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In my opinion: It's time to re-imagine the ways we teach our children

By now, calls to bring second-level education in line with the needs of 21st century Ireland are old hat. Criticisms from industry, third-level and others have been gathering strength since the mid-2000s. Last week at the Smart Futures Seminar, major employers such as Google and Microsoft declared Irish education 'not fit for purpose'.

Most commentators agree that our second-level system needs a more relevant curriculum, a more learner-centred approach and greater emphasis on critical thinking and other 21st century skills.

We need all of this -- not in order to 'produce' young people with skills to serve the needs of industry -- but so that all young people develop the skills and confidence they need to live and learn in a rapidly changing, information-rich society.

Earlier this month, Educate Together, with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and the University of Limerick, held a conference entitled 'Re-imagining Learning'. There was a focus on curriculum integration, as this has emerged as a key means by which learning can be made more relevant at this crucial stage.

We heard from Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) that students start first year enthusiastically, but lose interest as they move up the school.

John Portelli, from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, spoke about the disconnect between the democratic values of modern states and the autocratic approach adopted in our school systems.

He argued that the crisis of student engagement that many countries now face is a result of a narrowly and undemocratically defined notion of 'success'.

Professor Portelli cautioned against national standardised testing, referring to the damage this has done in other countries, such as the UK and the US.

He also pointed out that curriculum reform will not succeed if assessment is not also changed, saying that two decades of attempts at curriculum reform in Canada have failed because assessment hasn't been meaningfully tackled.

The conference showcased projects here and abroad that are making learning real for young people; supporting their development as independent critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

At Exploris Middle School in North Carolina, US, for example, students learn through active research and community-based 'service', with subject content covered through the themes explored.

Karen Rectanus showed us how students not only develop as confident communicators and learners, but also excel in state-wide tests.

Teachers and teacher educators here shared examples of problem and challenge-based learning, and of using technology and other tools to tailor learning better to the needs of different individuals.

To open the conference, John Hammond from the NCCA presented the emerging Framework for Junior Cycle.

If implemented, schools would have greater freedom to develop aspects of their own curriculum, and assessment would support learning, rather than dictating to it.

Once the framework is finalised, it will be up to Minister Ruairi Quinn to decide if and how it is implemented. In the interest of students like those who joined us to 're-imagine learning', we will be hoping that the minister will be brave.

Emer nowlan is Head of Education and Network Development at Educate Together

Irish Independent