Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Educating for innovative societies

Professor Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, answers questions posed by educationtoday's editor Cassandra Davis during his visit to OECD to present at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation conference on Educating for Innovative Societies.

Cassandra Davis: In your book “Five minds for the future”, you call for the development of five types of thinking: the disciplined, synthesizing, creative, respectful and ethical. In your opinion, are schools equally responsible for the development of these minds? How could schools best develop these skills?

Howard Gardner: The traditional role of school is to develop minds that are disciplined—both in the sense of mastering the major disciplinary ways of thinking and in the sense of working steadily towards the development of any intellectual skill.  Synthesizing and creating are also intellectual/cognitive capacities, and thus within the purview of school, and they are more important in the 21st century than ever before. But educators have less experience in training these ‘habits of mind’ and unless teachers themselves have these latter skills, they will not be able to inculcate them effectively in students.

Ideally, the challenges of respectful and ethical minds would be taken up by the larger society—political leaders, media creators, parents, and workers. But in countries like the United States, we cannot count on much help from these individuals and institutions. Respect and ethics cannot be conveyed didactically—they have to be embodied in the behaviors and attitudes of the adults and older children in schools.  The creation of ‘common spaces’, where members of a school community can discuss challenging issues is one  step that can and should be taken.

CD: If you could change one thing in school practices, what would it be? Why?

HG: In psychology, we distinguish between the Figure and the Ground. The Figure is the dominant focus in a graphic presentation—for example, a portrait of a royal figure—and the Ground consists of the background shadows and patterns which support, rather than divert attention from, the Figure.  Throughout the developed and developing world, the Figure in recent years has become scores on standardized tests—and OECD has contributed to this focus. There is nothing wrong with having good test scores, but there is something VERY WRONG when societies prioritize scores over everything else.

And so, if I could change one thing, it would be to put another Figure at the center of our educational landscape: the kinds of human beings we want to nurture and the kind of society we want to create.  Everything in the background—including test scores—should contribute to those overarching goals.  Most of the problems in the world are not created by teachers or students with low test scores. They are created and magnified by individuals with high test scores—and that includes those of us who are reading (and in my case writing)  those words—who push self aggrandizement and power  ahead of the creation of a healthy society populated by ethical individuals. In the United States, we refer ironically to ‘the best and the brightest’—the Harvard and Yale graduates who brought us into the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the financial crises of 2001 and 2008.

If you think I have strong opinions about these matters, you are right!

CD: In your latest book "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed," you stress that, with technological advances, factual information has become readily available, and the need to memorize is no longer that important. How can students today develop critical thinking, and understand what is true and why?

HG: Yes,  when the answers to factual questions are available at the movement of a mouse or the click of a button, there is no point in spending time committing the information to memory. Recently, a talented student said to me “Why bother to go to school, when the answers to all questions are contained in my hand held device?”  I responded to him, rather pointedly, ‘”Yes, the answer to all questions, except the important ones.”

The student reflected an increasingly widely held view that either a question can be answered by a computer or it is not worth asking or it cannot be answered decisively and so should not be tackled at all.  But as your question indicates, we cannot and should not accept all information obtained ‘online ‘ or ‘offline’ as true—even if the authority is thought to be reliable.

And so, going forward, our focus in schools (and outside of school) should be on understanding the METHODS whereby assertions are made, the way that a question is posed, how relevant data and arguments are marshaled, what kinds of challenges have been considered, how have they been responded to, etc.  One should never read a single account of the causes of the French revolution or the role of heritability in the distribution of human traits.  Instead, one needs to probe deeply on how various accounts and graphics and data arrays have been created and used as a foundation for a conclusion.

Ironically, we live at a time in the history of the world where it is MORE POSSIBLE than ever before to determine what is true and what is not.  But one has to be willing to take the time to interrogate sources of all sorts and to change one’s mind if the data and arguments point in another direction.   In the future, we will pay increasing attention to those sources of information that are known to be DISinterested—not pushing a particular agenda, being ready to consider alternative points of view, to admit error and to publish corrections. Alas, these are not the first descriptors that come to mind when one considers the average blog!

For more information on Professor Howard Gardner visit his website:
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

Photo credit: Ammit / © Shutterstock

How can education help tackle rising income inequality?

By Ji Eun Chung
Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education
See instructions below for how to read the chart
The gap between the rich and poor has widened in OECD countries over the past 30 years. As the latest issue of the OECD’s new brief series Education Indicators in Focus describes, the average income of the richest 10% of people in OECD countries was about nine times greater than the income of the poorest 10% before the onset of the global economic crisis. This ratio was 5 to 1 in the 1980s.

