Future shock: Teaching yourself to learn

by Marilyn Achiron 
Editor, Education and Skills Directorate

The book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal wrote of reading Tyler Cowen’s 2013 book, Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “with a deepening sense of dread”. 
The Economist understatedly called the book “bracing”. What does Cowen, a professor at George Mason University and daily blogger on marginalrevolution.com, say that provokes such fear and trembling in readers?  Essentially this: if you’re not among the 10-15% of the population that has learned how to master and complement computers, you’ll be doomed to earn low wages in dead-end jobs. We spoke with Cowen when he was in Paris recently to participate in the OECD Forum. His comments are drawn from both our interview and his presentation at the Forum.
“There are two things people need to learn how to do to be employable at a decent wage: first, learn some skills which complement the computer rather than compete against it. Some of these are technical skills, but a lot of them will be soft skills, like marketing, persuasion and management that computers won’t be able to do any time soon. 
But the second skill, and this is a tough one, is to be very good at teaching yourself new things. Right now, our schools are not so good at teaching this skill. The changes we’ve seen so far are just the beginning; 20-30 years from now, we’ll all be doing different things. So people who are very good at teaching themselves, regardless of what their formal background is, will be the big winners. People who do start-ups already face this. They’ve learned some things in school, but most of what they do they’ve had to learn along the way; and that, I think, is the future of education. I’m not convinced that our schools will or can keep pace with that; people will do it on their own. 
There has arisen a kind of parallel network – a lot of it is on the Internet, a lot of it is free – where people teach themselves things, often very effectively. But there is a kind of elitist bias: people who are good at using this content are people who are already self-motivated. 
The better technology gets, the more human imperfections matter. Think about medicine: the better pharmaceuticals get, the more it matters which people neglect to actually take them in the right doses. Education is entering the same kind of world. There’s so much out there, on the Internet and elsewhere. It’s great; but that means that human imperfections, like just not giving a damn, will matter more and more.
What concrete changes would I make in schools? The idea that you need to take a whole class to learn some topic is absurd. Whatever you’ve learned is probably going to be obsolete. A class is to spur your interest, to expose you to a new role model, a new professor, to a new set of students. We should have way more classes which are way shorter. It should be much more about learning, more about variety, give up the myth that you’re teaching people how to master some topic; you’re not! You want to inspire them; it’s much more about persuasion, soft skills. 
Liberal arts education and the humanities will remain important. They’re still underrated. People get their own liberal arts education on the Internet; it may be weird, low-status stuff that a lot of us have never heard of, like computer games, or celebrities or sports analytics. But they are learning statistics through sports, learning the humanities through computer games, learning about tragedy through TV shows, and they are retaining and absorbing this to a phenomenal extent. We are, in some ways, the ones who are behind. Formal education needs to wake up, internalise the lessons we all implement in our daily lives. The Internet is one of the biggest breakthroughs in education ever; it’s here. We should realise that, more and more, learning will not go on in standard classrooms. We live in a great and exciting time when it comes to education; now we have to make all those pieces work and fit together. To do that, we have to give up a lot of our loyalty to the older model.

Education occurs in many forms; it’s not the same as schooling. We always need to keep that in mind.
Through the new Education 2030 project and the OECD Innovative Schools network, the OECD will be examining the cognitive, social and emotional skills students need to participate and succeed in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and digitised world. In addition, Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills presents a synthesis of the OECD’s analytical work on the role of socio-emotional skills; and look out for Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, which reports on the use – or lack thereof – of computers in education (to be published in September), and Trends Shaping Education, which will be published in January 2016.


Breaking down the silo: connecting education to world trends

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Did you ever wonder if education has a role to play in stemming the obesity epidemic sweeping across all OECD countries? Or what the impact of increasing urbanisation might be on our schools, families, and communities? Or whether new technologies really are fundamentally changing the way our children think and learn? If so, you’re not alone.

The OECD’s work on Trends Shaping Education stimulates reflection on the challenges facing education by providing an overview of key economic, social, demographic and technological trends. It has been used by ministries to guide strategic thinking and in Parliaments as a strategic foresight tool. It’s also part of the curriculum in teacher education colleges, and is a resource for teachers when designing courses and lectures, as well as parents and students themselves.

The fourth edition of the book will be launched in January 2016. Two weeks ago, the Trends team travelled to Brussels to hold an expert workshop with researchers in a number of domains, including demography, governance, urban design, new technologies, climate change, financial literacy, small and medium enterprises, children and families, and banking.

Why take the time to meet face-to-face with these experts? To be honest we weren’t sure that it would yield any results. Researchers have many demands on their time, and it is not often that they are given a chance to look beyond their own particular speciality to think more holistically about global trends. Sometimes, though, it is by bringing people together unexpectedly that the best ideas emerge.

