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The Future of Irish Education

The disruptive forces that will rock our system

Peter Cosgrove
Future-of-work expert

The pace of change is dramatic. We have longer life spans, increased global competition, and the huge impact of technology and artificial intelligence on future jobs. Irish education needs to adapt and innovate to remain relevant in the future.


It has never been a more exciting but also potentially a more challenging time for Irish education. The world is more connected, and technology is reshaping all parts of business and society, and has its eyes firmly focused on the education sector. Competition has always been strong for well-educated talent, but never before have there been so many innovative ways to learn.

While history is great at helping us with lessons from the past, we do need to think differently when it comes to the future of education. The pace of change is not linear, and it is vital we realise that many of the structures we have may need to be challenged for us to remain competitive, innovative, and able to give future generations the best education options. The Irish education system will need to change and adapt, and given the rapid pace of change across society, we will need to move faster than we are comfortable with.


The world has become a much smaller place. Look at how the pace of change has increased. Britain took 154 years to double its economic output, while China and India have done it in twelve and sixteen years respectively, each with 100 times as many people. In other words, economic acceleration is roughly ten times faster than in the Industrial Revolution and is 300 times the scale – so we are looking at an economic force 3,000 times as large.

It’s fair to say that the world is changing faster than we can comprehend. The speed of change is being supercharged by technology, which is changing the nature of almost everything and is proving difficult to keep up with. These changes will have profound effects on the future of work, jobs, and skills.

Intel’s CEO was quoted as saying that if you compared Intel’s first microchip in 1971 to its latest chip on the market today, you would see that its latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy-efficient, and is about 60,000 times cheaper. If we applied these developments to the car industry, the 1971 Volkswagen Beetle would today be able to go 300,000 mph, get 2 million miles per gallon, and cost 4 cents!

This rapid change is causing huge disruption in industry and jobs around the world. Look at the disruption that has already happened: the largest hotel company in the world is now Airbnb, and it does not own any hotels; the largest car company is Uber, and it does not own any cars; and the largest publisher is Facebook, and it does not publish anything. All are less than twenty years old. Jobs and livelihoods are being affected faster than ever before. We need to ask ourselves, what exponential changes can we envisage for the education sector?


There are many studies and surveys about jobs being lost to artificial intelligence and robotics. The most famous is Frey and Osborne from Oxford predicting 47% of all jobs potentially being displaced by technology. We can already see this starting to happen – drones and driverless cars will have a huge impact on jobs. If you looked at a map of the US in 1978 and plotted the number one job in each state, you would see a huge variety: farmer, teacher, secretary, machine operator, truck driver, or bookkeeper. Roll the clock forward to 2014, when they last looked at this, and 41 of the 50 states have truck driver as the number one job – and we already have some driverless trucks on the road! That is over 3 million jobs that we know will be lost in the near future.

It is not just the blue-collar jobs: whether in accountancy, law, or medicine, many jobs may be taken over by technology. Many roles in accountancy and law are very process-oriented and are being replaced by artificial intelligence. How does a human compete against a machine that can work twenty-four hours a day, never gets sick, never gets tired, and never makes a mistake? The answer is that we cannot compete in those sorts of jobs, but we need to focus on jobs that use unique human skills. As the MIT economist David Autor puts it: ‘If it’s just a technical skill, there is a reasonable chance it can be automated, and if it is just being empathetic or flexible, there is an infinite supply of people, so a job won’t be well paid. It’s the interaction of both that is virtuous.’

The World Economic Forum, in its Future of Jobs report, highlighted that the key future skills would include complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, and decision-making. It also estimated that 65% of children entering primary school will find themselves in occupations that today do not exist. What we cannot do is fret about what jobs may or may not exist. The reality is that while lots of jobs will be destroyed, many new jobs will be created. Agriculture and farming used to be 40% of the economy; now it’s less than 4%, but we found many new industries to employ people, and this will continue to happen even if we cannot imagine what these are.

The goal is not to predict the future but to equip the next generation of students for this future. Computers will be great at giving us the answers, but we humans need to be asking better questions, and that is where education comes in. Where does this lead educators and the future of education? How do we prepare students for a world that is changing so rapidly that we cannot predict future jobs?

