Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Irish Education needs to go High Tech

Well, he came, he talked and talked and now he's left us to ponder his message. 

Craig Barrett, former Chairman of Intel was in Ireland recently to talk to the Royal Irish Academy and various other media outlets about Ireland's economy and how he sees education as one of the key solutions to other current woes.

Speaking to a crowd of around 600 people in Dublin's Mansion House, Barrett proclaimed that for Ireland, the era of foreign direct investment is over and that our economic recovery will come from indigenous growth and a real investment in new ideas at home. Barrett singled out our universities for particular mention saying that they need to act a launchpads for high-tech start up businesses.

Encouraging Irish universities to look to the Berkley, Stanford and MIT models for business start ups, Barrett pondered, "Ireland needs to ask itself how hard is it to start a company? How entrepreneurial is your economy?"

Since retiring from Intel in 2009, the former Stanford engineering professor has been championing the cause of education as a course out of current global economic strife. Barrett is also head of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, a Silicon Valley-based Ireland support organisation made up of Irish and Irish-American business executives. The organisation's aim is to assist Ireland's technology sector expand into he US.
Speaking to Forbes magazine in 2008 Barrett summarised his feelings on education and in particular his views on the role played by technology in education.
"I'm convinced that the expansion of information and communication technology (ICT) can transform education. ICT has the power to trigger a shift from knowledge acquisition, which limits learning to rote memorization and parroting back facts, to knowledge creation, which involves 'learning how to learn'. The latter cultivates skills that are vital for today's knowledge economy, including critical thinking, collaboration, analysis, problem solving, communication and innovation".
In the same article Barrett mused, "By promoting technology innovation--whether through science competitions, higher education research labs or public-private partnerships that meet local needs--we can have a far-reaching and sustainable impact on the future while addressing the thirst for knowledge that fuels innovation around the globe".

Craig Barrett's contribution comes at an interesting time for an Irish education system bedeviled with problems due to funding cutbacks, the moratorium on employment in the public service and the not unrelated prospect of increased industrial action. 

Inevitably when we talk about science education in Ireland, the topic of maths at second level rears its ugly head. This is probably due to the high levels of students who take maths at Leaving Cert level (51,905 students in 2009). 

Una Halligan, Chairperson of the government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs is right when she says that there is no one solution to decreasing failure rates and increasing take up of honours maths at Leaving Cert level. Speaking at a recent conference on maths education at Trinity College, Dublin she emphasised the need for  improved professional development for teachers; the development of more interactive, imaginative approaches to teaching maths and the use of  incentives for higher level maths, with bonus points at CAO time.

Although Una Halligan was responding to difficulties in the education of maths, the same problems are seen across the sciences and similar solutions are required. For example, the teaching of biology by teachers who have degrees in physics or chemistry can lead to poor results.

In his speech to the Royal Irish Academy (reported by Digital21), Craig Barrett outlined a ten-point plan for economic revival, a few of which have implications for science education and our universities in particular:

Basic education - “You need to state your goal to be the No 1 in the PISA rankings for maths.” 

Teachers – “Every education system is only as good as its teachers. (Some) 35pc of Irish teachers don’t have maths competency. Teaching is one of the last professions to pay on the basis of performance. You need to look at paying teachers on the basis of their performance.” 

21st-century teaching skills – “You teach by rote and don’t take advantage of interdisciplinary skills, like critical thinking. Also, many countries are now in a position to adopt one-to-one computer-based training.”

More maths and science majors at third level – “The CAO is flawed. Your future relies on a critical mass of maths and science skills. Fix it.”

Universities – “They need to become wealth generators, make them look like Stanford.”

Infrastructure – “In terms of broadband and technology in schools, Ireland is only average. You need to be excellent.”

Hopefully everyone involved in Irish education will consider these points because whatever your opinion on Craig Barrett, I think we can all agree that a good education system is the way out of this economic mess we're in.


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