Working together to build the culture of learning in the Netherlands

by Andreas Schleicher 
Director for Education and Skills, OECD

The Dutch are known for making a virtue of necessity. Now is a time when their reputation will be put to the test.
The Netherlands’ economy and society are being transformed by technological change, increased economic integration, population ageing, increased migration and other pressures. A highly skilled population with the opportunities, incentives and motivation to develop and use their skills fully and effectively will be essential for confronting the challenges and seizing the opportunities of the future. The Dutch skills system is strong compared to others internationally, but still the Dutch understand that for a small country with an open economy to remain competitive, it will need to reinforce the foundation of skills on which Dutch success has been built.
The OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Netherlands, published today, identifies nine key skills challenges for the Netherlands and three priority areas for action.
So what are the priority areas for action?
  1. Fostering more equitable skills outcomes: The Dutch skills system works well to ensure that most people develop strong skills. Still, a large number of adults have very low levels of skills that mean they have trouble extracting information from longer and more complex texts or performing numerical tasks involving several steps. Too often these people are not actively engaged in learning to improve their skills. Older workers with still many years of working life ahead of them and migrants account for a sizable share of the low-skilled population. With the costs of marginalisation so high, and with an ageing population, the Netherlands cannot afford to waste its precious talent. 
  2. Creating skills-intensive workplaces: Despite having comparatively highly skilled population, the Netherlands could use these skills more intensively at work. Small and medium-sized firms, especially, could do more to get the most out of the skills of their workers. The increased adoption of high performance workplace practices, in particular, has potential to foster greater skills use at work, resulting in higher productivity, wages and greater job satisfaction.
  3. Promoting a learning culture: Despite many years of talk in the Netherlands about the importance of developing a learning culture and the introduction of a series of policy measures aimed at making it a reality, the country is still far from realising this aim, as evidenced by the low “readiness to learn” of Dutch adults when compared with their peers in other OECD countries. Many stakeholders confirm this assessment, finding that the Netherlands has much more to do in order to transform itself into a learning economy.
The OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Netherlands reflects the many valuable contributions received from four ministries, the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands and hundreds of stakeholders who shared their perspectives on what are the key skills challenges facing the country and their causes, and proposed some good practices for addressing these challenges.
In a series of workshops, the Dutch lived up to their reputation for frankness and self-reflection, with many claiming that too many people in the Netherlands were neither developing the “right” skills to succeed, nor taking sufficient responsibility for maintaining and further developing their skills in adulthood. Firms also came in for some criticism for not investing sufficiently in the skills of their workers. Stakeholders also lamented that fact the Netherlands was failing to live up to its ambitions for creating a learning society.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Netherlands is one of collective action. Taking action in these priority areas will require that governments, individuals, employers, trade unions, education and training providers and others take joint responsibility and action. 
Along with presenting a number of specific recommendations for addressing the countries skills challenges, the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Netherlands proposes the creation of skills strategy founded on a commitment to a “national skills pact” that goes beyond a virtuous “statement of intent”. One that would, at a minimum, be guided by a shared vision, specify the concrete actions that each partner needs to take, and establishes performance measures and clear public reporting requirements for all partners.
In the past, it took a whole of society effort to build the dikes and canals that protected the Netherlands from flooding and allowed it to reclaim land for habitation and cultivation. Today, the Dutch once again need to call upon their talent for collective action, this time to shore up the skills foundation upon which they will secure their future for generations to come.
For more on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
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Learning in school as a social activity

by Mario Piacentini
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

What do 15-year-old students really need from school and what can school give them for their personal growth? The third volume of PISA 2015 results on students' well-being shows how important it is that education helps them develop not only knowledge and cognitive skills, but also the social and emotional competencies and resilience to thrive in the face of present and future challenges. Schools can attend to these needs, and making schools happy and caring communities is a feasible and worthwhile pursuit.

Happy schools are places where children feel challenged but competent, where they work hard but enjoy it, where social relationships are rewarding and respectful, and where academic achievement is the product but not the sole objective. Creating happy schools is the joint responsibility of teachers, parents and students.

