Reflections on the Forum for World Education

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, Directorate of Education and Skills

On 3-4 December, the Forum for World Education brought together over 300 young people, business leaders and educators at the OECD headquarters in Paris to reimagine education. It is an urgent agenda. For those with the right skills, digitalisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting; but for those who are insufficiently prepared, they often mean vulnerable and insecure work, and life with few prospects. Our economies have shifted towards regional hubs of production that are linked together by global chains of information and goods, but that are concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. This makes the distribution of skills and wealth crucial, and that’s intimately tied to the distribution of education opportunity. Beyond that, we live in a world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. The industrial age taught us how to educate second-class robots – people who are good at repeating what we tell them. In this age of accelerations, we need to think much harder about what makes us human and how we complement, not substitute, the artificial intelligence we have created in our computers.

Putting learners at the centre

The biggest risk to schooling today isn’t its inefficiency, but that our way of schooling is losing its purpose and relevance. When fast gets really fast, being slower to adapt makes education systems really slow and disoriented. It is so much easier to educate children for our past than for their future. As Jack Ma, co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, said in his opening address, we have been working so hard on trying to feed everyone, making sure everyone can go to school, that we almost forgot to think about what to feed learners in school.

The most important takeaway from the Forum for me was this: Wherever we bring young leaders into a discussion on the future of education, it’s actually not that difficult to reach agreement on what people should learn and how people should learn to be ready for the future. In their discussion with business leaders, young learners had clear ideas about what knowledge, skills, attitudes and values were most important, and how they were learning these best. Tiril Rahn, Jack Adeney and Rawan Dareer, graduates from New York University in Abu Dhabi, brought these points out very well. And WorldSkills champions Pearl So, Ricardo Vivian, Gary Condon and Anna Prokopenia added that academic institutions provide just one way of learning, and that some of the most important skills are developed at work.

The most central point was that education is no longer just about teaching people something, but about helping them develop a reliable compass and the tools to navigate through an increasingly complex and volatile world. Education is about identity, it’s about agency and it’s about purpose. Success in education is about building curiosity – opening minds; it’s about compassion – opening hearts; and it’s about courage – mobilising our cognitive, social and emotional resources to take responsibility. And that’s also going to be our best weapon against the biggest threats of our times: ignorance – the closed mind; hate – the closed heart; and fear – the enemy of agency.

Tomorrow’s learning environments need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They’ll need to help students develop a strong sense of right and wrong, sensitivity to the claims that others make on us, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. At work and in the community, people need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists. In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings but often with global implications, means we need to become good in handling tensions and dilemmas. Striking a balance between competing demands – equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process – is going to require the capacity to navigate ambiguity.

All this will require very different learning environments. As Jack Ma put it, we should make schools less like industrial farms and more like zoos, bringing out the features that make each person special rather than developing standardised ways of thinking that technology will make redundant. Or, in the words of Hekia Parata, former Minister of Education in New Zealand, we need to get from numbers to names to needs, and become better at respecting the identity, context and culture of every learner.

Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands recounted how a teacher’s handshake and look in the eye was the defining moment of the day. Today, we let children scan their QR code when they enter school to feed some accountability statistics. There has been a global trend to commodify education, turning students into consumers, parents into clients, and teachers into service providers, making learning a transactional process rather than a relational and social phenomenon. How can we put people back at the centre of education, make education a social enterprise, and understand the needs of the invisible children, not just the eloquent children? The Forum’s young leaders, Damian Boesalager, Kaloi Duncan, Fan Jesse Yang, Dani Bickell and Maitha Al Memari had compelling answers to this question.

The power of peer learning

My second takeaway from the Forum was about the power of peer learning. It is so important that we don’t just look forward but also outward. That’s not about copying and pasting solutions from other places; it’s about looking seriously and dispassionately at good practice in our own countries and elsewhere to understand what works in which culture and which context. I have been in classrooms of more than 60 countries, and each and every time I learned something important. Schools and school systems that feel threatened by alternative ways of thinking get trapped in old practice. The ones that progress are those that are open to the world and ready to learn from and with the world’s education leaders.

Charlie Stripp, Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, explained how England’s former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, Liz Truss, a former mathematics teacher, had been inspired by Shanghai’s high performance in the PISA mathematics assessment in 2012. She went to visit Shanghai and was impressed by the mathematics teaching that she observed and the teacher-to-teacher and school-to-school programmes in the province. She worked with the Chinese to create an exchange programme for teachers between China and England. Some 50 English-speaking mathematics teachers from China were deployed to more than 30 maths hubs in England. They showed the teaching methods they use, including teaching to the top and helping struggling students one-on-one.

They gave daily mathematics lessons, homework and feedback. The Chinese teachers were also running masterclasses for local schools and provided subject-specific, on-the-job teacher education. In turn, leading English mathematics teachers from each of the maths hubs went to work in schools in China. The programme attracted considerable attention in both countries, showing how much teachers can and want to learn from other cultures if they are given the opportunities to do so, and if we dare to pull down ideological walls. Young leaders like Brett Wigdortz, Founder and Honourary President of Teach First in England, and Christopher Pommerening, Founder and Chief Empowerment Office of Learnlife in Spain, showed that it is not that difficult to build and scale innovative educational experiences.