Education or trade

More and more we hear companies complaining that the graduates of the future do not have the skills that they need. When you look more closely, what they are often saying is that they want the universities to train students to be ready when they join the workforce. This has never been the role of schools or universities, and should not be; all the talk about coding in schools is somewhat overblown. The reality is that all coding jobs could disappear in twenty years, as machines will do it at a thousand times the speed.

That said, coding should be learned not for a job but for the skills you gain in complex problem-solving and critical thinking. We need to focus on the learning, not on what job we will create at the end of it. Few of us who do algebra will actually use it for our job in the future, but it is mental weight-training. It improves your ability to think logically, helping you become whatever you might want to be. We need to equip students to be ready for a flexible and agile working lifestyle, not for a particular job.

The flipside of the idea of a university education is that we also need to equip many who will not go to third level. We must ensure that apprenticeship programmes keep up with the pace of change in jobs and skills. This may require a much more agile approach to apprenticeships and training schemes.

While apprenticeships seem to suffer from snobbery, and there is an argument to rebrand the name, this will be only a minor concern compared to the lack of applicable courses in twenty years if we do not look up and out at what other countries are doing to stay relevant. This is an area where we may need to look at wholesale change.


It is a now a regular occurrence to hear of someone getting knocked down because they were crossing the road while on their phone, or having a car accident because of texting and driving. In some countries they have split pavements in two, with a text lane and a non-text lane for walking. So while technology has lots of positives, we also need to be somewhat wary of it. It is a double-edged sword: there are huge areas that can support education, but there is also a danger that we think technology is a panacea.

There is no doubt that technology is enabling education online for those who do not have easy access. It is supporting teaching with excellent tutorials and videos, and there are many online learning platforms like Coursera or Khan Academy which support the learning environment. It is important therefore to keep up with ways to improve how education is offered. But this needs to be balanced with the growing battle of screen addiction among our kids.

We now have more schools adopting the iPad instead of school books, and many have already anointed this a great success although it is much too early to judge. I worry that we move too quickly, and just because we can do things does not always mean we should. There are still huge concerns around time on screens, the poorer learning experience on screens, and even the impact that screens have on REM sleep. Though I am not a Luddite, I do think we should be considering these factors before we move everyone to screens.

One of the most important skills of the future will be creativity. One step before being creative is often to be bored and alone with your thoughts. The moment you give someone a screen, they are never bored, as these are ‘weapons of mass distraction’. One of the key additions to our school education programme should be a more philosophical approach – how we teach pupils how to think as opposed to preparing them for the workforce.

One of the most exciting areas of technology will be the imaginative and creative ways there will be to learn. Students can now be transported anywhere via the internet and even more magically via virtual and augmented reality. The walls of the classroom are no longer a barrier, as technology enables new ways of learning, communicating, and working collaboratively. Students can learn about the rainforest by following the expedition of scientists in the region, watching a livestream of their expedition, reading their blog posts, viewing their photos, emailing questions to the scientists, and even talking live with them via Skype.

We now have access to every teacher giving every lecture online. This could improve teaching immeasurably, as teachers use these resources to support and enhance their own courses. Schools in time will go further by offering live streaming and online classes.

Role of parents and educators

The terms ‘helicopter’ and ‘lawnmower’ parenting have become more in vogue as parents increasingly take on the challenges set for their children. Imagine a beautiful butterfly struggling to squeeze its way out of a crack in its cocoon. It strives to get out of a hole that looks too small, and it seems to work for ages and get nowhere. After a long struggle it seems to give up. Imagine that you decide to use a pair of scissors to help the butterfly escape, but instead of opening its wings and flying, it falls to the ground. The struggle to get out of the cocoon is nature’s way of getting fluid to the wings, which is so necessary to strengthen them for flight.

