Entering the “black box”: Teachers’ and students’ views on classroom practices

by Pablo Fraser 
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills
Noémie Le Donné
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

“What happened in school today?” is a question that many parents across the world ask their children when they get home. Many parents also attend school meetings in order to understand how their child’s learning is developing. They talk with both children and teachers because they know that they are the best (and often only) source of information about what is happening in the classroom. At the same time, many teachers would like to know about how other teachers teach, both in their own country and abroad.

The truth is that what happens in the classrooms still often remains an open question for those outside it.  Research has shown that the practices used in the classroom are the most important factor affecting students’ outcomes. In other words, it is the interactions between teachers and students that, ultimately, shape the learning environment. Thus, it becomes crucial to know, “What are the teaching strategies that help create quality classroom practices?”

However, classrooms are often described as a “black box”; we know that certain things go into the box (e.g. learning materials, time and human resources, school tests) and we expect certain things to come out (e.g. the development of students’ skills, the reinforcement of their well-being, and an increase in teachers’ job satisfaction). But what about the complex interactions that take place within the black box that are responsible for the alchemy that transforms inputs into outputs? Who better than teachers and students to tell us about these interactions?

Teachers with their professional training and knowledge are experts on various instructional approaches, methods and lesson features. Since students are exposed to a variety of teachers in different subjects over an extended period of time, they can also be considered experts on different modes of teaching. Both opinions provide a rich and complex picture of what happens in the classroom… and can be seen as two faces of the same coin.

The TALISPISA link data present a unique opportunity to enter the “black box” by listening to the voices of teachers and students. The latest Teaching in Focus reveals some enlightening findings.

Almost all mathematics teachers use clear and structured teaching practices, according to both teachers and students. On average across participating countries, at least 97% of teachers report either explicitly citing learning goals, letting students practice until they understand the subject matter, or presenting a summary of recently learned content. Since these structuring practices aim to deliver an orderly and clear lesson, they could be seen as the necessary foundation to the development of other, more innovative, practices, such as student-oriented practices and enhanced activities. This would explain why they are so predominant in the teaching strategies implemented by teachers and that, contrary to widespread ideas, they are not used by Asian countries alone.

Student-oriented practices, such as giving different work to students depending on their understanding or having them work in small groups, are less often used than structuring practices, especially according to students. They are still commonly used, with around 90% of teachers and 60% of students reporting their use. However, teachers do not use these practices to the same extent across countries, and one type of enhanced activity, having students work on week-long projects, is subject to particularly large cross-country variations: 20% of Finnish teachers report using this practice versus 86% of Mexican teachers. The same pattern is found when looking at student feedback.

In all participating countries, mathematics teachers tend to report, more often than students do, that they use a given practice in their classroom. However, the gap between what teachers and students report is relatively small; it is largest when pertaining to the use of student-oriented practices. This may be because teachers find these practices particularly efficient and have a tendency to over- report their use, or that, because they are less conventional and more innovative, students fail to recognise them. Either way, further support of teachers’ and students’ engagement in student-centred activities is needed to ensure that a variety of practices are used in the classroom. PISA results have shown that students benefit from teachers applying a range of different practices, so it is crucial to help teachers acquire those that foster a quality learning environment.

Teaching in Focus No. 18: How do teachers teach? Insights from teachers and students”

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Photo credit: @Shutterstock

Which careers do students go for?

by Marie-Helene Doumet
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Career decisions are wrought in complexities. Many students start by looking at their interests, selecting a career in line with their personal affinities or aspirations. They will consider their own self-beliefs in their capacity to perform and succeed in a given career, and then factor in labour market prospects, employment, earnings, and the possibilities to progress in their chosen profession over a lifetime.

But career decisions are not only about students’ choices: they also interact with a number of public policy objectives, such as making education systems more efficient, aligning skills to the demands of the labour market, and helping improve social equity. Some countries have sought to promote certain fields or pathways over others through financial incentives or by opening access. Conversely, other fields impose highly selective admissions processes. As students are confronted with more possibilities, it is essential to ensure that they have the proper guidance to navigate through the wealth of pathways open to them. That will ease the sometimes bumpy transition from education to the labour market.

This 2017 edition of Education at a Glance focuses on fields of study – who studies what across different education pathways . Results show that the most common field of study for tertiary students is business administration and law, whereas the fields of natural sciences, mathematics and statistics or information and communications technology (ICT) are the least attractive. Gender differences in enrolments are striking: 24% of entrants into engineering programmes are women compared to 78% in the field of education. The law of supply and demand determines the employment prospects of tertiary graduates. For example,  although they are among the smallest group of tertiary graduates, ICT graduates enjoy one of the highest employment rates. This signals a shortage of supply in the labour market. Data from a new indicator on the national criteria to apply and enter into tertiary education shows that, as tertiary education expands, some countries have turned towards regulating access to certain fields of study in order to link them more strongly with the needs of the labour market.
However, while educational attainment has been expanding over the past decade, there is no guarantee that everyone will progress smoothly through it. In fact, upper secondary graduation is still a challenge for some. A new indicator on upper secondary completion rates shows that almost one in four upper secondary students does not complete the programme within two years of its theoretical end date – of which most drop out of school entirely.
This is not the only area where equity remains elusive. Education at a Glance dedicates a full chapter to the Sustainable Development Goals, analysing where OECD and partner countries stand in their progress towards achieving “inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Results show that while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go on the road to equity and more inclusion in education.
Want to learn more? Education at a Glance 2017 analyses 28 indicators relating to participation in and progress through education, the financial and human resources invested, and the economic and social outcomes expected across OECD and partner countries.You can access and download the data from the OECD Education at a Glance Database; visualise main results for your country from our Compare Your Country interface ; and better understand the methodology underlying the indicators with the updated OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Indicators.

