Bridging the gap between 19th-century and 21st-century school systems

10 May 2012

Some of the 200 transition-year students from across Dublin who graduated from the innovative Bridge2College programme at Trinity College Dublin

Go to any conference today on the subject of education and you’ll hear a metaphor about dragging a teacher from the 19th century to a 21st-century classroom in Ireland and being able to carry out lessons with precisely the same tools.

When you think of the brave policies of TK Whitaker and Seán Lemass that paved the way for the economic boom of recent years in Ireland you have to wonder if somewhere along the lines since then a policymaker or minister or two didn’t trip up and land with their heads firmly up their backsides.

Just look at the thousands of kids today going to class in prefabs when nearby they are surrounded by half-finished housing estates.

It’s a sobering realisation when you ask about priorities. The moral compass was surely broken since the pioneering thought leaders of the 1960s and 1970s held sway.

These angry thoughts abated one day recently as I surveyed a bunch of kids working on computer projects at Bridge 21, a schools transformation joint venture between Trinity College Dublin and students from secondary Suas Educational Development. In a room designed to look anything but a classroom, the students were quietly and diligently writing software, working in teams and managing projects.

The idea is to inspire teamwork with the creative use of technology and build an innovative educational model for 21st-century learning.

The work of Bridge 21

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. Last week, a further 200 transition-year students from secondary schools across Dublin graduated from Bridge 21’s innovative Bridge2College programme.

The Bridge 21 programme, which also has been instrumental in helping kids from inner-city schools and other disadvantaged areas aspire to enter third level, aims to equip Irish schools and their students with the teamwork and critical thinking skills that will be required in a working world for which by-rote learning has no place.

It’s about change and it couldn’t come fast enough. Claire Conneely, acting director of Bridge 21 at Oriel House, notes that in terms of literacy levels in Ireland, one in four people are functionally illiterate. “The key here is that in terms of learning English, French, maths or science, we foster a team approach with the kids and give them projects that encourage them to learn through computers, using ICT as an enabler for education.”

pull quote Craig Barrett

Ciaran Bauer of Bridge 21, who prior to returning to teaching was a software entrepreneur, points to the specific design of the classroom layout. The students work on software and internet projects related to their school courses in specially designed pods. “The idea is to give them a sense of togetherness, working in their own teams, with no invasion or anything to affect their concentration.”

Conneely talks of the change in motivation team-based collaboration brings about. “In most classrooms in the world it usually takes 10 minutes for a class to settle down and open their books. In this context, the kids will immediately get to work in groups and gravitate between the PCs and their books and the teachers can act as mentors rather than trying to keep a class in order.”

It became clear to me through talking with Conneely and Bauer that 21st-century learning requires a different dynamic in terms of the student-school relationship.

Instead of dreading going to school like many of us did growing up, the kids perhaps will instead look forward to going to a place they trust and where they’ve established a real sense of partnership.

But for the teachers themselves a change of dynamic is also required. Many feel locked into a system with resource and discipline problems and struggle to meet unrealistic expectations of parents. Many are unsure what’s expected of them in a technology-driven world.

Quality teachers

Conneely says the Bridge 21 structure ideally gives students and schools greater autonomy to meet their goals. In the same way music rooms have a purpose and yet don’t stifle growth, classrooms could become team-based rooms that via technology bring out the best rather than the worst in students and teachers.

Bauer and Conneely’s eyes light up in recognition when I quote a recent conversation I had with the former chairman and CEO of Intel Craig Barrett on the subject. Barrett said: “A good teacher is more important than technology in the classroom.

“And if you look around the world at the really high-performing education systems, whether they are in Finland, Korea or some of the big cities of China, they are not technology heavy, they are good teacher heavy, high expectation heavy and it is really the quality of the teacher that is the most important technology in the classroom.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years