Much to be done, preparing students for their future, not our own past, a different approach to teaching and learning, spending “more on the same” is not enough and levelling the playing field
Editor’s note : Well, a lot would apply here in Canada and Quebec !
2.5 million students in the Ibero-American region taking the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were not able to complete even the most basic reading, mathematics or science tasks – and this figure does not include the significant share of 15-year-olds no longer in school in these countries. It is also troubling that, in much of the Ibero-American world, where students live and their schools remains one of the most powerful predictors of the quality of their education. Contrast that with the learning outcomes among the 10% most disadvantaged students in Viet Nam, which now compare favourably to students’ outcomes among the 10% wealthiest families in most of Latin America.
But the educational agenda is far too important for us to give up and not take a hard look at how to turn the page on this. That is what this book is about. And there are encouraging signs of change in the region that must not be overlooked. For a start, most Ibero- American countries have seen good progress in increasing school enrolment, resulting in improvements of up to 24% in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico between 2003 and 2015. More importantly, countries like Brazil, Colombia and Peru have been able to significantly increase the share of children getting access to secondary education – while still improving overall learning outcomes. Perhaps most intriguingly, in most countries in the region we find educational excellence among some of the most disadvantaged schools. So things can change. And, without the right education, people will languish on the margins of society, technological progress will not translate into social progress, and countries will not succeed in a modern and interconnected world. We simply can’t develop fair and inclusive policies and engage all citizens if a lack of education prevents them from fully participating in society. So things must change.
In this environment, the Sustainable Development Goals set by the global community for 2030 provide a perspective for the well-being of the planet. These goals are a shared vision of humanity that provides the missing piece of the globalisation puzzle, the glue that can counter the centrifugal forces in the age of acceleration. How far that vision will become a reality will depend to no small part on what happens in today’s classrooms; it is educators who hold the key to ensuring that the Sustainable Development Goals become a real social contract with citizens.
Preparing students for their future, not our own past
Since Confucius and Socrates, educators have recognised the double purpose of education: to pass on the meaning and significance of the past and to prepare young people for the challenges of the future. So the challenge is not simply to deliver more of the same education, but to prepare students for a different world.
Digitalisation has connected people, cities, countries and continents, bringing together the majority of the world’s population in ways that vastly increases our individual and collective potential. But the same forces have also made the world more volatile, more complex and more uncertain. The rolling processes of automation and hollowing out of jobs, particularly for routine tasks, have radically altered the nature of work and life.
For those with the right knowledge, skills and character qualities this has been liberating and exciting. But for those who are insufficiently prepared, it can mean the scourge of vulnerable and insecure work, and life without prospects. But the point is not just that digital technologies have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure – it is that they do not have predetermined implications. It is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to these disruptions that will determine their outcomes – the continuous interplay between an emerging technological frontier and the range of cultural, social, institutional and economic ingredients, including education, that we combine in response.
One dilemma for educators is that the kinds of things that are easy to teach and easy to test, are precisely the kind of things that are also easy to digitise and automate. A more detailed look at the PISA data for the Ibero-American countries shows that this is one of the greatest weaknesses of their school systems. Students are much stronger on tasks requiring the reproduction of subject matter content than on tasks involving complex problem-solving processes. Similarly, students in the Ibero-American countries tend to be stronger on content knowledge than on epistemic understanding. For example, they responded correctly to tasks relating to specific scientific content, but were often unable to demonstrate they could think like a scientist.
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. Innovation is now rarely the product of individuals working in isolation but an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge. The well-being of societies also depends increasingly on their capacity to take collective action. Every day we see how the mere interaction of billions of individual humans, taking their own autonomous decisions, can combine to create systemic risks with potentially catastrophic consequences. Schools therefore need to become better at helping students to learn to understand the pluralism of modern living, and be able to join people from different backgrounds in life, work and citizenship. That means teaching and rewarding collaboration as well as individual academic achievement, enabling students to think for themselves and to act for and with others. Contrast this with the PISA results where, in every Ibero-American country except Costa Rica, students performed significantly lower on the assessment of collaborative problem-solving skills than in their ability to solve problems individually. Collaborative skills might have become a catchword in many education systems, but the reality is that students sit most of the time at their individual desks and there is limited time for collaborative learning.
These days, schools also need to prepare students for an interconnected world in which they need to understand and appreciate different perspectives and world views, interact successfully and respectfully with others, and take responsible action towards sustainability and collective well-being. It is a formidable scientific challenge to measure global competence, as such a construct of social and civic inclusion involves so many varied cognitive, social and emotional components. Even more striking is how difficult it proved to gather political support among the Latin American countries to take the PISA assessment of global competence forward.
