The ever growing generation gap in the classroom

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

It is perfectly normal that teachers and students are not of the same age. In contrast to other public services, it is a distinctive feature of education that the professionals, i.e. the teachers, are older than their clients, i.e. the students. One could think of education as an institutionalised dialogue between generations, as a social space in which they interact. Through education, societies transmit the knowledge, skills, culture and values of a society from one generation to another. Nevertheless, students are not just passive recipients of former generations’ knowledge and values, but also transform and build upon them, thus influencing the development of societies. Especially in a period of rapid social change, the dialogue between generations is critical to ensure that no generation gets left behind. Across OECD countries, some schools take this role very seriously and even try to organise opportunities for individuals of all ages to meet and exchange, for example by inviting grandparents to school or by welcoming senior members of the community to interact with younger students.

From an educational point of view, the age of teachers is an important variable in the quality of teaching and learning environments. Ideally, students should be able to interact with a variety of generations of teachers. Each age group adds a specific dimension to the learning process. Older teachers bring quality associated with their experience, both with regard to professional experience and wider life experience. And younger teachers bring innovation associated with recent training and the enthusiasm of youth itself. Adolescents generally connect and identify better with younger teachers and expect that they will have a greater understanding of their lifeworld and the challenges related to growing up in modern societies. Education systems benefit from a balanced age distribution among teachers.

The new issue of the Education Indicators in Focus series presents the most recent statistical evidence on the age of teachers. The data show a worrisome trend. The average age of teachers in secondary schools across OECD countries continues to increase. A male secondary school teacher’s age was 44 on average in 2000; and 45 in 2011. For a female secondary school teacher, the average age in 2000 was 42, while it was 43 in 2011. Correspondingly, the share of older teachers (>50 years old) in the teaching work force also increased. Among secondary school teachers, the share of older teachers increased from 35% to 39% for males, and from 28% to 34% for females. These changes may not seem very dramatic, but they imply that every year a typical secondary school teacher is one month older than the year before. Differences between countries are large: in 2011, 55% of the male secondary school teachers in Germany were over age 50, 52% in Iceland, 55% in The Netherlands and even 67% in Italy.

An ageing teaching force leads to various policy challenges, such as upward pressures on the salary mass, peaks in teacher replacement and recruitment, or increased needs to invest in training and professional development. From an economic point of view, countries would be better off with a more balanced age distribution of teachers. But maybe more important are the implications for the quality of the teaching and learning process. Older teachers have the experiential knowledge and skills which potentially make them excellent teachers. But if the professional development is lacking to enrich their experiential knowledge and skills with the best recent research and evidence from innovative practice, older teachers risk sticking to what has worked well in the past and may have the tendency to sidestep innovation.

No one would accept being treated in hospital by a medical doctor who would not have updated his knowledge and skills since he or she left college 20 years ago. The teaching profession also would benefit from balancing experiential knowledge embodied by older teachers and innovation-oriented, research-informed knowledge which comes with younger teachers. In order to connect and identify with schooling, adolescent students need teachers who can read and understand their behaviour, their issues, their culture and values, teachers whose world view is not too remote from their own. It is difficult to imagine that, with more than half of their teachers 35 years older than they are, adolescent students can identify with school and engage in high-quality teaching and interactive learning.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 20, Dirk Van Damme
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus:
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators:
Chart source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013, Indicator D5 (

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