Education at a Glance (EAG) 2017
OECD Education at a Glance Database
Compare Your Country
OECD Handbook for Internationally Comparative Education Indicators

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Building trust in exams

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Quality high-stakes exams have always been one of the most reliable predictors of the performance of an education system. They signal what matters for educational success and they ensure fairness and transparency in the gateways to the next stage of education or to the workforce. But getting the design of exams wrong can hold education systems back, narrowing the scope of what is valued and what is taught, or encouraging shortcuts, cramming and integrity violations. 

So if you are searching for promising practices in this area these days, it is worth having a look at Russia. Surprised? True, for a long time Russian’s had lost trust in exam scores and degrees because of fraud and misconduct in examinations. But for well over a decade, Russia has worked persistently on addressing these issues and its unified state exam now offers one of the most advanced and transparent ways of assessing student learning outcomes at school.

For a start, Russia has not fallen into the trap of sacrificing validity gains for efficiency gains and relevance for reliability that is so common to many exam systems. So you find no bubble sheets and few multiple-choice tasks. Instead, the tasks are open-ended and often involve essays, focussed on the acquisition of advanced knowledge, complex higher-order thinking skills and, increasingly, on the application of those skills to real-world problems. Many of those tasks probe for understanding and prompting for further thinking, by asking students questions such as: Who is correct? How do you know? Can you explain why he or she is correct?

But the biggest accomplishment of Russia’s unified state exam has been in re-establishing trust in education and examination. Trust cannot be legislated. And trust doesn’t just happen, it is always intentional and it is at least as much a consequence of the design of an exam system as it is a pre-existing condition for its conduct. So how did Russia go about that? For a start, it has invested in state-of-the art test security that is now available across the country. The exam papers are packaged and printed in real-time at the point of delivery, in the classroom under the eyes of the students and the examiners – and under the eyes of a 360-degree camera that monitors and records the entire exam process.

At the end, the exam papers are scanned, digitised and anonymised, once again under the eyes of the students. Where more complex responses to essays cannot be scored automatically by machines, they are marked centrally by independent and specially trained experts, with extensive checks for inter-rater reliability. Of course, there is always some judgement involved in scoring essays. So how can students trust that they were graded fairly? Actually, they can have a look for themselves. The fully-marked exam papers are posted online and all students can review their results. And they can contest the markings if they are not happy, something which a few percent of them do each year. Schools, too, can see and track their exam scores. So if Russian students, teachers, school leaders, and also employers are now much more confident in schooling and examination, this has not come about by chance.

Has it led to improvements in outcomes? Not yet, the exam results were flat lining over the last years. Which shows how much Russia still has to do to feed data back into helping students to learn better, teachers to teach better, and schools to become more effective. But it also shows that the exams proved resilient so far against one of the most common diseases of assessments – grade inflation.


Back to school time: “Think beyond grades – to life”

Facebook Live session with Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

by Marilyn Achiron, Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

This back-to-school moment is a great time to grab a few minutes with Andreas Schleicher, head of the Directorate for Education and Skills, to get his thoughts about preparing for – and succeeding in – the school year ahead.

In our Facebook LIVE interview yesterday, he said that “there’s always something interesting happening in school”, and suggested that students “think beyond grades – to life”. Schleicher said of teaching that “there’s probably no tougher job today”.

What is common to the best-performing countries in PISA? According to Schleicher, these countries “believe in the future more than in consumption today; they make an investment in education”; “they believe in the success of every child”; and “they can attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms”.

We also talked about student anxiety, class size, homework and the kinds of skills students today need to acquire.

Schleicher also hinted at some interesting data, to be published next Tuesday in Education at a Glance 2017, on who studies what, and what that means for employment and earnings later on.

Take a look!


Education at a Glance (EAG) 2017 will be launched on 12 September 2017 at 11:00 am, Paris time
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

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Awarding – and imagining – teaching excellence

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Tonight, the winners of the Higher Education Academy’s newly launched Global Teaching Excellence Award will be announced. The award is a milestone in advancing the higher education agenda. It’s time for teaching excellence to attain the same status and recognition as academic research, which still seems the dominant metric for valuing academic institutions, whether we look at rankings published in the media or research assessment frameworks or at performance-based funding for research.

There are compelling reasons to change this, and the award makes a start.

