Ten-time Academy Award-winner Lord David Puttnam, who has 26 BAFTAs and a Palm D’Or to his name, made a subtle but true point yesterday while visiting the Bridge 21 project at Trinity College. We should remember teachers are the executives charged with developing our nation’s future wealth and should be valued and rewarded as such.
Puttnam was present yesterday at Bridge 21, a schools transformation joint venture between Trinity College Dublin and students from secondary Suas Educational Development.
The idea is to inspire teamwork with the creative use of technology and build an innovative educational model for 21st-century learning. Since the programme was born in 2007, more than 4,500 students from 30 schools have taken part in the project which inspires confidence, creativity, individuality and a desire for learning.
Addressing an audience of teachers, secondary students, policy makers and entrepreneurs Puttnam recalled his experiences while working with the UK Department of Education and said he was shocked when he saw the conditions most teachers in UK schools had to work in and how they were "slumming it" in barely adequate staff rooms.
He said teachers are the executives who are responsible for guiding a nation’s key economic engine and ought to be regarded as such. It’s a poignant thought when you think of highly qualified teachers in Ireland working out of prefab buildings.
Puttnam, who is on the board of education technology firm Promethean, as well as producing movies like The Mission, Memphis Belle and Chariots of Fire, founded the National Teaching Awards in the UK, chaired NESTA and is chancellor of the Open University.
Puttnam urged Ireland to consider an awards scheme like the National Teaching Awards to publicly acknowledge good teaching practices and achievements.
His comments reminded me of something former Intel CEO and chairman Craig Barrett said about the importance of good teachers. "I have always contended that if you had your choice of just one piece of technology to put in the classroom – just one – it’s a pretty simple choice and the answer is a good teacher," Barrett said recently.
Like Barrett, Puttnam pointed to education ecosystems like Finland and Korea, which are considered the finest in the world. He said that Finland, unlike Ireland, is not obsessed with assessment and state exams. There are no state exams and 25pc of Finland’s top university graduates make teaching their career choice. "Now that’s how you change a culture," he said.
The school system has barely changed in 100 years
Puttnam said that if you took a brilliant surgeon from 1912 he wouldn’t be able to function in today’s modern surgery, but if you took a teacher from the same era and put them in today’s room they would still deliver a competent class. That’s how little things have changed in schools.
"My understanding is that since 1985 we have learned 75pc more than we previously knew about how brain works. We have revolutions in how the body can be healed and repaired and somehow that hasn’t touched on education. What are the fear factors? Is it that teachers themselves don’t have sense of adventure? What is it we need to do?"
Since Puttnam got involved in the education world he notes an entire generation has become technologically literate and that a third of schoolteachers are technologically literate.
He said the answer for most countries is a workforce of well trained teachers, students toting devices like iPads and whiteboards in every classroom. Allied to this is a system of continuous assessment.
One of the barriers constantly in the way for all countries looking at digitising their education system is cost and in a recessionary world with nations like China in the ascendancy there is no time to waste. As he previously pointed out the war of the 21st century will be the war for a basic 40 hours a week job.
"If Ireland wants to be a 21st century nation the cost thing has to be dealt with," he added.
He used the metaphor of the invention of the machine gun before the First World War. "There was no point in saying ‘nice piece of equipment we can’t afford it’. You either afforded machine guns or you lost the war. I think we are at that point, we either afford to invest our children’s’ futures or we’ve lost the war. It’s a real one.
“I was in China recently and they’re very ambitious and smart, the Koreans are also very ambitious and smart. They are not going to sit around waiting for us to get our act together, this is tough.
“If we want to build healthy nations and create opportunities in the 21st century we owe it to them [the children] literally to give them a shot. The shot they’ll get is to be as confident or as competent as any young people anywhere in the world. At the moment we are really in danger of using lack of resources as a reason not to get ourselves behind the 8-ball.
“In the end, for an advanced nation like Ireland education is the whole ball of wax, not just one of our priorities. It is the ball of wax. Why? Because only a fine education system over time will create the resources like the health service, it will create pensions and all the other components of a civil society.
“You could have the greatest health service in the world, but if you don’t have a good education system it will collapse. You could have the greatest pensions in the world, but they will be unaffordable.
“Only an education system generates a future for a country.
“It is so utterly self-evident, it’s a kind of daft conversation to be having because we know it, and yet somehow politically its an inconvenient conversation to be having," Puttnam said.
Video below: Lord David Puttnam speaking the the Digital Ireland Forum in September where he said education and ICT investment are key to economic survival
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