Back to school in a changing world

By Andreas Schleicher
OECD Director of Education and Skills

Dear Teachers,

In many parts of the world, students will be returning to the classroom this week. Educators will be busy putting finishing touches on the curriculum and organising scheduling. Parents and caregivers will be focused on packing lunches, dropping anxious and excited students off and trying to figure out how to juggle work, caregiving and responsibilities around schooling.

It’s worth taking a step back to consider the global context in which these students are learning.

Many of us share a sense that the world is speeding up, becoming more complex as it becomes more fragmented. The digital revolution is of course central to this, but so are shared global challenges such as climate change, conflict and financial crises.

The implications for education are profound.

The global labour market is undergoing rapid, fundamental changes. Labour productivity slowdowns, rise in informal and gig economy employment continue to be felt. Added to this, rapid technological advances are disrupting many sectors, creating new professions while replacing some jobs.

Many education systems have struggled to keep pace with these changes. We see this in both high NEET (not in employment, education or training) rates for young people and skills shortages in many countries. This is especially true with respect to green skills shortages, which threaten progress towards net-zero.

Across the OECD, the share of young adults with advanced qualifications has been steadily growing, from 27% to 48% between 2000 and 2022. Tertiary education is broadly associated with a range of better labour market outcomes. People with higher levels of education are more likely to find employment, remain employed, and earn more. Today, the ‘need’ to achieve a university or postgraduate degree has become orthodoxy in many OECD countries and is seen as a minimum barrier to entry for many jobs.

Yet modern economies require a mix of skills and qualifications, and university might not always be the best institution to impart these. This is especially true as societies become more technologically complex. Vocational training and other school-leaving programmes, especially when coupled with on-the-job training, can be more effective at providing students with the mix of skills, competencies and experience that they need to enter the workforce upon graduation.  

Many families with students returning to school from summer vacation will have no doubt experienced the effects of what is projected to be the hottest year ever recorded. This year, people in North America, Europe, China and India have experienced dangerous heat caused by a combination of climate change and the El Niño weather cycle.

Human activity is also pushing millions of species of plants and animals to extinction, with deforestation, habitat loss, water overuse, pollution and over harvesting disrupting the global food system and leading to cascading effects that, with climate change, pose existential challenges.

According to most school leaders in OECD countries, the curriculum covers issues like climate change and other environmental issues. The good news is that these lessons are getting through: more than three quarters of 15-year-olds in those countries say that looking after the global environment is important to them. Yet when you ask them if they feel that they’re able to do something about the problems of the world, this number falls to just over half.

Creating the leaders of today and tomorrow also means equipping young people with the tools that they need to untangle and filter the myriad sources of information that they’re being bombarded with daily and to put that knowledge to work. Education needs to do more to not only teach students about the problems of today, but to empower them – through a mix of skills, knowledge, emotional capacity and networks – to effect change.

Technological advances embodied in the meteoric advances of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT represent a potentially massive disruption to education. AI networks already perform better than humans on many standardised tests and, as has been widely reported, students are taking advantage of this. In some cases this means using AI to cheat on tests and schoolwork, in others it means using it to extend learning and access new knowledge.

Yet the rapid advance of AI is also provoking important discussions about what makes us human, what constitutes learning and what the role of technology should be in education. As the world advances into a new technological era, it is vital that we grapple with these issues. In doing so, we may unlock the key to revolutionising learning at the same pace as technological progress.

Finally, it is important to remember that the classroom, however important, is only one of many settings in which we acquire knowledge, social and emotional skills, experience and relationships. Cultivating the qualities that are necessary for a good, happy, just, sustainable and prosperous life requires us to pay attention to a wide variety of realms – whether the home, the sports field, the theatre or the playground.

I’m very much looking forward to continuing this discussion on Thursday at our Back to School webinar on Thursday at 14:00 CET and to delving more deeply into the current state of education next Tuesday during the launch of Education at a Glance 2023 at 13:00 CET.