Global Education Episode 20 with Andreas Schleicher

Hello, from Teacher magazine I’m Jo Earp and welcome to this episode of Global Education.

Joining me from Paris today is Andreas Schleicher – Director for Education and Skills at the OECD and long-time Teacher columnist. With the end of the year approaching, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get his take on all things 2020 and also talk about the longer term impacts of the school shutdowns. You’ll also hear how different education systems have responded to the pandemic restrictions. It’s a really fascinating chat, so settle down with a cuppa and enjoy.

Jo Earp: Andreas Schleicher, welcome to Teacher, it’s great to catch up with you today. It’s been such a difficult year for everyone, and that includes teachers, leaders, parents and, of course, the students themselves. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has spread worldwide, the impact has been very different in each country and region, as we’ve seen. I’m here in Melbourne, in Australia, you’re there in Paris, and France unfortunately has been one of the hardest hit countries. Can you give listeners a sense of what’s happening now where you are?

Andreas Schleicher: Yeah, clearly France is hard hit and Paris in particular. At the same time, education is faring a lot better than in the spring. When the pandemic hit first, you know schools were among the first institutions to be closed, while restaurants were kept open. And now it’s really the reverse I think, the country has got its priorities right, the schools remain open – that’s sort of the last thing that’s going to be closed, whereas almost everything else has been locked down; but, I think it’s, it’s progress.

JE: What about the general mood of people? It must be very difficult under those circumstances, what’s the mood like in schools among teachers and students?

AS: Well I think for many young people it’s a place of stability and so you have actually many young people saying ‘well, I’m happy that I can go to school’. Teacher participation is good as well, you know there were a lot of concerns that teachers would be worried about the health situation, but schools have put many really solid safety measures in place. So I think it’s difficult, it varies also locally, regionally, but overall I think in the education system it’s managed quite well. Certainly, again, a lot better than was the case earlier in the year.

JE: Now, as Director for Education and Skills there at the OECD, and aside from your own team there, you’re regularly in contact with educators and policymakers from around the world. I want you to cast your mind back to the early part of 2020 when things first started to take off with the virus – what was the initial thinking about the possible impact that it might have on school education?

AS: Good question. I think, for a start, education policymakers didn’t have much of a say when the pandemic hit. You know, the decisions on school closures and education were largely made on the basis of health concerns by policymakers beyond education.

The crisis really caught education cold, certainly in Europe; we didn’t have much knowledge about how to keep schools safe and how to have education co-exist with the virus and probably we overestimated the role that schools play in spreading the virus. There were big concerns about this, schools being places, some called them ‘cruise ships on land’ you know, lots of people packed and a big risk. I think, by now, the knowledge base has improved a lot so I think that’s also why schools can now be managed.

But at the beginning I think education was caught cold, where people did not have experience with remote learning. That became sort of the lifeline for success, you could see how technology was not moderating but really amplifying the many inequalities in education. For young people who knew how to learn, who could manage their own learning processes, who had a very supportive ecosystem around them (parents included), who had access to great digital technology, very well supported by schools – for them, you know this may have been liberating and exciting in the early days. But, for the many young people here in France, and around the world actually, who were used to being spoon-fed by their teachers, who learned in little chunks and bits, who did not have access to good technology, where teachers were not ready to support them with online learning – I think they have been really badly left behind.

JE: One of the things I was thinking about, just then, I don’t know if it’s the same where you were, but we were hearing constantly in those early days from politicians, you know, ‘there is no playbook for this’, ‘we’ve had nothing like it before’ and I think, here, that was a thing people struggled to come to terms with, that there was no reference point really for them.

AS: Well actually, you know, many countries have plans for pandemics – that’s actually quite well established – but, still, I think we’ve never used those plans. And that’s why, particularly for education, we could’ve prepared ourselves a lot better for many of the challenges, particularly on the technology front. The technologies that have been used have been around for years but I don’t think people had thought about it. There was nowhere else to look for solutions; often what you can do in a kind of global environment you look to countries who do something particularly well, but I think this has been really, really difficult. Every day you would wake up in a different world.

JE: That’s true, it did change every day in those early days. And, as things developed of course we saw schools shutting down en masse. How many students were effectively ‘locked out of school’ around the world?

AS: Well, at the end of March that was sort of the height of the lockdown in schools, we had 1.6 billion students not taking part in learning. That sort of estimate then got lower as schools partially reopened, but it’s a very, very large number and this is going to leave long shadows over our economic and social wellbeing.

JE: And was there a disparity there in terms of background – did it tend to effect more disadvantaged areas, rural areas and so on, or really was it just right across the board?

