The weight of nations: the shape of things to come?

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

At lunchtime, Marco can be found in the bathroom stall of his secondary school. He is not ill. Rather, he is eating his lunch away from the eyes of his peers, sensitive to his weight problem and hoping to avoid being teased and targeted by bullies. Like many obese children, he struggles with poor self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

Growing affluence has had positive influences on the health of OECD citizens. Less premature death and infant mortality, and longer and healthier lives have all been associated with our increased economic well being. But, does affluence lead to indulgence? A just released OECD publication shows that obesity among adults and children threatens to grow into a severe public health crisis.

Across all countries, the average   Body Mass Index  (BMI) increased between 1980 and 2008. This trend is universal, and it is swift. In 1980, just under half of countries had an average BMI classified as “overweight”. By 2008, this figure had grown to 87% of countries, with Mexico and the United States at the top of the list. Only China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea still fall within the “normal” range, but their averages are also on the rise. Given the speed and uniformity of the trend, it is not an exaggeration to label it an epidemic for OECD (and increasingly BRIC) countries.

What does this mean for education? Schools can teach reading and writing, but combatting obesity requires learning about healthy behaviours and tools for managing one’s body, including non cognitive skills such as impulse control. Reducing junk food in school cafeterias is a start, but challenging negative assumptions and stereotypes that can shape teacher and student expectations is crucial. On a practical level, even simple details like the size of desks, chairs, and yes, washrooms, will need to be rethought.

Rising obesity is just one example of profound changes sweeping OECD countries, trends that are shaping the way we live and the future of education. Trends Shaping Education 2013 looks at 70 of these, including:

  • Aging populations and the need for lifelong learning to develop and reinforce skills across the lifespan;
  • An increasing divide between the rich and the middle class and the role of education in reducing (or reinforcing) inequity;
  • The growing number of single-person households and the role of schools in building a sense of community and combating alienation in urban environments;
  • A decline in voter turnout and the role of schools and universities in fostering civic literacy.

It is astonishing just how universal these trends are. In 100 pages this book provides a powerful snapshot of globalisation at work and links this data to the evolution of our classrooms and schools. It captures the transformation of our societies, and asks hard questions about how these trends will affect our education systems and what they mean for teaching and learning.

What role can education and schools play in improving civic participation and well-being in our modern societies? What does it mean for education that our societies are becoming more diverse? How might schools continue to foster a greater sense of community for their students and families in urban environments? These are just some of the questions we must ask ourselves when planning the future of our education systems. Policy makers, school leaders, teacher educators, and teachers can and should take an active role in this critical reflection, as well as parents and students. Behind every graph in Trends Shaping Education 2013 there is a Marco (or Maria, or Stan) hidden from sight in school, waiting for the weekend to come.

Trends Shaping Education 2013
Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat
Education and Social progress

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