Sunday 18 February 2018

Using technology in education to challenge Trump-think

In my opinion by John Fitzsimons

John Fitzsimons
John Fitzsimons

Last week, my nephew, who is studying for the Leaving Certificate, broke out in a rash. A flurry of tests and even an x-ray resulted in no conclusive diagnosis. Having recently completed his 'mocks', shortly to complete his French and Irish orals, plus a sister who two years ago acquired sufficient points for medicine in Trinity College, my diagnosis was Leaving Certificate-related stress.

I truly felt for him; how can we put a healthy, fit, normally fully functioning 18-year-old through a system that brings him to the point of his body capitulating? Furthermore, all of this for a qualification that is continually and widely criticised as not fit for purpose and that largely serves only one purpose; to transition on to third level education.

Over many years now, there has been a tension emerging in education systems globally; grades versus skills and competencies. While substantial progress has been made to a move away from the traditional heavy focus on grades, the optimal balance has yet to be struck.

The need for the basics of literacy and numeracy is not to be questioned, however, over and above that are the skills and competencies that need to be attained. There is a constant call from prospective employers and many education leaders for skills such as 'leadership', 'digital literacy' and 'problem solving'.

Yes, these are important as we know employment is probably the most critical social driver. However, the skills are important not just for improving employment prospects; their application has far wider consequences.

What makes this debate even more interesting is the emergence of a right-wing populism which has been amplified by Brexit and accelerated by Trump.

Recent referenda and elections have highlighted the weakness of a grade-based education where 'facts' are largely consumed unchallenged.

If a skills-based education had been the norm in these countries, a 21st century skill of critical thinking may have emerged - one that could have significantly altered the outcomes of those elections. We would not live in a 'post-truth' era.

While 'post-truth' is a recent phenomena in Western countries, it been playing out for many decades in countries where poor quality or non-existent education has resulted in corrupt, incompetent leaders and governments continually being elected.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie's 2009 TED talk on "the danger of a single story" wonderfully articulates the importance of hearing diverse opinions and all sides of the story that comes with critical thinking. A modern skills-based education can radically shape our future.

Technology is playing a huge role in enabling the post-truth environment. 'Alternative facts' are being disseminated without validation, unlike the previous era where facts were delivered via structured media. In turn, fact-based opinions are easily labelled as 'fake' or are lost in the ensuing noise.

However, technology also plays a critical role in enabling the acquisition of skills such a critical thinking. It is near impossible to teach this skill using old-school educational resources such as textbooks, where everything is certainly checked and double-checked for authenticity.

Therein lies the importance of correctly integrating technology into education; not only can it support the foundation of education such as literacy and numeracy, it is essential to the attainment of different skills that are so critical today.

With this in place we will have conversations that go beyond national, ethnic, religious boundaries. With this multitude of global and local perspectives and ensuing creative ideas, the outcomes no doubt will be richer.

After a break, my nephew is back to full health. I have challenged him to critically assess the cause of his recent medical issue and, based on the findings of his assessment, to alter his outlook, and plan for the coming months.

Perhaps as an unintended consequence of operating in an antiquated education system, he may learn first-hand one of the many critical skills he needs: not just to be an educated student but an effective citizen.

John Fitzsimons is CEO of Camara Education, which works with more than 5,000 educational institutions, in Ireland and Africa, to support them in the integration of technology to deliver better educational outcomes; better grades and 21st century skills for over two million students to date

Irish Independent

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