AS: Well in the OECD countries it was pretty much across the board, the school closures. But obviously the lockdown had a differential effect by social background. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds had much fewer means to make up for the learning losses, to look at alternative learning opportunities. Students from wealthier backgrounds could draw on a wide range of alternative possibilities, and I think that’s where the inequalities really come from. Everybody was out of school but, you know, what you can do when you’re out of school can very a lot depending on the resources and the knowledge that your parents have.

JE: We’re going to talk about some of the examples of what happened in a moment. COVID-19 has really highlighted the crucial role in society that teachers and school leaders play. Of course, those in the education system already knew it but it was a reminder for other people, I guess. The speed of the response from school teams, in terms of keeping the community up to date, adapting to new ways of working, basically ensuring a continuity of teaching and learning, has been so impressive hasn’t it?

AS: Yeah, I think we have moved towards making education a whole-of-society project in this crisis. And if you look at the last 10/15 years there had been a kind of trend towards commodifying education: students becoming consumers, parents becoming clients, teachers becoming service providers, and there’s sort of an increasing distance in education. And I think this crisis has really made everybody part of the process.

As a parent, you know you had to struggle, understand what teachers actually do every day, you had to when you educate your own children. As a teacher you suddenly saw, well, if I was just broadcasting knowledge I will not reach my students any more, I no longer have to be just a good instructor, I have to be also a great mentor, a great coach, a great facilitator, a great kind of evaluator, a great social worker. So I think the role of teaching has fundamentally changed.

And communities have chipped in in many ways, as well. I think this has been maybe one of the more positive developments during the crisis, that there has certainly been much greater awareness of the role that education plays. Also, that education is not primarily a transactional process but a relational process; that those kind of social relationships really, really matter. Technology, you know, has been a great kind of lever, it has amplified the work of teachers, you know, accelerated it in many ways, but it has certainly not replaced the many social functions of schools, and I think we realise their importance.

You could see that also when you look at the priorities that policymakers set during this pandemic, and we have quite good data on this. Typically, school is all about academic knowledge, whereas in this crisis many of the social functions, also student wellbeing, teacher wellbeing, the role of social and emotional skills, all of that has risen to the forefront in ways that we have not seen before.

JE: Andreas, there are so many things we’ll learn from this going forward I think. Before we talk about the future and returning to learning, and some kind of normal, I just wondered whether you could share some of the examples of school and system responses in different countries. You’ve sort of hinted at that, can you give some examples of innovative or good practice during the pandemic in maybe two or three countries?

AS: Yeah, you know what was so interesting to see was that even though countries were quite similarly hit by the pandemic, the health kind of dimension of it, the education systems responded so differently. Where you did have a lot of frontline capacity, you had a lot of responsibility in classrooms, in schools, where schools were used to actually designing their own learning environments, to manage the space, the people, the time, the technology, in creative ways – they were very quickly back on their feet, that’s what you could see. Whereas, where you had these heavy kind of command and control education systems, very hierarchical that really, really struggled in the pandemic. Because, in this moment of crisis, as a school leader, for example, you don’t ask yourself whether people follow your instructions, you ask yourself ‘how well can my own people collaborate?’ And that’s really what this crisis has shown – where schools had a high degree of professional autonomy and were working in a collaborative culture, they managed really well.

Technology has made a huge difference. Like, if you could see remote learning in China that was very, very impressive. In one month’s time they had over 50 million people learning online in high quality learning environments, because they got the tech industry, they got the teachers, they got everybody on board. Teachers were used, they spend maybe less time to teach than the teachers in Australia, or Europe, but they spend a lot more time as researchers, as designers of learning environments, they spend a lot more time with their students outside the classroom, so they were used to dealing with this kind of frontline responsibilities.

If you go to the other end of the world, in Bogota online learning was well beyond the reach of most families, if they didn’t have computers, and they suddenly thought ‘well, we don’t have computers but we have actually mobile phones and we have television’. So they were very creative actually, working with the broadband companies to give students free access for education resources, the government putting the curriculum on mobile networks, complementing this with a great television program. So, you can see even a relatively poor education system like Bogota in Colombia was capable to manage in this crisis because they were flexible, they didn’t sort of push everybody in online learning and then see ‘we don’t have the resources and infrastructure’, but they looked at ‘what infrastructure do we have and how can we use that?’ really, really creatively.

In the Nordic countries in Europe, again a lot of capacity locally, some of them were very, very good at using digital resources, and that pays off in this crisis. The education systems that really struggled were the kind of heavy, industrial kind of old-style systems, command and control systems, where chains of command broke down and the education system was in very bad shape.

The other dimension I think that really distinguished countries was trust. You know, reopening school is not something that you can declare, you need to convince parents that schools are safe, you need to convince teachers that actually their work environment is safe. So, where you have trust in students, trust in teachers, trust in educational institutions, that was sort of the glue that held systems together in this moment; again, high-trust systems doing much better than low-trust systems where you had lots of people even going on strike and so on.

