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Educating students for their future, not our past

Opinion: Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at OECD

How should countries equip people to understand, engage with and shape a changing world? This is the age of accelerations, a speeding-up of human experience through the compound impact of disruptive forces on every aspect of our lives. It is also a time of political contestation. The priority of the wider international community is to reconcile the needs and interests of individuals, communities and nations within an equitable framework based on open borders, free markets and a sustainable future. But where disruption has brought a sense of dislocation, political forces emerge that are offering closed borders, the protection of traditional jobs and a promise to put the interests of today’s generation over those of the future.

In these times, we can no longer teach people for a lifetime. In these times, education needs to provide people with a reliable compass and the navigation tools to find their own way through an increasingly complex and volatile world. As future jobs will pair computer intelligence with the human knowledge, skills, character qualities and values, it will be our capacity for innovation, our awareness, our ethical judgement and our sense of responsibility that will equip us to harness machines to shape the world for the better. This is the main conclusion OECD countries working on a new framework for curriculum design, referred to as ‘Education 2030’, have drawn. Not surprisingly then, schools increasingly recognise the need for fostering ethics, character and citizenship and aim to develop a range of social and emotional skills, such as empathy, compassion, mindfulness, purposefulness, responsibility, collaboration and self-regulation.

In their Education 2030 framework for curriculum design, OECD countries have put creating new value, dealing with tensions and dilemmas and developing responsibility at the center. Creating new value, as a transformative competency, connotes processes of creating, making, bringing into being and formulating; and outcomes that are innovative, fresh and original, contributing something of intrinsic positive worth. It suggests entrepreneurialism in the broader sense of being ready to venture, to try, without anxiety about failure. The constructs that underpin the competence are imagination, inquisitiveness, persistence, collaboration and self-discipline. Young people’s agency to shape the future will partly hinge on their capacity to create new value.

In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings with sometimes global implications, will require young people to become adept in handling tensions, dilemmas and trade-offs. Striking the balance, in specific circumstances, between competing demands – of equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity and efficiency and democratic process – will rarely lead to an either/or choice or even a single solution. Individuals will need to think in a more integrated way that avoids premature conclusions and attends to interconnections. The constructs that underpin the competence include empathy, adaptability and trust.

The perception and assessment of what is right or wrong, good and bad in a specific situation is about ethics. It implies asking questions related to norms, values, meanings, and limits.

The third transformative competency is a prerequisite of the other two. Dealing with novelty, change, diversity and ambiguity assumes that individuals can ‘think for themselves’ with a robust moral compass. Equally, creativity and problem-solving require the capacity to consider the future consequences of one’s actions, to evaluate risk and reward and to accept accountability for the products of one’s work. This suggests a sense of responsibility, and moral and intellectual maturity, with which a person can reflect upon and evaluate their actions in the light of their experiences and personal and societal goals; what they have been taught and told; and what is right or wrong. The perception and assessment of what is right or wrong, good and bad in a specific situation is about ethics. It implies asking questions related to norms, values, meanings, and limits. Central to this competency is the concept of self-regulation, in the spheres of personal, interpersonal and social responsibility, drawing on constructs of self-control, self-efficacy, responsibility, problem-solving and adaptability.

The challenge is that developing these qualities requires a very different approach to learning and teaching and a different calibre of teachers. Where teaching is about imparting prefabricated knowledge, countries can afford low teacher quality. 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 own their profession and who work with a high level of professional autonomy and within a collaborative culture.


The past was about received wisdom, the future is about user-generated wisdom. The future needs to be integrated – with an emphasis on the integration of subjects and the integration of students.

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 form of work organisation in their schools to 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 out, with a lack of engagement with families and a reluctance 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 are constantly creating synergies and finding new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others. They do that 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.

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.

Now schools need to use the potential of technologies to liberate learning from past conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways . . .

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 from student passions and capacities, helping students to personalise their learning and assessment in ways that foster engagement and talents, and its about encouraging students to be ingenious. School systems need to better recognise that individuals learn differently, 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 people to learn in the ways that are most conducive to their progress. We need to take to heart 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 technologies to liberate learning from past conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways, with sources of knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another.

In the past, the policy focus was on the provision of education, now it needs to be on outcomes, shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school and the next education system. In the past, administrations emphasised school management, now the focus needs to be on instructional leadership, with leaders supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality and the design of innovative learning environments. The past was about quality control, the future is about quality assurance.

The challenge is that such system transformation cannot be mandated by government, which leads to surface compliance, nor can it be built solely from the ground. Governments can’t do the innovations in the classroom, but they can help in building and communicating the case for change and articulating a guiding vision for 21st century learning. Government has a key role as platform or broker, as stimulator, incentiviser and enabler, and it can focus resources, set a facilitative policy climate and use accountability and reporting modifications to encourage new practice.

But education needs to better identify key agents of change and champion them and to find more effective approaches for scaling and disseminating innovations. That is also about finding better ways to recognise, reward and give exposure to success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas. The past was about public versus private, the future is about public with private.

These challenges look daunting, but many education systems are now well on their way to find innovative responses to ensuring that the next generation is learning for their future, not our past.

Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). As a key member of the OECD’s Senior Management team, he supports the Secretary-General’s strategy to produce analysis and policy advice that advances economic growth and social progress. In addition to policy and country reviews, he oversees the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), the OECD Skills Strategy, the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems (INES).

Mr. Schleicher 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”. He holds an honorary Professorship at the University of Heidelberg.