Almost 12 million students who took the global test known as PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) were not able to complete even the most basic reading, mathematics, or science tasks—and these were 15-year-olds living in the 72 high- and middle-income countries that participated in the last test in 2015.
Over the past decade, there has been virtually no improvement in the learning outcomes of students in the Western world, even though spending on schooling rose by almost 20 percent during this period. And in countries like the United States, the quality of learning outcomes can still best be predicted by a school’s ZIP code.
So it might be tempting to click on some other article and drop any thought about improving education. Is it impossible to change anything as big, complex, and entrenched in vested interests as education? Well, keep on reading and consider this: The learning outcomes among the most disadvantaged 10 percent of Vietnamese and Estonian 15-year-old students now compare favorably with those among the wealthiest 10 percent of families in most of Latin America and are on a par with those of the average student in the United States and Europe.
Consider that in most countries, we can find excellence in education in some of the most disadvantaged schools—and that many of today’s leading education systems have only recently attained these top positions. So it can be done.
But change can be a struggle. Young people are less likely to invest their time and energy in better education if it seems irrelevant to the demands of the “real” world. Businesses are less likely to invest in their employees’ lifelong learning if those workers might move away for a better job. And policymakers are often more likely to prioritize immediate concerns over long-range issues.
But this long-range view is necessary. For those with the right knowledge and skills, digitalization and globalization have been liberating and exciting, while for those who are insufficiently prepared, they can mean vulnerable and insecure work, and a life with few prospects. Our economies are shifting toward regional hubs of production, linked by global chains of information and goods but concentrated where comparative advantage can be built and renewed. This makes the distribution of knowledge and wealth crucial, and that is intimately tied to the distribution of educational opportunities.
In this digitalized global age, the next generation of young citizens will create jobs, not seek them, and collaborate to advance an increasingly complex world. That will require imagination, empathy, resilience, and entrepreneurship, the ability to fail forward. The most obvious implication of a world that requires learners to constantly adapt and grow is the need to build the capacity and motivation for lifelong learning. People used to learn to do the work; now learning is the work, and the post-industrial era will require coaching, mentoring, teaching, and evaluating that can build passion for learning.
There must be an appreciation for the value of learning well beyond high school, beyond college graduation. People need to take ownership over what they learn, how they learn, where they learn, and when they learn. And lifelong learning requires people not only to constantly learn new things but also to unlearn and relearn as the world changes.
Governments can help. The easiest way is telling young people more of the truth about the social and labor-market relevance of their learning. Education systems can be incentivized to help learners choose a field of study that resonates with their passions, in which they can excel, and that allows them to contribute to society, putting people on the path to success. Unfortunately, many educational institutions still focus on marketing fields of study that are easy to provide, which leaves some university graduates struggling to find good jobs even as employers say they cannot find the people with needed skills. In many countries, such skill mismatches keep rising.
Also needed moving forward is a shift from qualifications-based certification systems to more knowledge- and skills-based certification systems. That means moving from documenting education pathways and degrees to highlighting what individuals can actually do, regardless of how and where they acquired their knowledge, skills, and character qualities. As the digital transformation diversifies training and learning opportunities, this certification of knowledge and skills becomes increasingly important, and businesses are increasingly testing knowledge and skills on their own while relying less on diplomas.
The dilemma for education is that the kinds of things that are easy to teach have become easy to digitize and automate. There is no question that state-of-the-art knowledge and skills in a discipline will always remain important. But the modern world no longer rewards us just for what we know—Google knows everything—but for extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge creatively in novel situations. The industrial age taught us how to educate students so they could remember what we told them; in the age of artificial intelligence, we will need to think harder about how we can pair the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social, and emotional skills and values of people.
Whether artificial intelligence will destroy or create more jobs will very much depend on our success with this and whether our imagination, our awareness, and our sense of responsibility will help us harness technology to shape the world for the better. It is telling that employment in Europe’s creative industries—those that specialize in the use of talent for commercial purposes—grew at 3.6 percent during the crucial period between 2011 and 2013, a time when many European sectors were shedding jobs or showing stagnant employment rates.
