Education reform means a break from the past

Why the industrial model – hierarchical organizations using standardised methods to produce uniform products – no longer works for schools or students.

By Andreas Schleicher

While the world is focused on the current economic crises, a more serious long-term disaster is brewing. The generation born this year in OECD countries is likely to lose €190 trillion in economic output over their lifetime. Why? Because most school systems in the industrialised world are not delivering what the best-performing education systems show can be achieved. This is not to say that we don’t need to deal with today’s economic situation, but it is to say that deficiencies in our education systems amount to a permanent recession.

Getting out of this recession involves nothing less than a break from the past.

When economies only needed a small slice of well-educated people, it was sufficient for governments to invest a large sum into a small elite to lead the country. But the social and economic cost of low educational performance has risen substantially and now all young people need to leave school with strong foundation skills.

When you could still assume that what you learn in school would last a lifetime, teaching content and routine cognitive skills were rightly at the centre of education. Today, when you can access content on the Web, when routine skills are being digitised or outsourced, and when jobs are changing rapidly, the focus must be on enabling people to become lifelong and life-wide learners, to prepare people for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented and to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise.

Of course, state-of-the-art knowledge will always remain important. But schooling today needs to be much more about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. It needs to be about new ways of working, including communication and collaboration, and about different tools for working, especially those that exploit the potential of new technologies. Our learning space is being completely redefined, breaking down barriers to knowledge access and broadening opportunities for innovative education. Last but not least, schooling should be about creating active and responsible citizens for a multi-faceted world.

The conventional educational approach is to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces and then to teach students how to solve these bits and pieces. But in modern economies we create value by synthesising different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated, which requires being receptive to knowledge in other fields.

Similarly, learning involves being open to the ideas of others. In today’s schools, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year we certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators.

Attracting good teachers

The trouble is that all this requires a completely different calibre of teachers. When teaching is about imparting prefabricated knowledge, you can afford low teacher quality and can accept governments telling their teachers exactly what to do. Today the challenge is to make teaching a profession of high-level knowledge workers; people who can work autonomously and contribute to the profession within a collaborative culture.

But such people will not be attracted to schools organised as Taylorist workplaces using administrative forms of accountability and bureaucratic command and control systems. To lure talent, education systems need to set ambitious goals, be clear about what students should be able to do and establish systems of intelligent accountability. These systems also need to  provide teachers with the tools and the independence they need to provide instruction to each student. The past was about delivered wisdom, the future is about user-generated wisdom.

In the past, different students were taught in similar, standardised ways. Today the challenge is to embrace diversity with differentiated, personalised pedagogical practices. Instead of considering social background and culture as obstacles to learning, the future is about capitalising on the diversity of learners, thus enhancing the potential of the knowledge-based society. Education systems have always talked about equity, now we measure their success by how well they deliver equity, in terms of moderating the impact which social background has on learning outcomes. The past was curriculum-centred, the future is learner-centred.

Last, but not least, while much of education in the past was geared towards situational values – I will do anything that a situation allows me to do – education needs to do a much better job at fostering sustainable values.

Is this utopia? Certainly not. The best-performing education systems show others that all this can be achieved. The benchmark for success is no longer improvement by national standards alone, but by the best-performing education systems internationally. The world has become indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving to frailty and ignorant to custom or practice. Success will go to those individuals and nations which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change.

This article was originally published in Issue 9 of the Futures Magazine.

Andreas Schleicher is author of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (the PISA study), which surveys the skills of 15-year-olds in industrialised countries.

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