All of us have memories of at least one teacher who made a difference in our life. My first teacher in elementary school not only taught me everything I wished to know about ancient Egypt; he also helped me to overcome some of my shyness and find my own way to express myself, in personal relationships as in writing. Emanuele, my teacher, used to hide short personal messages in our notebooks, and from these messages we all knew that he cared about us. My other good teachers had very different personalities and taught in very different ways, but all had one thing in common: they established good personal connections with students. If not every single student felt inspired in the same way, the class, as a community, was on the teachers’ side and willing to learn from them. And perhaps this is the main reason why these teachers looked so passionate and seemed so confident about their work.

The data from the latest PISA report confirm something that might sound obvious but whose implications are often underestimated: teachers educate for life, and their work is more effective if they can establish rewarding relationships with students. For example, PISA data show that students' anxiety related to school assignments and tests is a big issue in all countries, and that this anxiety is negatively associated with students' achievement and their perceptions of the quality of their life. On average across OECD countries, around 64% of girls and 47% of boys reported that they feel very anxious even if they are well prepared for a test.

Students who perceive that their teacher provides individual help when they are struggling were less likely to report feeling tense or anxious. By contrast, students were about 60% more likely to report that they feel very tense when studying if they perceive that their teacher thinks they are less smart than they really are. These data do not imply that teachers are not doing their job well. Rather, they confirm that teaching for the development of the “whole child” is a very difficult job. It requires that the school's objectives and how to achieve them are clearly understood and bought-into by everyone – the whole school staff, parents and students. It also demands that education policy acknowledges and supports the efforts of school communities to build positive learning environments.

Positive relationships with parents are another form of social support that enables adolescents to cope with stressful life situations and thrive. PISA 2015 data show that the majority of students in all countries feel that they can rely on their parents if they have difficulties at school. But those students who do not perceive this type of support from their parents, or do not spend time just talking with their parents, are more likely to feel isolated and disengaged from school.

Parents can find in teachers important partners for their children's education. Close communication between teachers and parents is essential for conveying consistent messages and supporting children and adolescents in all contexts. For this collaboration to happen, it is important that schools find ways to encourage all parents to participate in school life, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Teachers, school leaders and parents who work together can also reduce the incidence and consequences of the most dangerous threat to students' happiness: bullying. PISA 2015 shows that, in many countries, verbal and psychological bullying occurs frequently, with possibly devastating consequences on the present and future lives of too many children. On average across OECD countries, around 11% of students reported that they are frequently (at least a few times per month) made fun of, 8% reported that they are frequently the object of nasty rumours in school, and 7% reported that they are frequently left out of things. On average across OECD countries, around 4% of students reported that they are hit or pushed at least a few times per month, although this percentage varies from around 1% to 9.5% across countries.

PISA does not provide simple answers to what schools, teachers and parents should do to end bullying and improve the quality of life at school. Nor does it establish a ranking of countries regarding students' well-being. This new report gives a snapshot of the life 15-year-old students around the world are living. The large differences in how students – even within the same country – describe their life send the message that well-being is not just about personality and culture, it is also about life experiences at school that teachers and students can improve, together. Learning is a social activity; let's make it work.


Country Roads: Education and Rural Life

by Marc Fuster
Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

“Country roads, take me home” sang John Denver a while ago and, in fact, improvements in transportation and communication technologies have brought our cities and towns closer together. Some rural regions benefit today from their proximity to social and economic urban centres to attract people and enhance their economic competitiveness. Nevertheless, the attractiveness of rural regions, particularly those more remote, has been dropping off in many OECD countries. The trend is more severe among the young: Rural populations are ageing faster and in some cases declining.

The loss of critical mass makes service delivery more difficult and puts economic and social sustainability at risk. Education plays an important role in this equation as knowledge and skills are critical drivers of individual development, community cohesion and economic competitiveness. Yet several challenges for individuals in rural communities remain, such as lower levels of educational achievement and attainment.

The urban-rural divide begins in the early stages of education. Access to pre-primary programmes is more limited in rural areas, according to latest PISA data. As students advance in their education, the provision or quality of material resources, the percentage of computers connected to the internet, and the supply of extracurricular activities are all on average lower for pupils in smaller towns. This can have an impact on performance – and indeed, in PISA 2015, urban pupils outperformed rural ones in science by the equivalent of one year of schooling on average.