A different approach to teaching and learning
The challenge is that developing such capabilities requires a very different approach to learning and teaching and a different calibre of teachers. Where teaching is about imparting predetermined knowledge, countries can afford low-quality teachers. And when teacher quality is low, governments tend to tell their teachers exactly what to do and exactly how they want it done, using an industrial organisation of work to get the results they want. Today the challenge is to make teaching a profession of advanced knowledge workers who work with a high level of professional autonomy and within a collaborative culture.
But such people will not work as exchangeable widgets in schools organised as Tayloristic workplaces that rely mainly on administrative forms of accountability and bureaucratic command and control systems to direct their work. To attract the people they need, modern school systems need to transform the way they organise work in their schools into a professional form of work organisation in which professional norms of control replace bureaucratic and administrative forms of control. The past was about received wisdom, the future is about user-generated wisdom.
The past was also divided – with teachers and content divided by subjects and students separated by expectations of their future career prospects. And the past could be isolated – with schools designed to keep students inside, and the rest of the world outside, lacking engagement with families and reluctant to partner with other schools. The future needs to be integrated – with an emphasis on the integration of subjects and the integration of students. It also needs to be connected – so that learning is closely related to real-world contexts and contemporary issues and open to the rich resources in the community. Powerful learning environments constantly create synergies and find new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others. They do so with families and communities, with higher education, with businesses, and especially with other schools and learning environments. This is about creating innovative partnerships. Isolation in a world of complex learning systems will seriously limit potential.
While instruction in the past was subject-based, instruction in the future needs to be more project-based, building experiences that help students think across the boundaries of subject-matter disciplines. The past was hierarchical, the future is collaborative, recognising both teachers and students as resources and co-creators.
In the past, different students were taught in similar ways. Now school systems need to embrace diversity with differentiated approaches to learning. The goals of the past were standardisation and compliance, with students educated in age cohorts, following the same standard curriculum, all assessed at the same time. The future is about building instruction on top of students’ passions and capacities, helping them to personalise their learning and assessment in ways that foster engagement and talents, and it’s about encouraging students to be ingenious. School systems need to recognise more clearly that individuals learn differently from each other, and differently at different stages of their lives. They need to foster new forms of educational provision that take learning to the learner in ways that allow them to learn in the ways that are most conducive to their progress. We need to take to heart the idea that learning is not a place but an activity. As well as countering educational disadvantage, this will capitalise on the strengths of the most talented students.
In the past, schools were technological islands, with technology often limited to supporting existing practices, and students outpacing schools in their adoption and consumption of technology. Now schools need to use the potential of technology to liberate learning from past conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways with sources of knowledge, innovative applications and one another.
Spending “more on the same” is not enough
Investing in better education will be key for the future of the Ibero-American countries. Among countries that invest less than USD 50 000 per student between the age of 6 and 15 – and that includes most of the Latin American countries – PISA shows an important relationship between spending per student and the quality of learning outcomes. On top of that, the first lesson I learned when researching the countries that came out on top of the PISA comparisons is that their leaders seem to have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education over other things. Chinese parents will often invest their last money in the education of their children, their future. These are also the type of countries where the focus of a town might be a well-equipped school rather than a shiny shopping centre. In much of the Ibero-American world, governments have started to borrow money from the next generation to finance their consumption today, and the debt they have incurred puts a massive brake on economic and social progress.
But it is wrong to equate better education simply with more money. More money only gets education systems so far. In fact, among the countries that invest more than USD 50 000 per student between the age of 6 and 15 the data show no further relationship between spending and the quality of learning outcomes. In other words, two countries with similarly high spending levels can produce very different results. So the Ibero- American countries also need to think harder about how they spend their resources. The PISA data suggest that whenever high-performing education systems have had to choose between a smaller class and a better teacher, they have gone for the latter. In many Ibero- American countries, investment choices have gone the other way round over the last decade.
Levelling the playing field
If there is one takeaway from this book, it is the large educational inequalities that it reveals in Latin America. This needs to change. What wise parents want for their children is what governments should deliver for all children. Children from wealthier families will find many open doors to a successful life. But children from poor families often have just one chance in life, and that is a good school that gives them a chance to develop their potential. Those who miss that boat rarely catch up, as subsequent educational opportunities in life tend to reinforce early education outcomes.
Providing equitable educational opportunities is not actually a technically complex issue, and the data from PISA show that in some countries even the most disadvantaged children achieve very high performance levels. We often make it complex by injecting politics and vested interests that can massively distort what is in the best interest of children. It is those issues that countries need to tackle.