Learning from the world is not just about methods, but also about content. The concept of global competence came up in many discussions. Educators need to prepare students for the culturally diverse and digitally connected communities in which they will work and socialise. What could be more important today than people who can see the world through different lenses, appreciate different ways of thinking and learning, and understand and appreciate different cultures? Yu Lizhong, Chancellor of New York University in Shanghai, highlighted the value of culture as a learning experience. But while 79 countries and economies tested reading, mathematics and science performance in PISA 2018, only a minority of countries have so far joined the PISA global competence assessment.

Making change happen

My third takeaway from the Forum was about making change happen. As Vishal Talreja, co-founder of Dream a Dream in India, pointed out, we know quite well what is working in education and what is not working. Still, knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it. The reality is that many good ideas get stuck in the process of policy implementation. Governments are under pressure to deliver results in education services while ensuring that citizens’ tax dollars are spent wisely and effectively. They set ambitious reform agendas and develop strategic plans to achieve them. But the challenges ministers most commonly cite are not about designing reforms, but about how reforms can be put into practice successfully. As Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, pointed out, the road to education reform is littered with good ideas that were poorly implemented.

The laws, regulations, structures and institutions on which education leaders tend to focus are just like the visible tip of an iceberg. The reason why it is so hard to move school systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline. This invisible part is about the interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved in education, parents and teachers included. This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part of education reform tends to evade the radar of public policy. That is why education leaders are rarely successful with reform unless they build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change, and unless they build capacity and create the right policy climate, with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation rather than compliance.

The challenge is to build on the expertise of our teachers and school leaders and enlist them in the design of superior policies and practices. This is not accomplished just by letting a thousand flowers bloom; it requires a carefully crafted enabling environment that can unleash teachers’ and schools’ ingenuity and build capacity for change. As Hekia Parata emphasised, it requires leaders who tackle institutional structures that too often are built around the interests and habits of educators and administrators rather than learners, leaders who are sincere about social change, imaginative in policy making, and capable of using the trust they earn to deliver effective reforms.

Olli-Pekka Heinonen, former Minister of Education in Finland and now Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education, pointed out how effective policy implementation rarely succeeds through command and control but instead relies on shared dialogue that builds on trust – trust in education, in educational institutions, in schools and teachers, in students and communities. In all public services, trust is always the essential part of good governance. Successful schools will always be places where great people want to work, and where their ideas can be best realised, where they are trusted and where they can put their trust. We know too little about how trust is developed in education and sustained over time, or how it can be restored if broken. But trust cannot be legislated or mandated; that is why it is so hard to build into traditional administrative structures. Trust is always intentional; it can only be nurtured and inspired through healthy relationships and constructive transparency. That is the lesson the world can learn from countries like Estonia or Finland.

Making school everybody’s business

My fourth takeaway is about making education everybody’s business. Schools tend to be good at keeping students inside but often keep the rest of the world outside. But we can change this. Nick Chambers, Founder and CEO of Education and Employers, a UK-based charity, showed how education in schools can be made so much more relevant and engaging when schools invite people from all walks of life to explain their jobs to the next generation of learners. In the same vein, Princess Laurentien emphasised that citizenship is not learned but experienced.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, recounted via video how he left school, disillusioned, at age 16 because he felt that school did nothing to develop his creative and entrepreneurial talents. On his last day at school, his headmaster famously told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. We all know how that worked out. Sir Richard portrayed a vision for education that puts character and values at its heart, where people work to learn, love to learn and learn to love.

Tackling the gateways

My fifth takeaway was the urgency to redesign our examinations and assessments. The way students are tested has a big influence on the future of education too, because it signals the priorities for the curriculum and instruction. Tests will always focus our thinking about what is important, and they should. Teachers and school administrators, as well as students, will pay attention to what is tested and adapt the curriculum and teaching accordingly. We keep learners, teachers, parents and employers prisoners of these gateways.

The trouble is that many assessment systems are poorly aligned with the vision of education that many countries aspire to and that was discussed at the Forum. Large parts of today’s school tests can be answered in seconds with the help of a smartphone. If our children are to be smarter than their smartphones, then tests need to look beyond whether students can reproduce information to determine, instead, whether they can extrapolate from what they know, and apply their knowledge creatively to novel situations. Assessments also need to capture social and emotional skills.

Today, most tests do not allow students to connect to the Internet, based on the fear that students may look up the answers to the test questions. The challenge for future assessments is whether they can encourage students to go on line to connect with the world’s most advanced knowledge without jeopardising the validity and reliability of results. Similarly, one of the worst offences in test taking is to consult with another student. But given that innovation is now more often based on sharing knowledge, future tests should not disqualify students for collaborating with other test-takers, but find ways that they can do so.

In current examinations and assessments, we often trade gains in validity for gains in efficiency, and relevance for reliability. We do that because it makes results seemingly more objective and thus reduces the risk that they will be contested. Some education ministers have lost their job because of disputes around examination results; few have been challenged for poor validity and relevance of test results. We need to turn that around. As Rebecca Winthrop, a senior fellow and Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, reminded us, if PISA wants to remain the global metric for success in education, PISA too will need to evolve.

But in the face of challenges and opportunities as great as any that have gone before, we need not be passive or inert. We have agency, the ability to anticipate and the power to frame our actions with purpose. One of the most striking results from the PISA 2018 assessment was that the 10% most disadvantaged students in the four Chinese provinces/municipalities that participated in the test outperformed the average student in OECD countries, and the 10% wealthiest students in a number of those countries. This highlights that universal high-quality education is an attainable goal, that it is within our means to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one, and that our task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable.

Replay the magic of the Forum for World Education

Press Release, 05 December 2019

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