Meet the most influential figure in Irish education

The most influential figure in Irish education holds no elected office in Ireland, does not teach in an Irish classroom and has never lived here.

Government education ministers constantly came to the door of this German mathematician and statistician, seeking advice on how to improve the performance of their schools.

Atlantic magazine calls him “the world’s schoolteacher,” while former British education minister Michael Gove has described him as “the father of more revolutions than any German since Karl Marx.”

This is Andreas Schleicher (59), a thoughtful, silver-haired German mathematician and researcher and (hold your breath for the difficult job title) director of education and skills and special advisor on educational policy to the secretary general of the Organization for Cooperation. Economical. -Operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

One of the reasons it’s so important is that it pioneered a global test in 2000, conducted every three years among hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds, that tells us which countries do best in reading, math, and math. sciences.

They are known as Pisa tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) and Schleicher is, if you will, the Pisa delivery man.

Normally it is the students who nervously wait for the results of the exams. But every three years, it is the Education Minister’s turn to open the envelope and see how Irish pupils are performing.

‘If as a teacher your only occupation is the transmission of knowledge, AI will make you irrelevant’

Pisa’s poor results have in the past led to calls for resignations and knee-jerk reforms. To the relief of current Education Minister Norma Foley, there was good news for Ireland when the results were published last December: Irish 15-year-olds scored the second highest in the world in reading (up from eighth in 2018) and above average. for math (11th, up from 21st) and science (12th, up from 22nd). In reading alone, Singapore ranked higher than Ireland, followed by Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Estonia.

However, Schleicher is not very enthusiastic about the Irish education system.

While he calls our academic scores a “real strength,” he warns that our system is “highly industrial,” where everyone learns at the same pace, using the same type of methods and a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

There are few meaningful choices, he says, between academic or vocational options because “from the beginning, only one of them is valued.”

We also have relatively few high-achieving students compared to many of our competing countries. This, she says, is the result of “a very industrial model that targets the average student and educates the average student.”

Another point of pride is the volume of students we send to third level, which is among the highest in the world.

Once again, Schleicher isn’t necessarily impressed.

Universities, he says, are under greater pressure from new technologies. The kinds of things they teach and test, she says, are the easiest to digitize and automate.

“The metrics that many universities use for success reward conformity and adherence to established ways of thinking,” he says.

In Germany, by contrast, students are paid to go to university because they get more relevant and interesting vocational learning experiences working with companies like BMW or Siemens.

In Ireland, however, vocational options are often considered “a last resort rather than a first option” because our school system measures students who follow the academic route according to their strengths and those who follow the vocational route according to their weaknesses. .

Ironically, he says, many in the vocational sector are often better prepared for the future.

“They’ve learned to work with real people, they’ve learned to work on real problems, they’ve learned to live with the consequences of real mistakes,” he says.

But their biggest concern about Irish education is that it underperforms when measuring students’ emotional resilience and psychological well-being. They also have less sense of belonging to school than before.

This, he says, raises questions about the quality of students’ social relationships and their ability to reinvent themselves when things get tough.

“I don’t think this is just the pandemic; in fact, it has been a structural feature of Irish education…in today’s world, can you live with yourself? That’s what emotional resilience is all about. Can you live with people who are different from you? It’s about the quality of social relationships.

“Ireland is atypical in that there is a large discrepancy between a very strong set of cognitive outcomes and actually a low level of emotional resilience, a low level of quality of social relationships and a low level of psychological well-being. .. In Finland or Denmark, it is more balanced. “Ireland is more like South Korea.”

The downward slope in children’s emotional resilience closely follows the growth of smartphones and access to social media over the past decade and a half.

Schleicher says technology may well have a lot to do with these negative trends, isolating students and weakening their social bonds.

However, he says, countries like Denmark have been able to reconcile academic strength and protecting students’ emotional well-being.

Because? One factor, she says, is making school more relevant and ensuring there is time and space to build positive relationships with students and teachers.

“If students see that what they learn makes sense, makes a difference to them, makes a difference in their lives, then education can resist other influences. “If school becomes some kind of boring experience where you learn for a test, then you turn to social media and that isolates you from the rest of the world,” she says.

The question of whether phones should be banned in schools, he says, is “probably an age issue,” but he says teens need to be trained to navigate the “wild west” of social media, understand how algorithms amplify different points of view and distinguish the facts. from opinion.

“Suddenly, it becomes a source of strength,” he says.

He also believes passionately in changing the way we assess students. The Leaving Cert, like many other national school-leaving exams, is deeply flawed, he says.

‘The metrics that many universities use to achieve success reward conformity and compliance with established ways of thinking’

“We teach you for 12 years, accumulate a lot of content, and then one day we call you and ask you to tell us everything you’ve learned in your entire life in a very artificial, contrived environment. We call that an exam, and that has produced the superficiality of teaching and learning,” he states.

Scheicher favors assessments that demonstrate how students can apply knowledge in more dynamic ways.

“The biggest crime you can commit on the Leaving Certificate is to open your smartphone and Google the answers. They would kick you out,” she says.

“But I think we should teach people to understand the concepts, teach them to apply the knowledge. And in fact, all of a sudden, you’ll see that people who pursue vocational careers can do much better than people who pursue academic careers. They have learned to work with real people, they have learned to work on real problems, they have to learn to live with the consequences of real mistakes. And that’s really what matters.”

The old style of learning through apprenticeships – learning from and with real people and making mistakes in real time – worked well, he says. The future may involve returning to this traditional approach with the help of cutting-edge technology.

“Why do young people love computer games? Not only for learning, but for evaluation. You’re actually giving them that feedback,” he says.

Schleicher’s passion for improving the way students teach and learn is influenced by her own experiences. His father was an education teacher and his mother was his doctor. However, Schleicher had difficulties in school. But he showed promise in his senior year when, after changing schools, he won a national science award.

The difference, he says, was that he felt committed to some teachers. After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in mathematics, he subsequently devoted himself to research in education. At the OECD, he says he convinced the organization to collect more rigorous data on school outcomes. He led to the development of the Pisa tests. The system, while influential, has its fair share of critics who say it leads to short-term solutions designed to help countries move up the rankings and emphasizes a limited range of aspects of education.

As for the future, Schleicher is hopeful. Technology has the potential to better engage students, free teachers from marking “boring” assignments, and push educators to design assessments that assess how students think.

This is not the end of teachers, he says, but the end of a teaching style.

“If as a teacher your only occupation is the transmission of knowledge, AI will make you irrelevant. But if your role is that of an inspirer, a coach, a social worker, a designer, this will be the most interesting job you have ever had… AI will not replace teachers, but teachers who are good at using AI will replace to teachers who are good at using AI. Don’t get that message.”