Why knowledge is the most important resource for education systems today

By Dirk Van Damme

Senior Counsellor, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Education systems in developed countries today are huge – in terms of people, institutions and budgets – and emerging nations are rapidly catching up, as they expand their own educational infrastructure. Such large systems do not run on money, alone. Knowledge is probably the most important resource that education systems need to turn money and infrastructure into the outcomes that societies expect of them.

Modern societies no longer tolerate putting large amounts of money into an education system that does not deliver on expectations. But without knowledge, education risks becoming another black hole in the public infrastructure. At every level – from policy makers at the top, to the teacher in a small village school – education systems are asking for more, and better, knowledge. This is not a new phenomenon, but with evidence-informed policy and practice exerting greater influence over education in recent years, the demand for reliable knowledge has increased exponentially.

To be honest, educational science is not in a very good position to respond to this need. In most countries, the knowledge and evidence base of education goes back to philosophical traditions in pedagogy, complemented by evidence from supporting disciplines such as sociology and psychology. Educational researchers have only recently adopted state-of-the-art research approaches that would stand the test of rigour in other disciplines. But – as we often hear from education ministers – educational research has both a “quantity” and “quality” problem.

Quantitatively, the amount of resources available to educational research does not match its needs. The health system, by contrast, consumes a similar share of taxpayers’ money, but can rely on a very extensive infrastructure of biomedical research. Nothing comparable exists in education. Qualitatively, many peers in the scientific domain will agree that educational science relies too heavily on pre-scientific views, often based on romanticist belief systems about children and their learning, or on practical knowledge transmitted from one generation to another. Things have improved recently, however, as trained researchers increasingly turn to scientific research methodologies.

Connecting the worlds of research and educational policy and practice will take time, and serious effort.

In this context, it is remarkable that other disciplines are turning their focus to human learning. This is often the case in relatively new fields, such as neuroscience, and those based on new technological opportunities, such as non-invasive brain research. Researchers in these fields join cognitive and social psychologists, colleagues working in computer and information science, specialists in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and even engineers in a shared endeavour to unravel the mysteries of human learning. This cross-disciplinary effort is very welcomed, and it is starting to generate fascinating new perspectives. Old pedagogical questions, which are often stuck in sclerorised ideological positions, are now re-examined in a completely new light. The fundamental building blocks of human learning, such as the origins of language learning and numerical representations, are no longer uncharted territories.

The question, then, is how to transmit and translate this emerging body of research evidence into the knowledge channels of education. There are very powerful barriers to new knowledge within the education infrastructure because of established, generally accepted forms of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’, professional knowledge among teachers, and age-old codified knowledge in teacher training. Confronting these knowledge bastions will not be helpful; a careful and patient approach to translating and transmitting new research evidence is needed.

That’s why an effort by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), in partnership with the US National Science Foundation’s Science of Learning Centers, is so important. This initiative aims to present research findings from leading research teams in ways that are understandable for the professional educational community, is so important. The recently published report, Developing Minds in the Digital Age: Towards a Science of Learning for 21st Century Education, fills a huge gap in this regard – in both its content and the way it translates research into policy and practice.

A cross-disciplinary science of learning is clearly in the making, and that’s probably the best news for education in a long time. It holds enormous promises for future improvements in the way we institutionally and professionally organise environments where humans learn. But connecting the worlds of research and educational policy and practice will take time, and serious effort.

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