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The Forum for World Education: Five takeaways

The Forum for World Education: Five takeaways

At the beginning of December, the Forum for World Education brought together over 300 youths, business leaders and educators at the OECD in Paris to reimagine education.

It is an urgent agenda. For those with the right skills, digitalisation and globalisation have been liberating and exciting; but for those who are insufficiently prepared, they often mean vulnerable and insecure work, and life with few prospects.

Putting learners at the centre

The most important takeaway from the Forum for me was this: Wherever we bring young leaders into a discussion on the future of education, it's actually not that difficult to reach agreement on what people should learn and how people should learn to be ready for the future.

In their discussion with business leaders, young learners had clear ideas about what knowledge, skills, attitudes and values were most important, and how they were learning these best. Tiril Rahn, Jack Adeney and Rawan Dareer, graduates from NYU in Abu Dhabi, brought these points out very well. And World Skills champions Pearl So, Ricardo Vivian, Gary Condon and Anna Prokopenia added that academic institutions provide just one way of learning, and that some of the most important skills are developed at work.

The most central point was that education is no longer just about teaching people something, but about helping them develop a reliable compass and the tools to navigate through an increasingly complex and volatile world. Education is about identity, it's about agency and it's about purpose. Success in education is about building curiosity (opening minds), it's about compassion (opening hearts), and it's about courage, mobilising our cognitive, social and emotional resources to take responsibility. And that's also going to be our best weapon against the biggest threats of our times: ignorance – the closed mind; hate – the closed heart; and fear – the enemy of agency.

Tomorrow's learning environments need to help students think for themselves and join others, with empathy, in work and citizenship. They'll need to help them develop a strong sense of right and wrong, sensitivity to the claims that others make on us, and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. At work and in the community, people need a deep understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or artists. In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings but with often global implications, means we need to become good in handling tensions and dilemmas. Striking a balance between competing demands – equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process – that's going to require the capacity to navigate ambiguity.

The Forum heard all this will require very different learning environments. As opening speaker Jack Ma – co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group – put it, we should make schools less like industrial farms and more like a zoo, bringing out the features that make each person special rather than developed standardised ways of thinking that technology will make redundant. Or in the words of Hekia Parata, former Education Minister in New Zealand, we need to get from numbers, to names, to needs, and become better at respecting the identity, context and culture of every learner.

Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands recounted how the handshake and look in the eye by a teacher was the defining moment for the day. Today, we let children scan their QR code when they enter school to feed some accountability statistics. There has been a global trend to commodify education, turning students into consumers, parents into clients, and teachers into service providers, and making learning a transactional process rather than a relational and social phenomenon.

How can we bring people back at the centre of education, make education a social enterprise, and understand the needs of the invisible children, not just the eloquent children? The Forum's young leaders, Damian Boesalager, Kaloi Duncan, Fan Jesse Yang, Dani Bickell and Maitha Al Memari had compelling answers to this question.

The power of peer learning

My second takeaway was about the power of peer learning. It is so important that we don't just look forward but also outwards. That's not about copying and pasting solutions from other places; it's about looking seriously and dispassionately at good practice in our own countries and elsewhere to understand what works in which culture and which context.

Charlie Stripp, Director of the National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, told the Forum how England's Schools Minister Liz Truss, a former mathematics teacher, had been inspired by Shanghai's high performance in the PISA mathematics assessment. She went to visit Shanghai and was impressed by the mathematics teaching that she observed and the teacher-to-teacher and school-to-school programs in the province. She worked with the Chinese to create an exchange program for teachers between China and England. Some 50 English-speaking mathematics teachers from China were deployed to more than 30 maths hubs in England. They showed the teaching methods they use, including teaching to the top and helping struggling students one-on-one. They gave daily mathematics lessons, homework and feedback. The Chinese teachers were also running masterclasses for local schools and provided subject specific, on-the-job teacher education. In turn, leading English mathematics teachers from each of the maths hubs went to work in schools in China.

Learning from the world is not just about methods, but also about content. The concept of global competence came up in many discussions. Educators need to prepare students for the culturally diverse and digitally connected communities in which they will work and socialise.

Making change happen

My third takeaway from the Forum was about making change happen. As Vishal Talreja, co-founder of Dream a Dream in India pointed out, we know quite well what is working in education and what is not working. Still, knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it. The reality is that many good ideas get stuck in the process of policy implementation.

The challenge is to build on the expertise of our teachers and school leaders and enlist them in the design of superior policies and practices. This is not accomplished just by letting a thousand flowers bloom; it requires a carefully crafted enabling environment that can unleash teachers' and schools' ingenuity and build capacity for change. As Hekia Parata emphasised, it requires leaders who tackle institutional structures that too often are built around the interests and habits of educators and administrators rather than learners, leaders who are sincere about social change, imaginative in policy making, and capable of using the trust they earn to deliver effective reforms.

Making school everybody's business

My fourth takeaway is about making education everybody's business. Schools tend to be good at keeping students inside but often keep the rest of the world outside. But we can change this. Nick Chambers, Founder and CEO of Education and Employers, showed how education in schools can be made so much more relevant and engaging when schools invite people from all walks of life to explain their jobs to the next generation of learners. In the same vein, Princess Laurentien emphasised that citizenship is not learned, but experienced.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, recounted how he left school, disillusioned, at age 16 because he felt that school did nothing to develop his creative and entrepreneurial talents. On his last day at school, his headmaster famously told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. We all know how that worked out. Richard portrayed a vision for education that puts character and values at its heart, and where people work to learn, love to learn and learn to love.

Tackling the gateways

My fifth takeaway was the urgency to redesign our examinations and assessments. The way students are tested has a big influence on the future of education too, because it signals the priorities for the curriculum and instruction. Tests will always focus our thinking about what is important, and they should. Teachers and school administrators, as well as students, will pay attention to what is tested and adapt the curriculum and teaching accordingly.

The trouble is that many assessment systems are poorly aligned with the vision of education which many countries aspire to and which the Forum discussed. Large parts of today's school tests can be answered in seconds with the help of a smartphone. If our children are to be smarter than their smartphones, then tests need to look beyond whether students can reproduce information to determine, instead, whether they can extrapolate from what they know, and apply their knowledge creatively to novel situations. Assessments also need to capture social and emotional skills.

Today, most tests do not allow students to connect to the internet, based on the fear that students may look up the answers. The challenge for future assessments is whether they can encourage students to go online to connect with the world's most advanced knowledge without jeopardising the validity and reliability of results. Similarly, one of the worst offences in test taking is to consult with another student. But given that innovation is now more often based on sharing knowledge, future tests should not disqualify students for collaborating with other test-takers, but find ways that they can do so.

And as Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, reminded us, if PISA wants to stay the global metric for educational success, PISA too will need to evolve.

But in the face of challenges and opportunities as great as any that have gone before, we need not be passive or inert. We have agency, the ability to anticipate and the power to frame our actions with purpose. One of the most striking results from the PISA 2018 assessment was that the 10 per cent most disadvantaged students in four Chinese provinces outperformed the average student in the OECD area, and the 10 per cent wealthiest students in a number of OECD countries. This highlights that universal high-quality education is an attainable goal, that it is within our means to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one, and that our task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable.

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