Indeed, rural schools are quite different from urban ones. Rural schools are usually smaller and have lower student-teacher ratios than urban schools. They are also more likely to have a less socio-economically advantaged student body, experience staff shortages and have a lower proportion of qualified teachers. These differences can have both negative and positive implications.    
On the one hand, smaller rural schools often combine students of different ages to make more efficient use of resources. This can also facilitate a climate of stronger co-operation and sense of belonging to the school. According to PISA 2015, teachers in rural schools support students in their learning more frequently than teachers in urban schools.

On the other hand, although school size does not necessarily determine the level of education provided, larger schools might be in a better position to offer more curricular and extra-curricular options to meet a diverse range of interests and needs, as they benefit from economies of scale (size-related cost advantages). They might also be more able to support teachers to work effectively.

Children’s schooling experiences largely depend on the quality of teaching. Nevertheless, teachers may feel insufficiently equipped or be reluctant to move to rural areas. Professionals need good knowledge and skills to teach multi-grade groups and a clear picture of what rurality means and rural communities can offer. Pre-service preparation with regards to rural teaching and living (rural practicums, for example), continuous in-service support, and adequate incentives to take up with work posts in smaller towns can raise both teachers' satisfaction and effectiveness.

Making appropriate use of new technologies is of crucial importance too, especially in more remote regions. Multiple forms of distance support can help in meeting the diverse needs and interests of students, widening student learning opportunities and providing more tailored support. ICT may also keep teachers closer to their peers, administrations and teacher education institutions to strengthen their professional position, and even allow schools to benefit from shared instructional materials and human capital in times of school closures due to financial constraints.

A new Trends Shaping Education Spotlight provides a closer look to these challenges and opportunities for education in rural regions. Rapidly growing urbanisation is undoubtedly one of the main characteristics of our time but, as Asterix would say, some small villages still indomitably hold out against it. Access to quality education is a key for them to thrive.


Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

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Photo source: Child goes on a country road. Sunlight. @shutterstock

Developing an agenda for research and education in Wales

by Hannah von Ahlefeld
Project Lead, TALIS Initial Teacher Preparation study, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s an exciting time in Wales for education. In the wake of a number of high-profile reports by the OECD and leading international experts urging change in teacher education, Wales is implementing a wave of reforms designed to improve delivery of teacher education. There is a new curriculum; new teacher and leadership standards for teachers; and new accreditation standards for providers of initial teacher education.

Research can be used as an important pillar and driver of these reform efforts. The need to build research capacity was underscored in Professor John Furlong’s review of initial teacher education in Wales, Teaching Tomorrow Teachers. He highlighted the importance of research as a means of developing student teachers as critical consumers of or participants in research; recognising the role of research or critical reflection in teachers’ professional learning; and encouraging “universities to help their staff develop as research active university lecturers.” (p. 13).

In countries like Finland, the Netherlands and Singapore, teachers are both consumers and producers of research. In these countries, evidence-based practice is embedded from initial teacher education through to induction and beyond, supporting the professional growth and development – and professionalisation – of teachers. But achieving this is no easy task. It requires a shared understanding of the importance of research by all stakeholders; effective partnerships between higher education institutions (HEI) and schools to ensure programmatic coherence and alignment between theory and practice; and coherent, strategic approach to delivery and evaluation of teacher education.

From 15-17 March 2017, more than 40 delegates from the Welsh Government, schools, higher education institutions, research, regional education consortia, Education Workforce Council and others met with eight experts from Australia, Flanders (Belgium), Norway, Netherlands, Singapore and the United States to brainstorm how to build up research capacity in schools, teacher education programmes and education faculties across Wales. Workshop participants worked together to define six key challenges facing Wales with regard to developing a research agenda:

  1. Need for a national strategic research plan for education in Wales that impacts learning
  2. Need to build up research capacity in education faculties
  3. Need to incorporate more and  deeper content knowledge  and expertise into teacher training and research in order to create depth in learning
  4. Need to curate, create and share research through HWB, HEIs, lead schools and pioneer schools – and provide teachers with the knowledge and skills to engage in research
  5. Need to better integrate theory and practice by developing a 1) national strategy for engaging all stakeholders in developing a common language on research and practice and 2) maximising the potential of the research agenda included in the professional standards across the sector
  6. Need for a national approach to professional learning to include an explicit commitment to (evidence-based) co-teaching.