Moreover, technology and artificial intelligence are not magic powers; they are just extraordinary amplifiers and accelerators that add speed and accuracy. Artificial intelligence will amplify good ideas and good practice in the same way that it amplifies bad ideas and bad practice; i.e., artificial intelligence is ethically neutral. However, it is always in the hands of people who are not neutral. That is why education in the future is not just about teaching people something, but about helping them develop a reliable compass to navigate an increasingly complex, ambiguous, and volatile world. Ethics will be at the heart of 21st-century learning.
There are other important dimensions too. The conventional approach in school is often to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces and then to teach students how to solve these bits and pieces. But modern societies create value by synthesizing different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated. That requires being familiar with and receptive to knowledge in other fields.
Not least, social skills are rising in labor-market relevance, so tomorrow’s citizens will need to think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. Innovation is now rarely the product of individuals working in isolation but rather an outcome of how we share and integrate knowledge. Employers increasingly seek to attract learners who easily adapt and can share, apply, and transfer their skills and knowledge. At work, at home, and in the community, people will need a deep understanding of how others live in different cultures and traditions and how others think, whether as scientists or artists. Digitalization can enrich this capacity but also put it at risk.
The challenge is that developing such cognitive, social, and emotional capabilities requires a very different approach to teaching and learning, well beyond imparting and absorbing prefabricated knowledge. In the most advanced education systems, teaching has become a profession of advanced knowledge workers who own their professional practice and who work with a high level of professional autonomy and within a collaborative culture. In Finland, there tend to be nine applicants for every teaching post, not because teaching is financially more attractive than in other countries but because teaching in Finland is intellectually attractive.
The past was divided, with teachers and content divided by subjects, and students separated by expectations of their future career prospects. Nowadays, education is becoming more integrated, with an emphasis on the interrelation of subjects and the integration of students. It is also becoming more connected, with learning closely related to real-world contexts and contemporary issues and open to the rich resources in the community, becoming project-based, and helping students to think across the boundaries of subject-matter disciplines.
Some education systems also embrace technology in ways that elevate the role of teachers as co-creators and designers of innovative learning environments. Digital learning systems cannot just teach us science; they can simultaneously observe how we learn and determine the kinds of tasks and thinking that interest us—as well as the kinds of problems that we find boring or difficult. These systems can then adapt learning to suit our personal learning style with far greater granularity and precision than any traditional classroom setting possibly can. Similarly, virtual laboratories give us the opportunity to design, conduct, and learn from experiments rather than just learning about them.
There are good examples of technology enhancing experiential learning by supporting project- and inquiry-based teaching methods, facilitating hands-on activities and cooperative learning, and delivering formative real-time assessments. There are also interesting examples of technology supporting learning with interactive, nonlinear courseware based on state-of-the-art instructional design, sophisticated software for experimentation and simulation, social media, and educational games. These are precisely the learning tools that are needed to develop 21st-century knowledge and skills. Not least, one teacher can now educate and inspire millions of learners and communicate ideas to the whole world.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of technology is that it not only serves individual learners and educators, but it also can build an ecosystem around learning to create communities that make learning more social and more fun, recognizing that collaborative learning enhances goal orientation, motivation, persistence, and the development of effective learning strategies.
Similarly, technology can build communities of teachers to share and enrich teaching resources and practices and to collaborate on professional growth and the institutionalization of professional practice. It can help system leaders and governments develop and share best practices around curriculum design, policy, and pedagogy. Imagine a giant crowdsourcing platform where teachers, education researchers, and policy experts collaborate to curate the most relevant content and professional practice to achieve education goals, and where students anywhere in the world have access to the best and most innovative education experiences.
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 up.
Governments cannot innovate in the classroom, but government has a key role as platform and broker, as stimulator and enabler; it can focus resources, set a facilitative policy climate, and use accountability and reporting modifications to encourage new practice. But government needs to better identify key agents of change, champion them, and find more effective approaches to scaling and disseminating innovations. That is also about finding better ways to recognize, 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.
The challenges look daunting, but many education systems are now well on their way toward finding innovative responses to them, not just in isolated, local examples, but also systemically. This is essential if we are to create a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one. That task is not about making the impossible possible, but about making the possible attainable.
Andreas Schleicher is the director for education and skills and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.