Last weekend, I was part of a panel at the Excited Festival of Learning which was focussed on coding and creativity. Aoibhinn Ní Shúileabháin hosted the discussion and the conversation led on to a point asking what can schools do to encourage students to take on computer science, particularly girls. I was asked my opinion on this and my answer was role models.
I have thought that one of the flaws of our education systems is the lack of role models but never in this context. Irish primary school teachers and staff are predominantly female, white, middle-class and (generally) from a Christian-background. I have written before that this is a possible reason why diversity in primary school teaching is a potential difficulty for minorities as there are very few role models. However, the more I spoke, the more I thought that the same logic applies to children who could potentially wish to go into a career in the field of technology.
I said on the stage that I was probably going to offend the people in the room when I stated that teaching tends to attract a certain type of person as the job is safe and conservative position. I also said that the system to access teaching is based on an exam-system that generally only tests a few types of intelligences and that we probably are losing a lot of potentially good role models based on the system we use to assess who gets into teaching.
There are a few other possible reasons why someone would not become a primary school teacher in Ireland and the purpose of this article is not to argue whether these reasons are right or not. However, I don’t think anyone could argue that they are barriers. Whilst highly emotive, Irish and religion are two exclusive subjects. In order to become a primary school teacher, one must be highly proficient at the Irish language. If you can’t speak Irish, you can’t be a fully-probated primary school teacher. As nine out of every ten primary schools in Ireland are patronised by the Catholic church, if you openly do not subscribe to this ethos, your prospects of employment are very low.
Now, I don’t think a teacher’s ethnicity correlates with their enthusiasm in the field of technology so perhaps the last paragraph is a moot point. I think the most important point is that there are quite a lot of barriers for any minority to get into the profession and some of these people could be the role models that children might latch on to. In the case of the original question, are there many female teachers who could be considered role models for girls who might wish to get into the field of technology? We see quite a number of them at festivals such as Excited and we get very excited when a new face emerges at our wonderful ICT conferences in Thurles or at CESI. However, despite the vast majority of teachers being female, these conferences are still male-dominated.
So what do we need to do? To start on a positive, thankfully, things are changing a little bit. We are seeing much more interest from teachers in technology, particularly in the last five years. Teachers are beginning to embrace ICT in the way it is meant to be used in a classroom, that is, socially. There could be up to 1,000 classrooms using Twitter in Ireland today, for example.
However, questions do need to be asked. Could diversity be a key to unlock role models that can’t access a teaching career because of their ethnicity, sexuality, religious beliefs, etc.? Could our national language be causing more harm than good in creating new role models? Are the number of points in the Leaving Cert the correct methodology of finding the best teachers? Other questions that might be asked could be social-economic factors. Is the financial reward good enough for such a high-skilled job? Is teaching a well-respected profession? Does society value its teachers? What are the ways to progress in teaching and are there benefits for working hard in your job compared to those who don’t?
We’re going through a huge revolution in the world right now and education can’t be any different. I believe giving children a diverse range of role models and opportunities is one of the keys to success. I’m not sure all or any of the questions above are valid or if there is anything we can really do about them. I’m also sure there are other questions that have to be asked.