What’s more, existing income inequality may also limit the income prospects of future generations in some countries. In countries with higher income inequality – such as Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States – a child’s future earnings are likely to be similar to his or her father’s, suggesting that socio-economic background plays a large role in the development of children’s skills and abilities. Meanwhile, in countries with lower income inequality – like Denmark, Finland, and Norway – a child’s future income is not as strongly related to his or her family’s income status. In these countries, the development of children’s skills and abilities has a weaker link with socio-economic factors.

The implications for education policy are clear. Education policies focusing on equity in education may be a particularly useful way for countries to increase earnings mobility between generations and reduce income inequality over time. Countries can work towards this goal by giving equal opportunities to both disadvantaged and advantaged students to achieve strong academic outcomes – laying a pathway for them to continue on to higher levels of education and eventually secure good jobs.

Four top performers on the 2009 PISA reading assessment show the potential of this approach. Canada, Finland, Japan, and Korea all have education systems that put a strong focus on equity – and all have yielded promising results. In each of these countries, relatively few students performed at lower proficiency levels on the PISA reading assessment, and high proportions of students performed better than would be expected, given their socio-economic background.

Yet while each of these countries focuses on equity, they’ve pursued it in different ways. In Japan and Korea, for example, teachers and principals are often reassigned to different schools, fostering more equal distribution of the most capable teachers and school leaders. Finnish schools assign specially-trained teachers to support struggling students who are at risk of dropping out. The teaching profession is a highly selective occupation in Finland, with highly-skilled, well-trained teachers spread throughout the country. In Canada, equal or greater educational resources – such as supplementary classes – are provided to immigrant students, compared to non-immigrant students. This is believed to have boosted immigrant students’ performance.

Income inequality is a challenging issue that demands a wide range of solutions. In a world of growing inequality, focusing on equity in education may be an effective approach to tackle it over the long run.

For more information
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus:
Equity and Quality in Education - Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators:
Divided we stand: Why inequality keeps rising:
On the OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme, visit:
INES Programme overview brochure

Chart source: Source: D'Addio (2012, forthcoming), “Social Mobility in OECD countries: Evidence and Policy Implications”; OECD (2008), Growing Unequal?,; OECD Income distribution database.

How to read the chart: This chart shows the relationship between earnings mobility between generations of a family, and the prevalence of income inequality in different countries. Overall, countries with higher levels of income inequality tend to have lower earnings mobility between generations, while countries with lower levels of income inequality tend to have higher earnings mobility.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How “green” are our children?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
Anger over an oil spill off the coast of California prompted a US senator to call for a day-long national “teach-in” to raise awareness about the environment. More than four decades after the first Earth Day (22 April) was celebrated, in 1970, the day is commemorated around the globe as a time to draw attention to environmental issues and
(re-)commit to protecting the planet’s natural resources.

For this 42nd Earth Day, we wanted to find out how “green” today’s students are and where most of their information about the environment comes from. According to the latest issue of PISA in Focus, students who have high levels of environmental literacy are still the minority; but all students get most of their information about environmental issues at school.

Results from the PISA 2006 survey, which focused on science, indicate that an average of 19% of 15-year-olds across OECD countries perform at the highest level of proficiency in environmental science. This means that they can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge related to a variety of environmental topics. At the other end of the spectrum, an average of 16% of students perform below the baseline level of proficiency, meaning that they cannot answer questions containing scientific information related to basic environmental phenomena or issues. In four OECD countries, 20% or more of students score below this baseline level.

While PISA results indicate that schools are students’ main source of information about such crucial environmental issues as air pollution, energy, the extinction of plants and animals, deforestation, water shortages and nuclear waste, they also show that the vast majority of schools do not offer stand-alone courses in the environment. Most students acquire their knowledge about environmental science through related subjects, such as natural science or geography.

But PISA finds that, when the subject is the environment, teaching and learning methods are often innovative. For example, 77% of students in OECD countries, on average, attend schools that offer outdoor classes on the environment, 75% are in schools that organise trips to museums, and 67% are in schools that conduct visits to science centres. And better-performing students also use the media and the Internet to broaden and deepen their knowledge about the environment.

When “teach-in”s inspire teach-ourselves, we can say that some progress has, indeed, been made. Given the urgent – and informed – action needed to address climate change and biodiversity loss, not to mention the considerable estimated savings to the global economy that come from adopting low-carbon energy systems and from improving people’s health by ensuring that they have access to clean air and water, the greening of our students couldn’t happen soon enough.

