Digital skills and thinking skills are what’s needed in our schools
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Digital skills and thinking skills are what’s needed in our schools

6 Jun 2017

We need digital skills on the curriculum, but we need our kids to think critically too, writes John Kennedy.

Last week, I found myself involved in a robust radio conversation with Newstalk presenter Shane Coleman and psychologist David Carey over whether digital skills should be taught in schools. You can listen to it here if you are interested.

For the uninitiated, radio can be a fairly nerve-wracking experience and, for as many times as I’ve agreed to be on radio in the past, juggling it with tight deadlines early in the morning can be jarring. But I soldiered on because it was a debate I cared deeply about.

It got off to an ominous start when the presenter proclaimed from the get-go that he was on the side of my fellow guest and didn’t agree that digital skills should be taught in schools.


I stuck to my guns that digital skills should indeed be taught in our schools, and pointed out that there is a shortfall of 700,000 IT workers in Europe at present.

This somehow dovetailed nicely into Carey’s thesis that we are only creating fodder for the digital industries. The all-too-short exchange ended on a kind of congratulatory note by Coleman that Carey was right and I was wrong. It was quite bromantic, actually.

If I had been given the time, I would have told Carey just how much I agreed with him that, more than anything, critical thinking skills, collaboration and teamwork skills are what we need to teach our children for the future.

Given the time, I would have told Carey that digital skills like coding are a new kind of language – just like any other language – that could serve students well in a variety of future careers, even if they didn’t end up being yellow-packed into a tech job.

I would have said how passionately I felt that the system of by-rote learning – cramming over five years of school for a final exam, just to then be part of a points system for courses that are rated by fashion not function – is questionable. This is what explains drop-out rates in universities as students learn too late that a subject or course is the wrong one for them, in spite of what the newspaper headlines and their parents told them.

At 17 or 18, you may have a very good idea of what you want to do with your life, but most likely you won’t. Shoehorning kids into an anxiety-ridden points system, rather than teaching them potentially useful skills to navigate life, is a greater evil, if you ask me.

I suspect Carey and I would agree that countries like Finland have figured out education, while so many others, including Ireland, have not. In Finland, teachers rank alongside doctors and lawyers in stature and respect, and local communities guard their schools with a pride seen nowhere else. Instead, in the rest of the western world, we denigrate teachers and pay them poorly. In Ireland, the current discrepancy in wages for new teachers, based on a morally dubious deal between the Department of Education and a teachers’ union, sets us up poorly for the future.

I think – I mean, I hope – that Carey and I would agree that education is a sacred canvas and it should be about the experience of education, encouraging kids to be curious, to explore and to think, and to see things critically and from different angles and points of view, are more fundamental than the ability to regurgitate from memory during an exam.

Skills for life

It is now more than possible that most people are likely to enjoy three or four different careers in their lifetimes. In fact, many of the in-demand jobs in the digital world, such as data scientists, SEO specialists, content marketers and social media experts, didn’t exist 10 years ago.

A good foundation in languages, science and technology would set students up not only for roles in the IT sector, but for a panoply of industries from finance to life sciences and many more. And let’s be realistic – not every kid has a bent for technology or science.

Once, the experience of an Irish education was considered the stuff to set you up for life. And, while literacy performance has always been high in Ireland, maths and science subjects have struggled in recent years and are slowly improving. But where we seem to fall down is languages.

I remember travelling on a bus between Minsk and Vilnius several years back and speaking with a 10-year-old girl from Finland who was fluent in five languages, including boasting impeccable English.

Other than English and Irish, no European languages are introduced to the school curriculum until Irish children enter second level. We need to ask if this is too late to really learn fluency in a foreign language.

Software coding is a new language, and it needs to also be seen in that context.

The pretext to our conversation on Newstalk last week was a report by printing giant Ricoh, which found that just 29pc of Irish people believe schools are equipping children with the necessary skills for the digital era.

I have seen the various stop-start school IT initiatives by the Irish Government over the last two decades, and the only successes so far are achieved when the State helps to lay the infrastructure or the canvas on which technology can be based. The Broadband for Schools initiative to connect primary and secondary schools has helped lay a good foundation that helps teachers to teach in the classroom, bringing an added digital capability to the teaching of many subjects.

Where tech education policy fails or flounders is when the State tries to prescribe equipment that fits just a particular time frame or generation. Technology is constantly shifting and moving. Today’s PC or iPad will be a piece of junk in five years’ time. Specifications are a moving target.

Good digital policy should be about laying the groundwork or the structure. This means teaching teachers digital skills – rather than the current situation where the students know more about technology than many of the teachers – and setting out minimal tech specifications for students to affordably get their hands on relevant tech to dovetail with a curriculum where coding is involved.

The assumption that kids are digital natives anyway is also bunk. In reality, they know how to work smartphones – that means they are digital consumers; it doesn’t necessarily mean they are equipped with digital skills.

But pay a visit to the BT Young Scientist exhibition any January and you would be blown away by just how adept kids already are when it comes to technology. This year’s overall winner was Shane Curran, who developed a unique cybersecurity technology called qCrypt.

Five years ago, a global phenomenon was unleashed from Cork when then-19-year-old James Whelton joined with tech investor and entrepreneur Bill Liao to create CoderDojo. Within months, kids on Tory Island in Donegal, as well as in Paris and New York, were teaching one another how to code.

One of the things I remember about that time is Liao telling me that parents should only bring their kids to a CoderDojo if the kids genuinely wanted to learn how to code.

Today, CoderDojo is a global phenomenon, with 1,100 dojos taking place every week in more than 66 countries worldwide. In recent weeks, it emerged that CoderDojo and Raspberry Pi – maker of affordable, modular computing devices – are to merge to create a single coding giant for the world.

Coding will be a language for the 21st century and it will soon feature on the Leaving Cert curriculum.

In the present, it is proving hard – and in the future it will be even harder – to ignore digital skills, and for even the most basic jobs some core computer competencies will be a prerequisite.

But digital skills are a subset of a whole array of things people will need in order to be equipped for life, including entrepreneurship. They will need to think and to converse, but, fundamentally, to understand the world and embrace its differences and contradictions.

I disagree with Carey that by putting digital skills on the curriculum we are just creating fodder to fill the roles required by multinationals.

As far as I am concerned, digital skills and other competencies – especially languages – need to be improved in schools. I would go further and say we need to find out what it is Finland is doing right and steer away from by-rote learning.

Where we might possibly agree is in my belief that we need to teach our young people to think critically, to see more sides to an argument, and to turn education into an enriching experience that cultivates their young minds, rather than one that beats them down with data to regurgitate by memory.

Going back to that brief, robust radio debate, we are entitled to our different opinions and points of view. And, in the essence of that sentiment oft wrongly attributed to Voltaire: I would defend to the death your right to have your opinion.

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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