Essential Questions for Educators Everywhere

‘Essential Questions for Educators Everywhere’ is a summer course over five days at National College of Ireland in association with Mercy College New York between the 26th – 30th  June 2017 . As the title suggests, the goal is to interrogate essential ideas that underpin our understanding and practice of what it means to teach and learn in the world of today. You can get further details at www.eqfee.org The programme is designed for qualified and aspiring learning professionals in areas such as early childhood education, schools, further education, college, university and adult learning settings. Through debate, discussion and critical dialogue, participants will explore issues such as the nature of learning, the purpose of schooling, the goals of lifelong learning, the qualities of teaching, and the relationship between democracy and education. These questions are relevant for teachers everywhere – regardless of country or context – all the more so for the changing times we live in. The history and evolution of Irish education, including the influence and involvement of religious institutions will also be explored. Participants will be encouraged to ask questions, compare systems and discuss alternatives throughout. As teachers everywhere, we have much in common and it is natural Read More …

We Need New Stories in Education

The Seven Basic Plots is an interesting book by Christopher Booker, the main argument is clear from the title; we have a limited number of story lines and regardless of context or medium, we like the familiar, predictable and comforting. Fairytale, folklore, epic novels and modern film scripts all use variations of basic narrative structures; resilience in the face of onslaught, heroic journeys, monsters and dragons and of course, the struggles of good and evil. The argument is not unique, many thinkers have pointed to a form of collective intellectual comfort blanket. We welcome stories that reinforce pre-existing assumptions and avoid those that challenge our biased views and require re-jigging our model of the world. The ‘basic plots’ phenomenon is much in evidence when we talk about education. Whether it is media reporting, policy discourse or public commentary, we return time and again to the familiar blandness of the comfort blanket. I’m tired of hearing about the epic journey of the Leaving Certificate, I’m done with the struggles of the science and engineering to attract and charm the young people of today, I no longer need the wisdom of employers, I’m fed up with tales of cash strapped colleges, disgruntled Read More …

Comments on the ‘Action Plan for Education 2016 -2019’

The Government’s new Action Plan for Education is a very welcome document that contains clear aspirations and detailed actions to be achieved over time. The overall vision is that we (Ireland) become the best education and training system in Europe. This is excellent news and like many others who work in education, I think it is a highly commendable goal; it is realistic and achievable and the Action Plan is an important statement of intent. In that spirit I would like to make some suggestions and identify areas of improvement. This is not to overlook all of the good stuff and positive actions contained therein. Rather, it is to contribute to our thinking so we can achieve the goals to their fullest extent. In the preamble to the document the plan sets out what it means to be the ‘best in Europe’, it means: “Harnessing Education to break down barriers for groups at risk of exclusion; delivering a learning experience to highest international standards; equipping learners of all ages and capacities to participate and succeed in a changing world; and allowing Ireland to be a leader across a broad range of fields, scientific, cultural, enterprise and public service.” (Page 1) Read More …

Ready to Learn – Taking the First Step

‘Oh I was just wondering have you got a moment, I just want to ask you about something‘ she had arrived at NCI reception and they suggested I might meet with her. ‘No problem at all‘ I assured her while thinking how much I had to do that afternoon. Five minutes later she sat in my office. She was very nervous and I thought I noticed a slight trembling in her voice. Her name was Susan. ‘It’s like this‘ she said ‘I was thinking of doing a course here but I am not sure if I’d be able for it‘. She went on to tell me her story. She left school at sixteen without a Leaving Cert. She worked in the retail sector for the last twenty five years and now she is a manager. She is married with three kids and two of them are in college. She reads a lot and is well liked by her colleagues. Generally, she’s happy. But there’s always been a niggle. An unease and sense of being often left out, ignored and taken-for-granted. ‘Sure what would Susan know‘ she once overheard a younger colleague remark. Susan explained that she has been thinking about Read More …

Questions and Inquiry

I have a recent publication in E-Learning and Digital Media and the following post is a shorter version of some of the ideas I discuss in this paper on Questions, Curiosity and Inquiry. Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate all aspects of deep learning. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion and are the bedrock of reflection. In order to understand inquiry we need to deal with questions. I begin by attempting to clarify potential misconceptions of what exactly questions are. I argue for precision in language and I encourage a fuller conception of questions as situations and processes rather than simple sentences. I also discuss curiosity and elaborate on Dewey’s conception of curiosity as a natural resource for use in the training of thought. These ideas on the nature of questions and curiosity help to frame our understanding of the Inquiry Cycle as a model of learning. They can also act as a bridge, closing the gap between theory and practice, contributing insights on the integration of technology in teaching and learning and suggesting new areas of application and research on learning and inquiry. Questions as Situations Questions and questioning are familiar processes ubiquitous Read More …