Parents have such a huge role in their child’s education, but they also must let the child struggle, make mistakes, and learn. For any of us who remember the story of Odysseus, you will recall that he goes on a journey and is tested to the limits of his imagination. He is rescued in the end by Athena, his protector. Athena, it turns out, created the storm to send him off course in the first place. She forces him to improvise, change direction, and problem-solve. Parents need to let their students face their own challenges, as that is part of growing up.

This leads on to access to third level and the inordinate number of students who feel they have to go to university. If so many of the purported future key skills are all about questioning and problem-solving, and many Arts courses like history and philosophy give those skills in abundance, why is Arts not seen by many as a first choice?

We still have that dreaded phrase, ‘Don’t waste your points’, which often means students eschew Arts courses as they cannot see a specific career at the end of it, or they feel they need to use their points to take a higher-points course. With children born today potentially going to work until they are seventy-five or eighty years old, we need to set education up for the lifetime of the individual.

Career guidance and equality of opportunity

There are limited opportunities currently for career guidance teachers to upskill themselves on the rapidly changing job market. The top ten skills in demand today did not exist twenty years ago, so we need to educate both career guidance teachers and, just as importantly, parents on the new jobs and skills in the workplace and those that need to be developed. In most schools and colleges there is inadequate funding given to career guidance.

The idea that many students either finish at Leaving Cert or after college and never learn again will be a thing of the past. With such rapid change, it will be normal for the next generation to have over ten careers in their lifetime, and this highlights the importance of engendering a love of learning. Now, more than ever, with more people not going into traditional jobs but perhaps looking at freelancing, the gig economy, a portfolio career, or a career that did not exist five years earlier, the career guidance industry needs more funding and support to equip them in such a rapidly changing world.

With much more focus on STEM subjects, there need to be more role models in girls’ schools so that girls can recognise their own potential. Boys effectively have the ‘privilege’ of predominantly seeing men leading in the workforce (and elsewhere) and very few men as the primary caregiver. The impact of gender stereotyping is particularly pronounced in relation to STEM subjects and careers. 

To ensure that all students are gaining access to the best careers, we need at a very early stage to address the unconscious biases in society that will affect girls and the choices they may make. We also need to address the potential challenge that single-sex education is having on subject choice and more holistically on children’s ability to work alongside the other gender.

Role of sleep

Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist, has provided us with huge research on the importance of sleep – not just for our health but for our ability to retain information better. There is certainly a growing trend to start school earlier, and Walker has warned of the dangers of this approach and how it is far from conducive to teenagers. He cites a study of a school in Minnesota that changed its start time from 7.35 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. and showed an almost 20% increase in the students’ state exam scores.

Walker’s research highlights that the ability to retain information is closely linked to quality of sleep, and the earlier starts were very disruptive to teenagers. Sleep is a growing issue with the addiction to screens, the busier 24-7 lifestyle, and the longer working hours of parents. We also need to look at the value of some of the homework assigned to children. Much of the work given is time-consuming but not always very beneficial educationally.


Change has never happened so fast, but it will never happen so slowly again. Irish education is at a critical time. Many will hear this and say that we have heard it before, but just look around at every area of your life and you can see seismic changes happening. We are no longer operating in an Irish context: we are operating in a connected global world, and we need to take advantage of this but also be aware of the challenges it may pose. We have to embrace the idea of lifelong learning, and not just a university or further education course after school. Education and learning will have to be something that is happening throughout our lives.

Technology is going to be a massive catalyst for change, but first we need to work out what we want this technology to do. We need to be careful about adopting new solutions before we consider some of the unintended consequences of doing so. We also need to be conscious of the separate but intertwining roles of government, education, and institutions. There needs to be more cross-pollination, but first there needs to be a common goal and objective.

I want the next generation to take advantage of the exciting changes to give them a great education experience. However, it still needs to be a school experience. They need to be bored, they need to do repetitive tasks to build concentration and resilience, and they need to have time away from technology to learn how to think.

The education sector is at a very exciting juncture, but the teacher will remain the key conduit to make learning a rewarding and quality experience. It will be up to government in partnership with other benefactors to support them as they hold the future of our society in their hands. The future of Irish education will have to change, but we have all the right talent to enable this to happen if we open our minds and then put our minds to it.

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