I was a panellist in a session on “Education – Reform and Innovation Required?” this afternoon at the MacGill summer school. Joining me on the panel were Finbarr Bradley, UCD, NIUM and DCU; Hugh Brady, UCD President; Mary Coughlan TD and Tanaiste; and Martin Murphy, CEO Hewlett Packard Ireland. Don Thornhill, former Sec. Gen of the Dept. of Education chaired the session.
My talk is given below:
“When a multitude of young men … come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting …”
John Henry Newman, in his essay “The Idea of a University” believed that discourse and debate with ones peers were a considerably stronger foundation for a University than a teacher-ful campus giving its degrees to anyone who just happened to pass its examinations. Newman of course became the rector of the Catholic University of Ireland in 1854, which in turn evolved into University College Dublin. One must wonder what his reactions would be to the operation of our current educational system, with its propensity to learning by rote, deep immersion in narrow topics, and intensely competitive solo performances.
Group work, assistance to ones peers, and team performance are explicitly encouraged in just one location throughout the Irish educational system: on the sports field. In almost every other situation, rather than group discourse and team building, individual attainment is instead specifically nurtured, measured and rewarded. Group relations, the emergence and cultivation of leadership, and the importance of mentoring and coaching are all usually set aside for the treadmill of solo academic achievement. However, group working, leadership and team behaviour are invariably the foundations of any successful human venture, and are the critical skills for most careers after school and university.
Why should it be that our education system is so focussed on the individual and hardly ever the team ? Perhaps one reason is the structure of the educational system itself. In many of our schools, colleges and universities most of the staff operate as individuals: certainly this has been my own experience as a one-time academic, as a chair of a training institution and now as schools advisor. The coherence and optimal performance of the teaching staff are usually the unique concern of the headmaster or president, and seem rarely foremost amongst the quotidian occupations of their employees. How does an educationalist raise the shared performance of the team?
It is very striking to observe that on the one hand, if a full-time university academic creates a commercially viable invention, then their employer – the university – claims rights over the intellectual property concerned. This may be justifiable: after all, the university (and in the current Irish system, the State and the taxpayer) pays the full salary of the academic, and hence in principle all of their work is owned by their employer. But on the other hand, if the full-time lecturer creates a set of speaking notes, tutorials, and laboratory exercises for a specific academic course, then the employer almost always does not claim any ownership over this intellectual property!
In general, teachers tend to jealously guard their own teaching materials. Colleagues are not always aware precisely what is being taught by their peers. But above all, great course materials are rarely freely shared with less experienced teachers of the very same topic, whether they be in the same institution or another elsewhere, even when the State and the taxpayer are paying for all concerned. By contrast, in good enterprise, the best experiences and processes are shared so that the performance of the entire company can be improved. What does it take for teachers nationwide to share best practice with each other and so raise our education standards ?
Newman observed that interchange and discourse catalyse learning: if teacher-less, students will share their own experiences and learnings directly with each other. Newman said “The essence of teaching is the interchange between a group of youths. Mutual education, in a large sense of the word, is one of the great and incessant occupations of human society, carried on partly with set purpose, and partly not.” Can a group of teachers mutually educate themselves ?
A melting pot of individuals with different experiences, backgrounds and interests have many insights to share. I delight in the collision of science and art, that ideas can meet and that opinions collide: discourse leads to discovery. Rationalists translate the unfamiliar into familiar concepts. In contrast, artists transpose daily familiarities into unfamiliar parallels. Mathematicians spot patterns so as to understand. Engineers apply patterns so as to create. Leaders naturally emerge to provide direction. Mentors naturally emerge to help others understand. Best practice, learnings from failure, and community commitment are all cultivated.
Let me give you a mind exercise. Imagine a community in which anyone is free to join and leave at any time. Consider that this community has a common objective and goal. Consider that this community has recorded its past experiences, both failures and successes, so that newcomers can quickly understand and appreciate what has happened in the past. Consider that this community has not formally elected any leader, but that certain individuals views and actions are generally perceived as having value and wisdom. Will such a community succeed, learn, educate its membership, and raise its standards of achievement ? Is such a community a model for raising the standard of teaching in Ireland ?
My answers are unequivocably yes, for as an active participant in the internet I experience and am a member of such communities every day, and have been so for at least two decades. Great works have been created and curated on the internet using the social commitment of global communities of strangers, having widely different experiences, nationalities and ages; in almost all time zones and geographies; and with the best minds and masters. Paradoxically, the internet – which spans the plant – is a centre. To quote Newman again “You cannot have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it. There you have all the choicest productions of nature and art all together, which you find each in its own separate place elsewhere. All the riches of the land, and of the earth, are carried up thither; there are the best markets, and there the best workmen. It is the centre of trade, the supreme court of fashion, the umpire of rival talents, and the standard of things rare and precious. It is the place for seeing galleries of first-rate pictures, and for hearing wonderful voices and performers of transcendent skill. It is the place for great preachers, great orators, great nobles, great statesmen. In the nature of things, greatness and unity go together; excellence implies a centre.”
The ethos of the internet is sharing. Newman noted that “you cannot learn to converse till you have the world to converse with”. In the early days of the internet, you could connect your computer for free to the mesh of computers already in the network, but only if you were then prepared to let others – even strangers – use your computer to in turn connect theirs into the mesh. Internet browsing and linking documents via click-able (hyper-)links came from a group of physicists devising their own way to better share their scientific results, who then shared their new way of working with other disciplines. Social networking and community based sharing are changing human psychology, enabling us to categorise, catalogue, track and participate in much wider, and numerous, endeavours than ever before computers emerged to serve us.
A decade ago in the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, many of us worried about the ‘digital divide’: the privileged had access to the internet, and those of limited means did not. Over the last decade there is considerably greater affordable access to the internet. Now I worry about the digital divide of the generations. Most of us know how to book an airline seat online. Most of us know how to send an email, or access our bank account. But how many of us know how to share our work with online community based endeavours, how to upload to Youtube a video of our work, or to make a podcast of an interesting discussion ? Meanwhile, for the younger generation the internet is an intrinsic part of the real world as much as the telephone, the radio or even the weather. Fergus O’Dowd, Fine Gael education spokesman, tells us that only 2% of our schools have access to broadband: but my observation is that regardless, almost all of our youth already have access to broadband and the internet is now inherent to their lifestyle and learning experiences.
The internet continues to transform human civilisation and social structures. It enables experiences to be shared, the best ideas to explained and adopted, the best course materials and teaching performances to be viewed and absorbed. It is not waiting for the Department of Education and Skills, nor the Higher Education Authority, nor our teachers’ unions, nor the board of any university or school to devise grand and great strategies: instead, it is happening around us, each and every day. Individual teachers and students in Ireland are already contributing to the ground swell: people such as Tomas MacEoghain who is building a community around his free internet videos of the Junior Certificate mathematics course, in both English and as Gaelige. World class teaching materials and courses are already freely available via the internet: will it take long for versions of these suitable for all the Irish curriculae to emerge from such pioneers ?
This panel session asks whether reform and innovation is needed in Irish education ? I assert that such reform and innovation are happening in any case, whether or not our national “system” chooses to embrace them. Almost all our young and some of our teachers on the ground are using the internet to share and to learn. For our educational system, the digital divide is now between those who have discovered higher standards of education, learning, understanding and discourse; and those whose role may soon be relegated to becoming youth-sitters whilst youth learn elsewhere. Like King Canute, we can command the internet to stop wetting our toes, or we can learn to swim.