It’s a matter of trust

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

The world is rapidly becoming a different place, with globalisation and modernisation imposing huge challenges to individuals and societies. Schools need to prepare students to live and work in a world in which most people will need to collaborate with people of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people need to decide how to trust and collaborate across such differences, often bridging space and time through technology; and a world in which their lives will be affected by issues that transcend national boundaries. These days, we no longer know exactly how things will unfold; often we are surprised and need to learn from the extraordinary; sometimes we make mistakes along the way. And it will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. Resilience has become key to success, the capacity to cope in an imbalanced world, recognising that the world exists in constant disequilibrium – trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles.

Studies show that interpersonal trust is fundamental for promoting the resilience of our societies, but many individuals say that they have little trust in others. Just released work on the Educational Roots of Trust finds that, on average across the communities that participated in the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), only around 2 in 10 people across participating countries reported that they trust more than just a few people and even fewer disagreed with the statement that unless they were careful, people would take advantage of them. Levels of interpersonal trust are highest in the Nordic countries and lowest in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy and the Slovak Republic. Low levels of trust in society could have a negative impact on communities and interpersonal co-operation.

What explains the level of trust? Some forms of diversity, such as income inequality, are negatively associated with overall levels of interpersonal trust (i.e the greater the inequality, the less trust between people); but others, including immigrant background, are not. Our new report shows that education systems can play a role in fostering high levels of interpersonal trust even in uncertain times. Communities with higher levels of literacy enjoy higher levels of interpersonal trust than those where adults are less proficient in literacy.

The report uses data from the Survey of Adult Skills to show how and why education matters in building interpersonal trust. First and foremost, education can enhance cognitive skills to the extent that individuals feel they can then trust others, in general, because they believe they have the capacity to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy people or institutions at any one time. In addition, specific education pathways may give individuals greater knowledge of, and insights into, how groups and communities operate. Different levels of educational attainment may also be associated with different occupations, where individuals exercise different levels of autonomy, and hold different expectations for working with and trusting others.

Ultimately, this report shows that when education systems are not inclusive and perpetuate the large disparities in skills that are related to socio-economic status, not only do they inadvertently hamper economic and social mobility, but they hinder social cohesion and the development of the next generation’s social capital. In other words, they undermine their society’s economic and social well-being. As our countries emerge from the economic crisis, we have to do more to strengthen the social contract among individuals, particularly as growing inequality threatens to tear societies apart. Education systems can do their part by helping all students to acquire the skills they need to prosper in 21st-century societies, and to build strong, trusting relationships with the people and institutions around them.

The Educational Roots of Trust, OECD Working Paper No. 119, by Francesca Borgonovi and Tracey Burns
New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC)
Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)
Survey of Adult Skills
Photo Credit: Boys athlete acrobats perform acrobatic figures in the arena / @Shutterstock

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