Learning on the internet gets a very Irish twist
Scoilnet is making a huge leap forward in our classrooms
Even the best teachers in the world are open to learning a different and, perhaps, better way of doing things. In fact, it probably helps to make a good teacher a great teacher.
Unlike a lawyer or nurse, or those in many other professions, teachers work alone in a classroom and do not have the opportunity to witness first hand how someone else does the job, for good or ill.
Is there a teacher out there who, when the opportunity arises, doesn't sneak a peek to see is there a more innovative or inspirational way of engaging pupils and enhancing learning for all?
Thanks to the online revolution, there is an endless supply of additional material available at the mere click of the button or the swipe of a screen. It is a boon in one way, but the problem can be finding what is relevant to the class in question.
Irish teachers show a great appetite to search out new material to bring to their classrooms. There is evidence that they are regular users of the UK-based Times Educational Supplement (TES) Resources website, which has a wealth of dedicated classroom materials. But how well do they sit with the needs of an Irish classroom. Is there anything there about the Famine or the Easter Rising, and, if so, do they meet the objectives of the curriculum?
Sites such as TES and the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, to which Irish schools have free access, are great examples of what's out there in terms of respected educational resources. But, what about the best of what's here?
For over a decade, Irish teachers have been using Scoilnet, a Department of Education and Skills-sponsored website, to access material that is relevant to Irish classrooms.
With the help of a handful of practising Irish teachers, Scoilnet finds and reviews useful web-links and users can search, by subject and strand, to find relevant websites that can be used to support teachers.
In official techie parlance, Scoilnet has been known as a "referatory", a website guiding users to resources located elsewhere online.
However, now, as well using Scoilnet to access material located elsewhere, Irish teachers can add resources that they have produced – or indeed, something that their pupils have created that they believe meets the necessary standard.
The idea is that those who know the curriculum best, share and contribute examples of good practice, a cross-fertilisation designed to benefit all in the wider education community.
Scoilnet is working on a further enhancement of its service and is liaising with government departments and public sector organisations that produce educational resources to ensure that all their materials are referenced or included within the site.
Scoilnet already has about 11,000 resources, including websites, quizzes, lesson plans, notes, video/audio, mapped to the Irish curriculum.
Not surprisingly, the website is very popular with teachers and in 2013, almost 1.7 million visits were recorded, with visits by primary teachers outnumbering post-primary teacher by about two to one.
Sean Gallagher, Deputy Director of the Professional Development Service for Teachers (PDST), is involved in providing opportunities for teachers to learn how to use Scoilnet. This summer, every PDST Technology in Education course will introduce teachers to the opportunities presented by the enhanced website.
Mr Gallagher said the "new" Scoilnet was a significant plus for teachers in Ireland who often found themselves having to work out the curricula of other jurisdictions such as the UK or US, as they searched online for materials.
"As with every country, teaching and learning in Irish classrooms revolves around our own unique cultural, historical, linguistic and geographical contexts.
"Resources produced by Irish teachers will have much more relevance to other Irish teachers."
He offers a simple but powerful example of how it could be used – a geography teacher living on the western seaboard uploading a video showing examples of coastal erosion for the benefit of those who don't enjoy such views every day.
The "new" Scoilnet is expected to be especially useful for teachers in Irish-medium schools, who have limited material available to them, and who now have a place to share content centrally.
With about 87,000 teachers registered with the Teaching Council, the sky is the limit.
School quick on the uptake . . . and to upload
They are a dab hand at breaking new ground in learning at Scoil Mhichil Naofa, Galmoy, Co Kilkenny – and that's only the pupils.
The small co-educational school was the first in Ireland to be awarded the status of Microsoft Innovation School and one of the first to be recognised as a Digital School of Distinction.
Now they have done it again – and are the first pupils to upload educational material that they produced themselves onto the Scoilnet website.
Now it's there for all other teachers and pupils to watch.
When principal Brian Boyle was teaching about 1916 to 13 fifth and sixth class pupils, he decided a good way to encourage them to take charge of their own learning was to invite each one to create a video presentation on a related topic – and they did it with gusto. Mr Boyle said he "didn't do it to publish them on Scoilnet, but when I saw the quality of the work that the children had done, I decided to share it".
Patrick Coffey of Scoilnet was similarly impressed: "It was completely unprompted and took me by surprise that it was uploaded so quickly with a really good description. It looks like a fantastic resource".
Rote learning is out of fashion but it has found a champion in the combative British historian, David Starkey.
In the Times Education Supplement, Starkey (right) says: "One of the prime purposes of education should be to discipline memory and teach you how to use it. To do this, students need to learn facts.
He believes that without rote learning the population will turn to stargazing mumbo jumbo and aliens from outer space.
"If you do not educate people to respect truth and argument through the discipline of memory and the teaching of facts, you leave the way open to the idiocies of astrology, UFOs and conspiracy theory."
We have been warned.