For a start, as this report shows, many Ibero-American education systems could do better at aligning resources with needs. When it comes to material resources, they have made some progress, but most of the countries continue to find it hard to attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms.
Addressing that is not as simple as paying teachers who work in disadvantaged schools more, but it requires holistic approaches in which teachers feel supported in their professional and personal life when they take on additional challenges, and when they know that additional effort will be valued in terms of public recognition and career progression.
The most impressive result of Shanghai’s performance on PISA is not just its high average score, but the low variability in school performance despite considerable social and economic inequalities in the province. This has not come about by chance but can be seen in the context of determined efforts to improve the school system by converting “weaker schools” to stronger schools. These efforts include systematically upgrading the infrastructure of all schools to similar levels; establishing a system of financial transfer payments to schools serving disadvantaged students and establishing career structures that give high-performing teachers incentives to teach in disadvantaged schools; and pairing high-performing districts and schools with low-performing districts and schools.
There is nothing about this approach which is necessarily unique to China. In fact, when I visited the state of Ceara in Brazil, I saw how the highest-performing schools received a significant reward in terms of additional financial resources, which allowed them to hire more specialised teachers and experts. However, they were not allowed to deploy these additional resources in their own school but were required to use them to support the schools that struggle most. So everyone won: the high-performing schools gained additional prestige and an expanded team, the low-performing schools benefitted from the expertise of high-performing schools, something that may have been more valuable to them than additional money.
Perhaps even more so than in other parts of the world, countries in the region are struggling to reconcile their aspirations for greater flexibility and giving parents more opportunities to choose their child’s school with the need to ensure quality, equity and coherence in their school systems. To succeed with this, they need to carefully devise checks and balances that prevent school choice from leading to inequity and segregation, and do whatever it takes so that all parents are able to choose the school they want. That also means governments and schools must invest more in developing their relationships with parents and local communities, and help parents make informed decisions. Not least, the more flexibility there is in the school system, the stronger public policy needs to be. While greater school autonomy, decentralisation and a more demand-driven school system seek to devolve decision making to the frontline, the authorities need to maintain a strategic vision and clear guidelines for education, and offer meaningful feedback to local school networks and individual schools. In other words, only through a concerted effort by central and local education authorities will school choice benefit all students.
Nothing will happen without effective system leadership
Changing educational bureaucracies can be like moving graveyards: it is often hard to rely on the people out there to help, because the status quo has so many protectors. The bottom line is that school systems are rather conservative social systems. Everyone supports educational reform, except for their own children. Parents may measure the education of their children against their own educational experiences. Teachers may teach the way they were taught rather than the way they were taught to teach.
But the real challenge is not conservative followers but conservative leaders – leaders who stick to the curriculum of the world of today rather than adapting curricula and pedagogical practice to a changing world, or who invest in popular solutions like smaller classes when they know that what matters most is investing in the quality of teachers.Effective leadership is central to virtually every aspect of education, and most importantly so when there is little coherence and capacity in education. There are many amazing teachers, schools and educational programmes in every education systems, but it takes effective leadership to build a great education system.
The education crisis, reflected in flat-lining educational outcomes despite rising costs is, at least in part, a leadership crisis. Finding adequate and forward-looking responses to the inter-related changes in technology, globalisation and the environment is ultimately a question of leadership.
Leaders wanting to see forward-looking changes in their school systems have to do more than issue orders and try to impose compliance. They need to build a shared understanding and collective ownership, to make the case for change and to offer support that will make change a reality, and to remain credible without being populist. They need to focus resources, build capacity, change work organisations and create the right policy climate with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation and development rather than compliance. And they need to go against the grain of competitive dynamics and hierarchical bureaucracies that still dominate educational institutions.
For schools to be entrepreneurial and able to adapt, system leaders need to be able to mobilise the human, social and financial resources needed for innovation; to work as social entrepreneurs both within and beyond their own organisations; and to build stronger linkages across sectors and countries, to establish partnerships with government leaders, social entrepreneurs, business executives, researchers and civil society.
Last but not least, education systems need to be prepared to look outwards. This is not about copying and pasting prefabricated solutions from other countries, but about looking seriously and dispassionately at good practice elsewhere to become knowledgeable about what works in what context and consciously applying it. This is likely to be a key differentiator between which countries make progress and which do not. The division may be between those teachers, schools and education systems that feel threatened by alternative ways of thinking and those that are open to the world and ready to learn from the world’s best experiences.
Andreas Schleicher Director, Education and Skills, OECD