Learning, Participation and After Virtue

What makes a good person? This is an old and important question.  Philosophers and theologians through the years have sought an answer including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kierkegaard, Newman, Nietzsche and others. Alasdair MacIntyre provides a useful analysis of the history of thinking on this question and the current state of moral philosophy in his books After Virtue (1984) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). MacIntyre argues that a full understanding of moral philosophy today is constrained by failure to appreciate historical context. He proposes a disquieting scenario to illustrate what he deems the state of affairs today. Imagine, he suggests, through some terrible catastrophe all the scientists in the world were wiped out and with them the thinking and practice they engaged in. Some time later, when people seek to revive science they would only be partly successful; they would have to rely on clues from remnants of documentation, pieces of laboratory apparatus and a scattering of folk ideas. The practice of science would be gone. Although MacIntyre uses this vista to illustrate how, he believes, we have lost the way (and means) of moral philosophy, he is also making a point about ‘practice’. Human activities directed and sustained toward Read More …

Why We Learn

Sometimes big questions just sit under our noses and are too close and obvious to warrant attention. The matter of why we learn falls into this category. It seems obvious that we learn every day of our lives and that learning is important but why is it so? Part of the answer lies in our evolutionary past. To understand why we learn we need to appreciate the benefits of learning in terms of survival and growth of human beings. Learning is a special way in which we can gain advantage in our quest for success. Every person and indeed all animals have innate abilities developed through natural selection. Over many generations animals adapt to their environment and acquire specialist abilities for hunting, defence, reproduction and so on. When we observe animals in their environment we appreciate the usefulness of these assets. Mink have fur coats to survive the cold winter, cheetahs run very fast and hedgehogs have spines and roll in a ball when under threat. Notice it is not easy to distinguish a behavioural ability such as knowing when to run and a physical ability such as well-developed muscle and skeleton for running. If you look at anatomy and Read More …

Alienation and Learning

I want to talk about alienation as I believe it to be a topic of concern to most of us and it is an important influence on how we live our lives today. Karl Marx was one of the first to highlight how the structures of modern society inevitably lead to alienation.  He describes how, in industrial settings, many workers are alienated from the products they produce.  For example, an assembly line worker is far removed from the completed product. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.  Marx K, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. First Manuscript p29 In contrast, many professionals such as teachers, architects, entrepreneurs and hairdressers remain closely affiliated with their productive output. There are other ways in which we experience alienation in the modern world.  Often we experience alienation as customers when organisations conceive their clientèle in purely economic terms.  We may experience this in for example, in airline, telecommunications and fast food industries – customer-provider interactions are kept to Read More …

Learning Without Assessment and The Willie Clancy Summer School

If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, Ireland, around the early part of July each year you will find a most wonderful musical and learning event taking place: the Willie Clancy Summer School. Sadly, one of its founders Muiris Ó Rócháin passed away this year. Many years ago I made a TV documentary called Up Sráid Eoin about the wren boys of Dingle and Muiris featured prominantly in the film. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam usual (trans: May he be honoured at the right hand of God) . Now let me tell you about this school. It uses a form of cascade to facilitate musicians of all levels (and ages) to improve their playing of traditional music. The development of Irish set dancing skills is also an integral part of the week long programme. So experts teach the proficient, the proficient teach the novices etc.. In addition, there is a very strong social aspect to playing traditional music, its fullest expression is through group playing with a mixture of fiddle, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, accordion, guitars, banjo and bodhráns. Throughout the week there is a mix of structured classes and spontaneous Read More …

Richard Hannaford An Extraordinary Teacher

Some people are natural teachers. I don’t mean ‘teachers’ in the everyday sense as in those who work in schools or colleges. I mean people who show us things and who we learn from in all manner of ways. Richard Hannaford was such a person. I noticed this many years ago when I first met him as my sister Norah’s partner and later husband.  Over the years I became more convinced this was the case, never more so than in the weeks leading up to his untimely death one month ago. Richard probably did not realise that we were all learning from him and I know that he would be somewhat embarrassed at the idea of being described in this way. However, I think anyone who knew him would agree that with every encounter, on each occasion involving Richard, we came away with some new insight, something extra to make us better. One thing we learned from Richard was the art of conversation. He cherished discourse and grasped the importance of listening to other voices and respecting different views. For Richard, discussion was an opportunity to see the world in a different way, as others see it. A frequent phrase he Read More …