For more information:
on PISA:
PISA in Focus: How “green” are today’s 15-year-olds?
OECD Green Growth website
Photo credit: © sextoacto / Shutterstock

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bridging the socio-economic divide between public and private schools

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
Several months ago, we described how PISA results show that, when it comes to the question of private versus public schooling, it’s the students who make the school. Both private schools and public schools with student populations from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds benefit the individual students who attend them. But PISA results also showed that there is no evidence to suggest that the proportion of private schools in a country, in and of itself, is associated with higher performance of the school system as a whole.

In most PISA-participating countries and economies, the average socio-economic background of students who attend privately managed schools is more advantaged than that of those who attend public schools. The PISA team wanted to find out why some school systems seem to be better than others at minimising the socio-economic differences that are often apparent between publicly and privately managed schools.

The team’s findings have just been published in Public and Private Schools: How Management and Funding Relate to their Socio-economic Profile. What the team found out is that the prevalence of privately managed schools in a country is not related to greater or lesser degrees of difference between the socio-economic profiles of public and private schools; but the level of public funding to privately managed schools is.

There are many ways of providing public funding to privately managed schools. One of these is through vouchers and tuition tax credits, which assist parents directly. If school vouchers are available for all students, they could help to expand the choice of schools available to parents and promote competition among schools. School vouchers that target only disadvantaged students can make admission to schools more equitable, which ultimately has an impact on the prospects in life for all children and contributes to social cohesion; but they have a limited effect on expanding school choice and promoting competition among schools overall. When researchers analysed data from PISA 2009, they found that school systems that offer vouchers to all students tend to have twice the degree of socio-economic differences between publicly and privately managed schools as systems that offer vouchers only to disadvantaged students.

Crucially, the results also show that those countries that have smaller socio-economic differences between publicly and privately managed schools also tend to show better overall student performance. That means that policy makers—and ultimately parents and students—do not have to choose between equity/social cohesion and strong performance in their school systems. The two are not mutually exclusive.


For more information:
on PISA:
PISA in Focus N°7: Private schools: Who benefits?

Photo credit: © Stuart Miles / Shutterstock

Thursday, April 12, 2012

17 top OECD tweeters to follow on education

by Cassandra Davis and Julie Harris
Communications, Directorate for Education

Like us, you are looking for the best and latest information on education when you trawl blogs and twitter streams, Google search results and RSS feeds from news sites. You're seeking quality content, timely content, new research and answers to age-old questions. Years ago, we ploughed through papers found in online libraries, on websites and links sent by colleagues. Today, we have a number of new, well-informed sources at our fingertips (on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and even Pinterest). Some see these as contributing to information overload. Others have learned to use them as powerful filters.

Some of the most reliable filters are knowledgeable people who care enough to share. So who are the "filters" and sources tweeting here at the OECD on education? Take a look below, follow a few, and let us know who we should be following in the comments below. Together, we will learn, share and tweet the very best in education information from across the world.

@OECD: Our main twitter channel for OECD communications on better policies for better lives.

@OECD_EDU: Bringing you all the latest news on OECD work on education proving information to improve the quality of education world wide.

@YLeterme: Yves Leterme is Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD and tweets on social affairs, education, governance and entrepreneurship.

@SchleicherEDU: Andreas Schleicher advises the OECD Secretary General on education policy and is Deputy Director for Education. He tweets on #OECDskills that matter and how to turn them into better jobs and better lives.

@DebRoseveare: Deborah Roseveare heads the Skills Beyond School Division tweeting on all aspects of #OECDSkills:  the development, utilisation and measurement of skills for youth and adults, and building skills through more effective vocational education and training and higher education.

@RichardJYelland: Richard Yelland heads the Policy Advice and Implementation Division and tweets on education policy across all sectors.

@VanDammeEDU: Dirk Van Damme heads the OECD Education Directorate’s Innovation and Measuring Progress Division and the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation #OECDCERI. He tweets on all educational issues and more specifically on the topics of measuring progress, research, indicators and innovation.

@jhwordsmith:  Julie Harris is a social media consultant to the OECD Directorate for Education. She is passionate about learning, skills for the 21st century, technology and education reform. She tweets on these topics and more.

@Kristen_TALIS: Kristen Weatherby is a former classroom teacher, she is the tweet lead for OECD's Teaching and Learning International Survey, tweeting on issues that affect teachers.

@AlastairBlyth: Alastair Blyth is a former practicing architect and tweets on design, procurement, and use of school & higher education buildings #OECDCELE

@ValafonValerie Lafon is the lead for #OECDIMHE the Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE).

