Educating for the Digital Age

David Putnam, former film producer, turned politician and now chairman of FutureLab was in Dublin today talking about Ireland’s education needs to succeed in the Digital Age. His entire speech is available on the IIEA website, but the following is worthwhile reproducing in print (highlights are mine):

As I’ve already said more than once, we in the developed world find ourselves in an environment literally saturated with moving and interactive images.

They’re the dominant means by which we increasingly learn about, understand, and hopefully begin to make sense of the world.

In this new learning environment, mass participation in creating, sharing and reusing images has taken hold on a quite extraordinary scale.

Our task is surely to harness these opportunities in addressing the many longer-term challenges we as a global and Digital Society now face.

And with these ‘long-term’ objectives in mind, allow me finish with a bit of ‘tough love’, by re-stating what I see as the crucial the lessons we, living here in Ireland, ought to have absorbed during these past thirty years in considering what makes for a successful society, in an ever-more difficult  world.

Firstly, like it or not, getting education right is the whole ball of wax.

Secondly, and at risk of repeating myself, no education system can be better than the teachers it employs, and the standards it demands of them.

Thirdly, teacher training in a digital age has to be viewed as an entirely non-negotiable and continuing process.

The commitment of Governments and individual head teachers to the best possible quality of teacher training, along with regular, preferably annual, time out for professional development, must be absolute.

Fourthly, there needs to be an undisputed global acceptance of the importance of the education of women.

Educated women are the fulcrum around which can be built educated and healthy families – and those families will invariably be smaller, and better cared for.

There is no magic in any of this.

Fifth: this country enjoyed an early and inspired start due to the courage and foresight of Donogh O’Malley who, in the mid-sixties, when it was thoroughly unfashionable, laid the foundations for a strong public focus on education.

His tragic early death was another in Ireland’s history of all too often losing the best of its leaders before they’re able to complete the goals they’ve set themselves.

But it was largely thanks to his imagination that this country was able to take an early lead in encouraging its young people to embrace what was at the time not just new, but largely untried technology.

The gamble paid off, and a well educated returning diaspora had a lot to do with promoting twenty years of unparalleled growth.

But I’d argue that those early successes were insufficiently built upon; to the point at which public expenditure on education, as a percentage of GDP – was allowed to drift downwards – at the very moment it should have been going up – exponentially!

A minimum of seven percent of total GDP is the figure the Government should set and hold to – all other areas of Public Expenditure, including health, must be allocated by the Cabinet in such a way as to make that figure as quickly achievable as possible.

A world class education system will, over time, deliver a world class health service – the reverse can never be possible.

Sixth, and last – although I could go on – young people learn and teachers teach best in environments that they respect, and which accord with what they see and admire in the best of what they see around them.

The physical infrastructure of many of the primary and secondary schools in Ireland should be a cause for national shame.

And when I speak of infrastructure I most specifically include every aspect of connectivity, and its complementary hardware and software.

Choices were made to spend billions  of euros  on buildings in the private and public sector that now lie either empty, under used or simply not needed.

It’s my personal view that had some fraction of that sum been committed to refurbishing the quality of the schools and classrooms in this country the nation would be far better placed to dig itself out of the hole that all that accumulated debt and waste has helped create.

The good news is that there are really excellent people in this country who understand that education at every level is both the cause and the consequence of any possibility of national renewal.

For too long Ireland relied on the good offices of the Church and the largesse of Europe to address and solve many of these problems.

I came here this morning to argue that, for good or ill, those days are over, and it’s now down to a simple test of national will to invest in the future; to rediscover those things for which this country has rightly been celebrated.

Learning, Culture, and a unique sense of community and place that the world has in the past, and please God will once again, come to admire – and possibly even envy.