As Wales continues on its reform journey, one thing is for certain. A shared vision and readiness for change, drawing on talent within Wales and internationally, can only lead to success.

For more information on the OECD Initial Teacher Preparation study, in which Wales is participating, along with Australia, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia and the United States, contact:

OECD Initial Teacher Preparation study
The Welsh Education Reform Journey: A Rapid Policy Assessment
Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective

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Photo source: @shutterstock  

Does the world need people who understand problems, or who can solve them?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 

The label “21st -century skills” is being increasingly used, and sometimes misused, to indicate that the rapidly changing economic, social and cultural environment of the current century demands a revision of what we think are crucial subjects for the next generations to learn. Examples include creativity, innovation, critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, cross-cultural understanding or global competence. Some people wonder whether these skills are truly new, or whether education has always been about fostering these capabilities. But stakeholders – not least employers and the business sector – continue to complain that they don’t find candidates leaving the education systems who have the skills they think matter for the jobs they have to offer. And they claim that this is the case because current education systems do not sufficiently prioritise the development of such skills.

Many countries have recently embarked on a fundamental revision of their national curricula or curricula frameworks that offer guidance to schools and teachers. As is evident from the OECD project, The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030, the need to rethink the skills toolkit in light of what tomorrow’s economies and societies will need is what keeps education policy makers and practitioners awake at night.

In these debates, the skill referred to as “problem solving” takes a prominent place. It is probably one of the most frequently referenced 21st-century skills. When the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) started to explore the possibility to assess domains other than reading, mathematics and science, it almost naturally moved to the area of problem solving. The assessment included a problem-solving test in 2012, followed by one on collaborative problem solving in 2015. One of the remarkable results in 2012 was that the results of the assessments of reading, mathematics and science were not very well aligned with the results of the assessment of problem-solving, despite the fact that the PISA assessment frameworks themselves – in contrast to that for TIMMS, for example – already focus on solving real-world problems, rather than applying textbook knowledge. Problem solving thus seems to be a distinct competence.

A recently published OECD publication, The Nature of Problem Solving: Using Research to Inspire 21st Century Learning, explores the concept of problem solving in great depth. The book does not offer an extensive assessment framework as such; rather, it discusses the conceptual and empirical research that various members of the Problem-Solving Expert Group for PISA 2012 used to build the assessment. The title of the volume explicitly refers to the publication, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice. The book also fits into work on ongoing exploration of 21st-century skills.

While the book does not fully define the competency of problem solving, some common characteristics emerge. Problem-solving clearly builds on strong cognitive capabilities, but mobilises them in different ways. In solving problems that are usually complex, humans have to apply knowledge – often incomplete knowledge – in contexts where the conditions are often uncertain in order to offer a practical solution to a real-world challenge. Problem-solving is often referred to as a cross-curricular competence in the sense that solving problems in the real world obliges people to draw on knowledge from different fields and disciplines. Because real-world problems in volatile contexts are different from one another, problem-solving skills are unlike routine skills and procedural methods.

In the current debate on 21st-century skills, sometimes naïve views on innovating curriculum frameworks are being contested by policy makers and activists who defend a purely knowledge-oriented view of education and oppose recent shifts towards competency-based approaches in education. But in the case of problem solving, the knowledge-versus-skills dualism is not very helpful. The book clearly demonstrates that excellent problem-solving skills very much depend on deep levels of knowledge and outstanding analytical capabilities. But while cognitive and analytical capabilities help in interpreting and understanding problems, effective problem solving requires an additional element of decision making, implementation and communication. The combination of these capabilities is what makes problem-solving skills unique.

Research and reflection on problem solving and the deep analysis of the PISA results on both students’ individual and collaborative problem-solving skills are indispensable for innovating teaching and learning, and for making education more relevant and future oriented. The VUCA world – a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – will demand only more problem-solving skills. It is not difficult to predict that tomorrow’s world will need more problem solvers.

The Nature of Problem Solving: Using Research to Inspire 21st Century Learning
The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

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Photo source: The Nature of Problem Solving: Using Research to Inspire 21st Century Learning, OECD