Will robots replace our teaching force in 10 years? In 20 years? Will new fertility technologies allow for designer babies (and, in parallel, “rejects” that did not turn out as expected)? Will online relationships rival or replace our friendship groups? What might this mean for families, and schools? These ideas might seem radical, but the trends behind them are supported by science. And while they are still speculative, there are a number of trends that could have an impact on education, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. And yet most of our education systems still do not address them.

For example, climate change trends make it clear that across OECD countries we can expect to experience more and more extreme weather events. In most of our countries, the effects will be felt most acutely in cities, where the density of the population and ageing infrastructure (roads and services, such as water, electricity and plumbing) makes us especially vulnerable. If you combine this with worries about the emergence of new epidemics (MERS in Korea is just the latest example) and our ageing populations, a cautious city planner has reason for concern. And not just hypothetical reasons, either. Recent flooding in New York and other major cities has revealed the weakness of many of our emergency-response services.

So what does this have to do with education? Good question. In the short term, communities need to have a plan to educate their populations on what to do (and not do) in the event of a major storm or other extreme weather event such as drought or fires. In the medium and long term, we need to develop school infrastructure and transport that are designed to provide safe access for our students. Hoping it won’t happen is not a sustainable plan – certainly not for the communities that have already experienced an extreme weather event or those that are forecast to do so in the near future.

This is just one example. Important trends to keep an eye on range from the macro level (increasing globalisation and migration) all the way through national and regional labour markets, urban planning, and our changing demography and family structures. How can education support our ageing populations – currently one of the major demographic preoccupations for most OECD governments – to stay active and healthy well past retirement? Will cities keep growing at increasing speeds, or will we continue to see the decline of mid-size cities, such as Detroit (USA) and Busan (Korea)? What about new technologies in the classroom, will they change the way we teach and learn? Perhaps even our concept of what a classroom is?

In September, we plan to hold a second workshop in order to discuss how the trends we have identified might interact with education in the short and medium term. Stay tuned to find out how that goes, and to get a sneak peek between the covers of the next Trends Shaping Education volume, due out in January next year.

Trends Shaping Education 2013
The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo Credit: Concentrated students in lecture hall working on their futuristic tablet during lesson @Shutterstock

How to help adult learners learn the basics

by Hendrickje Catriona Windisch
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Tackling weak basic skills is hard and incentives to learn are often lacking 

The fact that some adults cannot understand the instructions printed on a box of medicine is not only dangerous, it shows that, somewhere along the line, the education system failed them. People who find themselves in this position are often shy of admitting their problems, and the idea of going back to school is their worst nightmare. A new OECD Working Paper shows that even for those adults who want to improve their reading and numeracy skills, it is not easy to translate that interest into action. Adults with busy working and family lives have little time for learning – as is evident in the high rate of dropout from learning programmes targeted to adults. And even when adults do acquire basic skills in mid-life, they find few jobs open to them in which they can use those skills.

Building and sustaining learner motivation

Research shows that programmes to improve adults’ basic skills need to use awareness-raising measures (like the adult education weeks promoted in Denmark and Finland) and national campaigns (as conducted in France and Luxembourg) to encourage interested, but reluctant adults to participate. Guidance services, such as Germany’s telephone counselling service for adults with poor literacy skills, also help. Learner persistence can be supported through clear learning goals, continued guidance throughout the programme, and the link of basic skills with occupational credentials (for example learning geometry in carpentry). Contextualised learning, whereby basic skills are learned in the work, family or community context, often in combination with occupational skills training, can help to engage adults not normally involved in continuing education. Formative assessment, using frequent assessment and feedback to guide adults in their learning, encourages them to continue their studies.

Teachers need to be well-prepared

Although research shows that high-quality, well-qualified teachers get the best results with adult learners, many adult education teachers have few relevant qualifications, and often resort to teaching practices normally used with children which are unlikely to work for adults. There is no nationally recognised certification for adult education in the United States; Austria and Germany only recently developed specific qualifications for such teachers; and in many countries, adult education programmes that teach basic skills are largely staffed by volunteers.


Successful adult learning programmes need to motivate and sustain the engagement of low-skilled adults; offer a highly skilled teaching force; use proven approaches to basic skills teaching; and make use of relevant learning contexts, including the family and the workplace. Learning basic literacy and numeracy skills is, literally, essential for leading a productive and engaged life.