Tertiary qualifications have become the entrance ticket for modern societies. Never before have those with advanced qualifications had the life chances they enjoy today, and never before have those who struggled to acquire a good education paid the price they pay today. There are always those who argue that the share of young people entering higher education or advanced vocational programmes is too large. But they are usually talking about other people’s children. In the past century, they would have probably argued that there are too many children in high school.

The evidence is clear. On average across OECD countries, men with at least a bachelor’s degree earn over ÚSD 300 000 more than what they paid for their education or lose in earnings while studying, compared with those who only have a high school degree. And taxpayers too realise a return of over USD 200 000 per tertiary graduate in higher public revenues and lower social transfers. It is hard to think of a better investment at a time when knowledge and skills have become the currency of modern societies and economies. And despite the burgeoning number of graduates, we have seen no decline in their relative pay, which is so different from those with fewer qualifications.

But it’s also clear that this entrance ticket to the knowledge society is expensive; and people are generally allotted just one. That makes it so important to get it right. And this is where teaching excellence comes in. We all know that more education alone doesn't automatically translate into better jobs and better lives. We might know graduates who can’t find a job even as we hear employers lament that they can’t find people with the skills they need. Teaching excellence is about ensuring that the right mix of knowledge and skills is delivered in effective, equitable and efficient ways.

And the value of teaching is only bound to rise as digitalisation unbundles educational content, delivery and accreditation in higher education. In the digital age, anything that today you call your proprietary knowledge and content is going to be a commodity available to everyone tomorrow. Accreditation still gives universities enormous power to extract monopoly rents, but just think a few years ahead. What will micro-credentialling do to this system? Or think of what happens when all employers can see beyond degrees to the knowledge and skills that prospective employees actually have. That leaves the quality of teaching as perhaps the most valuable asset of modern higher education institutions. It becomes harder for universities to hide poor teaching behind great research. We are living in this digital bazaar and anything that is not built for the network age is going to crack apart under the pressure.

Future jobs are likely to pair computer intelligence with the creative, social and emotional skills, attitudes and values of human beings. It will then be our capacity to innovate, our awareness and our sense of responsibility that will harness the power of the machines to shape the world for the better. That means faculty need to look for outcomes that are fresh and original, that contribute something of intrinsic positive worth. Achieving these outcomes is likely to involve entrepreneurialism, imagination, inquisitiveness, persistence and collaboration.

As a result, universities’ previous priority of preparing a select few for research has given way to providing up to half the population with advanced knowledge and skills. The result has been the rapid expansion of the higher education sector and the establishment of more diverse types of higher education institutions. There are now over 18 000 higher education institutions in 180 countries that offer at least a post-graduate degree or a four-year professional diploma.

This historic shift has been accompanied by changes in funding regimes. The rising costs of higher education are increasingly borne by students themselves (see, for example, the United Kingdom). So it follows that students are becoming more discriminating consumers. And in choosing between universities, they are also thinking ahead about securing future employment. In response, institutions are competing to provide more relevant knowledge and skills through more effective teaching.

These sweeping developments in the higher education marketplace are intensifying competition. Indeed, a global education market has emerged. In 2015, there were 3.3 million students travelling across OECD countries to study. Others look to the new, internationally available, digital platforms to provide or supplement their learning.

Taken together, these developments have created an urgent demand for data to measure and improve the quality of teaching and learning in higher education. Institutions need data to build on competitive strengths and address weaknesses. Governments need data to determine policy and funding priorities. Employers need data to assess the value of qualifications. And, perhaps most important, students themselves need data so that they can make informed decisions about their preferred place of study and show prospective employers evidence of what they have learned.

But these demands are still often unmet. Without such data, judgements about the quality of higher education institutions will continue to be made on the basis of flawed rankings, derived not from outcomes, nor even outputs, but from idiosyncratic inputs and reputation surveys.

Everyone knows how important data are to me, but I’m also well aware that throwing data into the public space does not, in itself, change the ways students learn, faculty teach and universities operate. We need to get out of the “read-only” mode of our education systems, in which information is presented in a way that cannot be altered. To really change education practice, we need to combine transparency with collaboration.

I am always struck by the power of “collaborative consumption”, where online markets are created in which people share their cars and even their apartments with total strangers. Collaborative consumption has made people micro-entrepreneurs; and collaborative consumption is fuelled by building trust between strangers.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is not only that it serves individual learners and educators, but that it can create an ecosystem around learning. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and more fun. And it can build communities of faculty to share and enrich teaching resources and practices. Imagine the power of a higher education system that could meaningfully share all of the expertise and experience of its faculty.

What if we could get faculty working on curated crowd-sourcing of best teaching practice, and perhaps even across institutional and national borders? Technology could create a giant open-source community of faculty, unlocking the creative skills and initiative of so many people simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for it. And we could use technologies to liberate learning from past conventions, connecting learners in new ways, with new sources of knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another. Maybe that’s something for next year’s teaching excellence award.

For the latest data on tertiary education, look out for Education at a Glance 2017, which will be published on 12 September.