Learning vs. Education

  • As little as 5% of learning happens inside the classroom

  • Informal opportunities to learn are unevenly available

  • Transition year is an ideal place to start with reform

William Priestley

Education is not the same as learning. When we think of education we think of places and structures: a classroom, a building, a state exam. Unfortunately, school—the iconic home of education—is often the last place in which we learn anything. As demonstrated by Falk and Dierking in ‘The 95 Percent Solution,’ published in the American Science journal, as little as 5% of our learning happens inside a classroom. Learning is a concept with much broader meaning than education. It is a fundamental aspect of human life and the engine for most of our interactions.

The Irish education system has changed dramatically over the last fifty years. It is, however, still rooted in an industrial age of desks, chairs and books. There are advantages to this system, particularly when one considers the challenges of accommodating 850,000 students each year. Seen through a one-dimensional paradigm of rote learning and exams, it offers transparency and fairness. As a result, most policy and funding initiatives continue to be directed towards improving in-school performance. We still rely on the rarely questioned assumption that classroom-based education is the only route to achieve learning outcomes. If only, the argument goes, all schools were fully resourced, historic inequalities could be overcome.

A recent study on the ‘performance gap’ in reading between advantaged and disadvantaged children in Baltimore, America, was designed to highlight just this issue. Students from all backgrounds demonstrated similar academic progress during the school year; however, each summer, the inner-city children fell woefully behind. It was later discovered that the more affluent children had their holidays filled with travel, camps, hobbies and reading; in short, they spent the summer learning. The inner-city children simply didn’t have the same opportunities. Sir Richard Roberts, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, probably summed it up best with a simple observation: “When I talk to my Nobel colleagues, more than half of them got interested in science via fireworks.” Unfortunately, many who have read this research interpret the findings as evidence that disadvantaged children need to spend more time in school! This, I fear, would be the approach quickly adopted in Ireland.

We need to ask ourselves what efforts are being made to address similar shortfalls in the Irish system, particularly in some of our most marginalized communities. Thankfully, there is no cause to reinvent the wheel as many others are already leading the way. Some of these developments in the field of learning are on a structural level, others are on a policy level, but each one offers us an insight into what is possible.

Cristo Rey Schools

One such response to the crisis in American education is the Cristo Rey schools network. Founded in 2001 it comprises of twenty-four American high schools that provide a quality, college preparatory education in marginalised communities. In addition to a number of other progressive approaches, the schools employ a unique entrepreneurial work-study programme. Every student in a Cristo Rey school works five full days a month to fund the majority of his or her education, gain job experience, grow in self-confidence, and realise the relevance of learning. In 2008, 99% of high school seniors from Cristo Rey schools were accepted to at least two colleges.  While brief work placements exist during Transition Year in the Irish curriculum, they are often tokenistic and unstructured. Cristo Rey students work one day a week, every week, and are paid for their efforts. This is learning on the most practical level. There are individual examples of Irish innovators trying to make the same connection. Youth Horizons, an outreach school in Jobstown, Tallaght with a 100% pass rate of the Leaving Certificate, has forged links with Xilinx, a local company specialising in the production of world-class microchips. Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule. While the Cristo Rey model may be a long-term goal, short-term changes can have equally dramatic effects.


Science and maths are the engine of a modern economy. Over the years this has become a mantra within education and business circles. It is strange that, with the exception of the excellent—but modest—Trinity Science Museum and the recently opened Explorium, young visitors to Irish museums are often passive vessels floating from exhibit to exhibit.. The opening of the first science museum in Ireland was celebrated in 2016 at the National Wax Museum. More than anything, its title reflects our ambition: ‘The Science and Discovery Room’.

Relying on the visual mediums of text and picture alone has been to our collective detriment for too long. Only when set against the standards elsewhere does one realise what is possible. Despite the obvious benefits, it would be sadly impractical in the current climate to expect the innovation and depth offered by the National History Museum in London, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney or the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. On the other hand, more modest and attainable targets are possible. Alabama, consistently one of the poorest states, has the same number of science museums as the entire state of Ireland. 

Secondly, increased investment in informal learning may be a very cost-effective way to significantly improve public understanding of science. Hobbies that involve science, including model rocketry, raising ornamental fish, gardening, rock collecting and stargazing are guaranteed to stimulate far greater interest than any textbook. Research conducted by Marni Berendsen, project director of the NASA Night Sky Network, showed that amateur astronomy club members lacking any formal training were often better educated than undergraduate astronomy students. Similarly, Tess, a 50-foot animatronic female body, did more to teach locals in Los Angeles about homeostasis than any course. When she arrived at the California Science Center, only 7% of Angelenos could define the term; that figure tripled soon after the museum opened. Nobody was educated about this fact. They simply learned it. In order to transform our education system, we need to dismantle the widespread misconception that out-of-school education only supports superficial learning.

 Learning From Others

Lastly, we need to heed innovative policy being pioneered elsewhere. Over five years ago the British government launched the ‘Learning Outside the Classroom’ manifesto. It aimed to get schools using their grounds and local environment as an outdoor classroom, as well as taking pupils on more outside visits and trips. The then education secretary, Alan Johnson, declared, ‘learning outside the classroom should be at the heart of every school’s curriculum and ethos’. This is an incredible statement of which Irish children could currently only dream. The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (CLOTC) has taken over the rollout of this provision through various means, not least of all championing the research that shows that children learn best through real life experiences. Among other things, it draws on research that consistently shows that outside learning significantly reduces stress, bullying and bad behaviour.

All these developments in the field of learning are positive for Ireland. We have a strong foundation on which to build. We have genuine commitment to education from students, parents and teachers alike. The Young Scientist Exhibition goes from strength to strength each year and the UL Science Fair is becoming another must-see event. The innovations mentioned above can all be adapted here: we just need to change our mindset. The ‘school-first’ paradigm has been so pervasive for so long that few question it. The dominant assumption is that school is the only place where and when children learn. This assumption is wrong. Forty years of steadily accumulating research shows that out-of-school, or non-formal, opportunities are major predictors of children’s development, learning, and educational achievement. The research also indicates that economically and otherwise disadvantaged children are less likely than their more-advantaged peers to have access to these opportunities. If nothing else, this is cause for action.