Adults with low literacy and numeracy skills: A literature review on policy interventions
OECD study Putting the Survey of Adult Skills to Work: Country Studies and Policy Analysis OECD Skills Survey
Photo Credit: Skills for success. Box of pills with a list of positive qualities for employment @Shutterstock

Teachers in the digital world

by Katarzyna Kubacka
Analyst, Education and Skills Directorate

Rapid developments in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have made it an important part of our daily lives, from staying in contact with people, to checking traffic and booking tickets. However, ICT can also be a useful tool for teachers in advancing 21st century learning. As the new Teaching in Focus (TIF) brief ‘Teaching with technology’ reports, the use of ICT for students’ projects or class work is an active teaching practice that promotes skills for students’ lifelong success.

So how common is the use of ICT in the classrooms?  Across the countries and economies participating in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), it seems that ICT is still used less frequently than more passive teaching methods, such as working in exercise books. For example, over 70% of TALIS teachers report checking students’ exercise books frequently, while only 38% report frequently using ICT. This is surprising given the prevalence of ICT in most students’ lives across TALIS countries and economies. 
One possible reason for teachers’ infrequent use of technology is the lack of resources in their schools. Indeed, between 30 and 40% of TALIS teachers work in schools where principals report that shortages in ICT-related materials hinder the provision of quality education. This finding should send a strong signal that there is a need for more investment in the provision of computers, software and internet access in the TALIS education systems with an especially high percentage of teachers working in under-resourced schools.
Low rates of ICT use in classrooms is also affected by teachers’ need for professional development. New technological inventions and novel ways of using technology in the classrooms are constantly being developed, meaning that teachers may need help with keeping up to date. TALIS findings show that the majority of teachers across TALIS countries and economies report moderate or high needs for professional development in the area of ICT skills for teaching. Comprehensive development programs in order to effectively implement ICT into their classroom practices would be of benefit for many teachers. 
We can see that different factors hinder teachers’ use of ICT in TALIS countries and economies. While some systems need to invest more in the provision of the necessary resources, there is also a need for in-depth support for teachers in almost all TALIS countries and economies. As with most methods, the effectiveness of ICT in advancing teaching and learning depends on the way it is used in the classrooms. Hence, comprehensive professional development should be tailored to teachers’ particular needs if education systems want to harness ICT’s potential for effective teaching and learning. 

Easing the learning journey for immigrant students

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills
Put yourself in their place: if you were new to a country and barely able to communicate in the local language, how do you think you’d do in school – particularly if you were living in a poor neighbourhood and attending a school with inadequate resources? It might come as a surprise to learn that, in some countries, immigrant students perform better in mathematics than their non-immigrant peers. Does that say more about the individual students or about the education systems in their host countries? 
Between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of students who were raised in immigrant families grew by around 3 percentage points across OECD countries. At the same time, as this month’s PISA in Focus notes, migration policies in some countries became increasingly selective while education outcomes in many countries of origin improved considerably. As a result, larger proportions of immigrant students are arriving in their host countries with better-educated parents. For example, in Ireland in 2003, more than 40% of immigrant students were raised by a mother who had not attained upper secondary education; by 2012, this was true of only 9% of immigrant students. 
Across OECD countries in 2003, non-immigrant students scored 47 points higher in mathematics (PISA 2012 Results) than immigrant students; by 2012, that performance difference had shrunk by around 10 score points. In Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, immigrant and non-immigrant students scored equally well in mathematics in 2012 while in Australia, Hungary and Macao-China, immigrants outscored non-immigrants. In Germany, the performance gap grew closer to the OECD average between 2003 and 2012, as the share of immigrant students performing below the baseline level of proficiency in mathematics decreased by 11 percentage points. 

These improvements in outcomes cannot be achieved by just shutting the door on all poor, less-educated immigrant families; and it would be a mistake to underestimate the talent and motivation of immigrant students from disadvantaged families. PISA data show that in Australia, Israel and the United States, the share of disadvantaged students performing in the top quarter of all PISA students is larger among immigrants than among non-immigrants (PISA 2012 Results, Volume II). And the performance gap in mathematics related to immigrant background shrinks by less than half after accounting for differences in socio-economic status (from 37 to 23 score points across OECD countries with data for 2003 and 2012). In other words, many students manage to overcome the double disadvantage of poverty and an immigrant background and do well in school – and beyond. Of course, not all poor immigrants will become Nobel Prize laureates like Mario Capecchi or Daniel Tsui; and  few people win Nobel Prizes. But if immigrant students cannot fulfill their potential, then everybody loses.
The key to unleashing the potential of all immigrant students is to reduce the disadvantages that usually make it harder for immigrant students to succeed at school. The crunch point is not the point of entry, but the myriad points thereafter, when educators and school systems decide whether or not to offer programmes specifically designed to help immigrant students succeed. Put yourself in their place…
Photo Credit: Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork @Shutterstock