious and those working but still in poverty.

-          Protection of children from the ravages of the tax-cutting mania.

Let me be abundantly clear about this. How can we as keepers of the democratic revolution tolerate a situation where 3,000 children, here in the south, are waiting more than a year for urgent speech and language therapy when there is talk of cutting income tax? This is immoral, economically irrational and fiscally irresponsible.

Go n-eireodh libh ag an gcomhdháil seo fís nua a phlé agus a scaipeadh ionas gur féidir focail an fhile siúd Liam Mac Uistin (iar bhall den Roinn) a chur I gcíoch sa dán álainn sin ‘Aisling’.

In the words of Liam MacUistin:

    The vision became a reality.  Winter became summer. Bondage became freedom and this we left to you as your inheritance.  O generations of freedom remember us, the generations of the vision

But, I think it sounds even better still in the language in which Liam MacUistin wrote the poem:

   Rinneadh fírinne den aisling.  Rinneadh samhradh den gheimhreadh. Rinneadh saoirse den daoirse agus d'fhágamar agaibhse mar oidhreacht í.  A ghlúnta na saoirse cuimhnígí orainne, glúnta na haislinge.


Digital Revolutionaries