Monday 22 January 2018

Monday Interview: 'Trump has made the job of schools a lot tougher'

New dean of education at DCU institute says teachers have to work harder in an era of 'fake news', writes Katherine Donnelly

Dr Anne Looney. Photo: Mark Condren
Dr Anne Looney. Photo: Mark Condren
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The job of schools has got tougher in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, according to a leading educationalist.

Dr Anne Looney, the newly appointed Dean of Education at Dublin City University's (DCU) Institute of Education, said teachers are facing increasing challenges.

"We are now back to the fundamentals of what do you teach children when the very people who are supposed to be responsible for providing you with information - political leaders - are actually manipulating science, evidence, facts, truth", she said. "It really makes education a challenging place to work. There is a whole new set of responsibilities for teachers.

"It is not simply 'there's a crisis, we must do something about it in schools', it is the whole business of how you raise children and to what you raise them to believe and understand about what truth is, how to be citizens."

Dr Looney recently started in her role as the first dean of the DCU Institute of Education, which represents a ground-breaking collaboration between the university's school of education, Mater Dei Institute of Education, and two primary teacher training colleges, St Patrick's, Drumcondra, and the Church of Ireland College of Education.

It is the first faculty of education in an Irish university and, with about 4,300 students, it is one of the largest in Europe, training educators for all levels in the education system, from early childhood up.

The new dean is no ivory tower academic: a former teacher of religion and English, she was chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) for 15 years and stood in as chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) last year. She told the Irish Independent that when the journey to create the DCU Institute started about five years ago, no one could have envisaged how the world would have changed by the time it was established.

Dr Looney said it is challenged to produce teachers who are not only competent, but who can ask really hard questions and who can help students to ask really hard questions. It is, she added, the benefit of locating teacher education in universities, which have a particular role in supporting democratic practices, where teacher education sits beside learning and research in other areas such as computing, government and communications.

She said there has been a big shift in how we interact with information and knowledge giving rise to new challenges because "how we access information is changing and the channels may not be as trustworthy as the ones we used to have".

"That is a significant issue for schools because schooling is at that nexus between information knowledge, truth, what to believe. It means schools are more important than ever because it is the place where you find meaning and learn how to ask hard questions," she said.

Dr Looney said teachers have to become "real influencers" to help their pupils understand and counter the culture they meet in the online world.

Among the challenges is teaching children who are living in the world of the 'selfie', the limitations of online culture and the distancing it creates between normal relationships people would have with their feelings.

She said while engagement with digital media offers great opportunity, another side of it is "how excited you are about something, or how happy you are about something, is mediated by the number of people who tell you they 'like' it or give the 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down'".

"There isn't an adult or parent, or teacher, young person who hasn't seen the downside of that, which is when you don't get a 'thumbs up' or people don't 'like' you. If you want young people to leave school well rounded and well balanced, we are going to have to teach them to navigate that new space," she said.

The DCU Institute is home of the National Anti-Bullying Centre, where much of the focus is on cyberbullying and the educational response to it.

Dr Looney said young people are operating in an online world, "where they search for something on Google or buy something online or look at something on Facebook, with algorithms working in the background to make sure what is coming into their device matches their mindset.

"You don't get the alternative views - teaching people how to get the alternative views, these are additional challenges for education systems that weren't there five years ago," she said.

According to Dr Looney, the outcome and the breakdown of the polls in the recent US presidential election and the Brexit referendum show how much education matters. "It affects people's choices, it affects how you feel connected and to whom you feel connected," she said.

She said the same debate about the responsibility of education systems is going on throughout the developed world because of the trend in society "to pull to extreme and to break off to extreme left and right, you can see that in Ireland; the more fragmentation, the more important it is for schools to generate the kind of cohesion and glue that allows people to live in communities".

Dr Looney described the roll-out of early childhood education as a very significant policy change, and points to necessary work now under way to reorganise the structure of the overloaded primary curriculum to deliver a better learning experience to young children.

At second-level, she said, the critical thinking skills being developed in teenagers through the new junior cycle curriculum is an example of exactly what young people need.

In a veiled reference to the refusal by ASTI members to co-operate with the reforms, she said it is "a real pity that there are teachers who are not being given the opportunity to participate and really unfortunate that there are groups of students missing out on the benefits".

"I am surprised that students themselves and parents have not made more noise about it" she said.

Irish Independent

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