Facing Reality in Crisis: “This Moment Holds Possibility”

For educators and education systems in crisis to develop resilience while ultimately shifting to effective reforms, it is vital to face reality by understanding the challenges we face. OEB 2020 Opening Plenary Keynote Andreas Schleicher of the OECD shares critical insights in this interview.

You have said that “success will go to those individuals and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change”. We have seen massive disruption in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed an obvious need for innovation and agility in the education system. However, the ability of education institutions to adapt is constrained by government policy, so what lessons should be learned and how can we make the system more flexible and ready to respond in the future?

True, the pandemic has exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems – from the gap between the knowledge and skills that today’s education systems foster and those that tomorrow’s world requires, through the technology and innovative environments that are needed to focus on learning, up to challenges we face to align educational resources with needs. But this moment also holds the possibility that we will not just return to the inadequate status quo when things get back to “normal”. Governments and civil society can act, and it is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to the disruptions that will determine how we will be affected by them.

Our current schools were invented in the industrial age, when the prevailing norms were standardisation and compliance, and when it was both effective and efficient to educate students in batches and to train teachers once for their entire working lives. The curricula that spelled out what students should learn were designed at the top of the pyramid, then translated into instructional material, teacher education and learning environments, often through multiple layers of government, until they reached and were implemented by individual teachers in the classroom.

This structure, inherited from the industrial model of work, makes change in a fast-moving world far too slow. The changes in our societies have vastly outpaced the structural capacity of our current education systems to respond. Even the best education minister can no longer do justice to the needs of millions of students, hundreds of thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of schools. 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. 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.

To bring this back to the current crisis: Where closures of schools and universities are needed in the short term, we can work to mitigate their impact for learners, families and educators, particularly for those in the most marginalised groups. We collaborate internationally to mutualise open learning resources and innovative learning platforms and establish effective public-private partnerships that draw on the best ideas. And we can use the momentum to rethink what and how students should learn to prepare for the needs of an interconnected 21st century.

A characteristic of the OECD is its evidence-driven effort to improve policies that better lives, with a focus on addressing the long-term social and economic implications of public policy. “In the middle of all this”, are you seeing disruptions of certain results or previous trends? And have new priorities come up for you/the organisation?

I think the biggest disruption in education comes from the fact that the kinds of things that are easy to teach have 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 the age of artificial intelligence, we will need to think harder about what it means to be first class humans. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of human beings. Algorithms behind social media are sorting us into groups of like-minded individuals. They create virtual bubbles that amplify our views and leave us insulated from divergent perspectives; they homogenise opinions while polarising our societies. Tomorrow’s citizens will need to think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They will need to 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.

Whether AI will destroy or create more jobs will very much depend on our success with this. AI is ethically neutral, but it is always in the hands of people who are not neutral. The only reason why we should fear the robots is because they will always obey us and never rebel. That is why education in the future is not just about teaching people something, but about helping them develop a reliable compass and the navigation tools to find their own way through an increasingly complex, ambiguous and volatile world.

The OEB conference community of learning professionals from the education, workplace learning and government sectors are at the forefront of digital learning and training. With regards to spending and investing time on professional development, or development of online learning: what might be the first thing for them to focus on?

In a way, we have 21st century students and technologies, but 20th century pedagogies and a 19th century school organisation. Digital learning will only become a reality if can bring these worlds closer together. In short, technology is always only as good as its use. PISA 2018 asked school principals about different aspects of their school’s capacity to enhance teaching and learning using digital devices. On average across OECD countries, 65% of 15-year-olds are enrolled in schools whose school principal considers that their teachers have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction. This highlights the enormous training needs that lie ahead of education systems to get ready for educational technology. Again, this varies considerably between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. In Sweden, for example, this is 89% in advantaged schools but just 54% in disadvantaged schools. These numbers signal that schools may reinforce rather than moderate the disadvantage that comes from individual home backgrounds.

On average across OECD countries, about 60% of 15-year-old students are enrolled in schools whose principals consider that teachers have sufficient time to prepare lessons integrating digital devices, ranging from close to 90% in the four Chinese provinces to little more than 10% in Japan. The picture is similar when it comes to the availability of effective professional resources for teachers to learn how to use the digital devices available. About 55% of students were in schools where teachers are provided with incentives to integrate digital devices into their teaching or have sufficiently qualified technical assistant staff.

What is your concern for learners? What good will come out of this crisis for them, if any, in your view?

Children who used to be spoon-fed by a teacher standing in front of them will face difficulties when they have to set their own learning goals, when they have to manage and monitor their own learning, and when they have to solve complex problems that require resilience and the willingness to try again when we fail. But the need and opportunity for students to manage their own learning could have huge benefits for the future.

This year, OEB’s overall conference theme is “making learning meaning”. Which thoughts or questions or comments does this instigate for you?

Making learning relevant and making learning count is one of the biggest challenges that we face.

Finally, we are doing our best to share knowledge, tips, solutions and best practices for teaching, training and learning online. The OECD have many available and we would love to hear if there is a specific resource or report that you would like to share with us today.

My latest book, World Class, How to Build a 21st-Century School System, can be downloaded for free via this link and you can find a lot of relevant material at the OECD website.

We sincerely thank Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, for taking the time for this interview. Andreas will be speaking at the Opening Plenary of OEB on December 3, 2020.

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