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“Our digital children: Educating for the future instead of the past”

“Our digital children: Educating for the future instead of the past”

Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD and speaker at the Digitising Europe Summit, on the impact of digitisation and automation on society and education.

The kinds of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. We need to think harder about how we develop the skills that make us truly human.

It is so much easier to educate students for our past than for their future. Schools are inherently conservative social systems and as parents, we get nervous when our children learn things we don’t understand – and even more so when they no longer study things that were so important for us. Teachers are more comfortable teaching how they were taught than how they were taught to teach. And politicians can lose an election over education issues, but they can rarely win one because it takes far longer than a single election cycle to translate intentions into results.

Andreas Schleicher is special adviser on education policy to OECD’s secretary-general. He also provides strategic oversight over OECD’s work on the development and utilisation of skills and their social and economic outcomes. Before joining the OECD, Schleicher was director for analysis at the International Association for Educational Achievement (IEA). He studied physics in Germany and received a degree in mathematics and statistics in Australia. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Theodor Heuss Prize, awarded in the name of the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany for “exemplary democratic engagement” (Photo: OECD/Marco Illuminati)

So changing education bureaucracies seems like moving graveyards: It’s often hard to rely on the people out there to help because the status quo has so many protectors. The biggest risk to schooling today isn’t its inefficiency, but that our way of schooling is losing its purpose and relevance. And when fast gets really fast, being slower to adapt makes education systems really slow and disoriented.

We live in a world where the kinds of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there is no guarantee it will continue to do so in the future.

The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the values and the skills – cognitive, social and emotional – of human beings. It will be our imagination, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will enable us to harness digitalisation to shape the world for the better. Algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual filter bubbles that amplify our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinions while polarising our societies.

Tomorrow’s schools will need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to help students develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the claims that others make on us, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. At work, at home and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists. Whatever tasks machines may be taking over from humans at work, the demands on our knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to social and civic life will keep growing.

Back when we could still assume that what we learn in school would last for a lifetime, teaching content knowledge and routine cognitive skills was rightly at the centre of education. Today, the world no longer rewards us for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know. If all we do is teach our children what we know, they may remember enough to follow in our footsteps. But it is only if we help them build a reliable compass and the requisite navigation skills will they be able to go anywhere and find their way through this increasingly complex, volatile and ambiguous world.

For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting. But for those who are insufficiently prepared, they can mean vulnerable and insecure work along with a life without prospects. Our economies are shifting towards regional hubs of production, linked together by global chains of information and goods, but concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. This makes the distribution of knowledge and wealth crucial, and that is intimately tied to the distribution of education opportunities.

But while digital technologies can have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure, they don’t have predetermined implications. We have agency, and it is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to these disruptions that will determine how we are affected by them.

One of the reasons why we get stuck in education is that our thinking is framed by so many myths.

Myth one: “The poor will always do badly in school.” That’s not true: The 10 percent most disadvantaged students in Shanghai did better on PISA math test than the 10 percent most advantaged students in large American cities.

Myth two: “Immigrants will lower the performance of a country in international comparisons.” That’s not true: There is no relationship between the share of immigrants and the quality of an education system; the school systems where immigrant students settle matters a lot more than the country where they came from.

Myth three: “Smaller classes always translate into better results.” That’s not true: In fact, whenever high-performing education systems have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they tend to go for the latter. Often it is small classes that have created the Taylorist culture where teachers end up doing nothing other than teaching and don’t have the time to support individual students, collaborate with other teaching professionals or work with parents — activities that are hallmarks of high-performing education systems.

The good news is that our knowledge about what works in education has vastly improved. For a start, leaders in high-performing education systems have convinced their citizens to value the future. Chinese parents and grandparents will invest whatever money they have into the education of their children. Much of the Western world, meanwhile, has already squandered the money of its children for consumption, and their nations are heavily indebted as a result.

But placing high value on education is just one part of the equation. Another is the deep belief that every student can learn. In some countries, students are segregated into different tracks at early ages, reflecting the notion that only some children can succeed. By contrast, in countries like Canada, Estonia, Finland and Japan, parents and teachers trust that all students can meet high standards — and that trust is manifested in student and teacher behaviour. These systems have advanced from sorting human talent to developing human talent.

And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems select and educate their teaching staff carefully. They provide an environment in which teachers work together to frame good practice, and they encourage teachers to grow in their careers.

Top-performing school systems have also moved on from administrative control and accountability to professional forms of work organisation. They encourage their teachers to be innovative, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to better practice. In top school systems, the emphasis is not on looking upwards within the administration of the school system. Instead it’s about looking outwards to the next teacher or the next school, creating a culture of collaboration and strong networks of innovation.

Not least, the best-performing school systems provide high-quality education across the entire system so that every student benefits from excellent teaching. To achieve this, these systems attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. They also align policies and practices across the entire system in addition to ensuring that the policies are coherent over sustained periods of time and that they are consistently implemented.

Still, knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it. To transform schooling at scale, we need not just a radical vision of what is possible, but also smart strategies to help drive change. The road of 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 the tip of the iceberg.

The reason it is so hard to move school systems is that there is a much larger invisible part beneath the waterline. This invisible part is about the interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved in education, including parents and teachers. 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.

Many teachers and schools are ready for that. To encourage their growth, policy needs to shift towards inspiring and enabling innovation while identifying and sharing best practice.

Schleicher states that it is much easier to educate students for our past than for their future (Photo: svetikd, iStock)