@FabriceHENARD: Fabrice is an analyst tweeting on  Higher Education issues including quality teaching, learning outcomes-AHELO, Internationalisation for #OECDIMHE in English and French.

@OECDLive: OECD’s Livestream tweeting our conferences and events in real time.  Tune in for the launch of the #OECDSkills Strategy during #OECDweek on 22-24 May.

Last but not least:
@OECDBerlin; @ocdeenespanol ;@OCDE_Fran├žais; @OECDTokyo: the official OECD twitter channels retweeting our news in German, Spanish, French and Japanese.

Photo credit: Julien Tromeur / © Shutterstock

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bridging the skills gap

by Kathrin Hoeckel
Analyst, Skills Beyond Schools Division, Directorate for Education

If you were to ask someone which countries tend to bear the brunt of a shortage of skills in this era of globalised trade, you couldn't fault them for thinking of developing countries.

While this is certainly true, the problem is by no means limited to poorer countries. Indeed, even in countries at the forefront of the developed world and consistently at the top of the PISA rankings, skills shortages can plague the economy.

Two such countries are Australia and Canada.

The Canadian Council on Learning says there is a clear “gap between the demand for workers with strong literacy and numeracy skills and the supply of Canadians who possess them.” They point out that the growth in the information communication technology industries, coupled with the reduced demand for unskilled workers due to foreign outsourcing, has only served to intensify the need for skilled workers. The question is why there is such a gap when Canadian teenagers do so well on tests such as PISA's. The answer, they posit, lies in the failure of adults to keep up with the “demands of the emerging knowledge society and information economy”. In other words, lifelong learning is as essential to a strong economy as successful schools (as can be seen in the OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on adult participation in education and learning, job-related training is comparatively low in Canada).

Australian companies are also hard hit by the skills gap. The Australian Institute of Management recently released a study that found 82% of organisations admit to a skills shortage in their workplace, with middle management lacking particularly in leadership and technical skills.

Brian Schmidt, Australia's 2011 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, feels that a key problem is the lack of skilled teachers, particularly in maths and science. He points to the OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on teacher salaries, which indicates that there tends to be a correlation between well paid teachers and students that excel.

The country's mining industry is suffering, in Mr Schmidt's opinion, from a direct consequence of this. He says that the industry's lack of highly trained engineers threatens the resource boom currently under way in Australia. He relates how the chair of the mining company BHP Billiton told him the biggest problem his company faces is finding highly skilled employees competent in mathematics.

The consequences could be dire for Australia. BHP Billiton predicts that the mining industry alone will require an additional 150 000 workers over the next five years.

Furthermore, Chris Evans, Australia's Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, estimates that Australia will need over 2 million additional workers by 2015 with higher vocational education and training (VET) qualifications. To meet this challenge, Australia drew up ambitious plans just last year to improve its existing VET system (which, as Learning for Jobs: OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training shows, is already quite strong) by investing up to €15 billion by 2020.

In Latin America, an altogether different region of the world, the economic pain from the skills gap – evocatively known in Spanish as “la brecha”, or the breach – is also acutely felt. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), youth unemployment has increased across Latin America more than any other region in the world, and this can be directly attributed to young people lacking the skills required by the labour market. Not surprising when time and time again the research shows that poor skills go hand in hand with economic hardship.

In a study released earlier this month, the IDB stated that the youth in Latin America have a long way to go in developing the “interpersonal skills the market requires, such as responsibility, communication and creativity”. Its research shows that the majority of young workers across the region have informal jobs and lack social benefits.

One thing that is common to all these countries is that children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged when it comes to foundation skills in reading, mathematics and science (see OECD’s Education at a Glance statistics on equality in educational outcomes and opportunities). However, countries with the very best scores in PISA tend to have schools that are more inclusive. In other words, students can score well regardless of their socio-economic background. This in turn benefits the economy and society as a whole.

For if knowledge and skills are the global currency of the 21st century, countries will do well to stock up on their reserves. They can do so by encouraging people to learn, enticing skilled people to enter their countries, encouraging people to use and build their skills at work, retaining skilled people, matching skills to demand, and finally increasing the demand for high-level skills. That goes for economic heavyweights and flyweights alike.

Interested in learning more? Watch out for the OECD Skills Strategy, coming in May 2012, where we will lay the land for bridging the skills gap, turning brain drain into brain exchange, coping with ageing societies and declining skills pools and more.

OECD Skills Strategy
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

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