Curriculum redesign – Portugal in Europe was a very interesting example where we have less teaching time in a pandemic, that was very obvious, but they made a very conscious decision, you know, ‘if we have less time, what is really important for us?’ Rather than sort of pushing down more on teachers, you know making our learning system sort of a mile wide, inch deep, just rushing through a lot of stuff for an exam, they asked themselves, you know, ‘what is really important? What matters?’ and then focused on this. And they got people on board for this.

You’ve probably seen more social and technological innovation in the last six months than in the last six or maybe 60 years! And I think that’s really what gives me hope that there may have been less reform, but there’s certainly been more change in education.

JE: That’s interesting you mentioned the example from Bogota about the television. Despite everyone’s best efforts, students have inevitably fallen behind in some areas. As you say, technology has been only part of the answer really. And what you were mentioning there about television, that goes an infographic I recently did on a UNICEF report showing internet-based instruction was being used by 83 per cent of ministries of education during the lockdown around the world (and they analysed more than 100 ministries of education) but it only had the potential to reach 24 per cent of school students, while television had a much wider reach. What impact has the last nine months had on student progress then, and also their wellbeing?

AS: Yeah, on learning progress our estimates at the OECD, broadly across OECD countries that probably have at least three months of effective learning time lost and again that has huge consequences on the economic side. You look at a country like Australia, that could translate into an economic hole of 870 billion US dollars over the working life of the young people today, because less educated people become less productive workers, you add that up over the working life, it is a very, very significant amount. And, once again, it has hit people very differently. Students from advantaged backgrounds could make up for the gaps, students from disadvantaged backgrounds really were left behind.

That’s just the economic dimension. Then you look at the social dimension, you have to factor in in many countries, particularly students from poorer backgrounds, for them school may be the safest place, and the most certain place in their lives, and their teacher may be one of the most important people in their lives – a person who understands their dreams and passion, a person who engages them, supports them, gives them courage – and suddenly that world breaks down and that has really deep consequences.

Once again education is always a kind of relational process; where it’s very, very hard to put a number to this, but I do believe that the social consequences may be even bigger than the mere economic picture of this. Again, countries differ in how they have been able to compensate for this. Once again: where you had family environments, where school has been the centre of the community, you had lots of resources to compensate; where school was a kind of pure service provider on academic learning I think this has left a really deep mark on people, and on our nations and our economies. I think that’s something that we will feel in the years to come.

JE: And of course the pressure for school leaders and teachers has been immense. Again, what kind of impact do you think this has this had on their welfare?

AS: Yes, certainly, the amount of pressure this has created, and not just in terms of workload, also their level of responsibility. You suddenly feel responsible for a lot of people, you do not know how to reach your students, you do not even know how well they are – when you see them in the classroom you can sort of relate to them. I think all of this added together has left … and teachers were not really well supported in this, we also need to see that, basically. Our support systems that we have in education are generally not very strong, so I think that’s a big kind of load on them.

At the very same time I think there have been amazing teachers and school leaders in this crisis and for them, probably, for the first time they may have also seen ‘well, actually, I can change things. I can actually take things in my own hand’. After this crisis I expect that you’re going to have many students going back to their teachers and saying ‘well, I have learnt to learn on my own, I’ve discovered so many interesting resources. Why do we have to go through this kind of boring, standardised kind of way of learning?’

And I expect you’re going to have many teachers who are going to go back to their school leaders and say ‘well, you know, I have learnt to reach out to my students. I like to be a coach, a mentor, a facilitator, and I’ve really found a complete new [way of working], I became a designer of very innovative learning environments. Why do we need to go back to the kind of old, highly structured learning environments?’ And I think you’re going to see many school leaders who will say the same.

So I think, yes, there has been huge pressure on them but I also think this crisis has unleashed a dynamic and initiative at the frontline that I think will change education for good, probably.

JE: Yeah, it’s interesting that you mentioned the responsibilities there. I remember speaking to a couple of school leaders this year and they were saying, you know, ‘in the early days I was basically the news outlet for the school community – they were coming to me for information and updates, not just on school but what was happening in general with the pandemic’. So, it’s interesting that you mention that. Just to end then, in your last Teacher column you spoke about how the ball is really in our court, if you like – it’s up to us how we respond from here. Just quoting that article, you said: ‘While the crisis has exposed the many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems, this moment also holds the possibility that we won't return to the status quo when things return to “normal”.’ You touched on it in the last answer there, can you expand on what you mean by that and what do you hope to see in 2021?

AS: Yeah, you know, I do think if we just return to the status quo we leave many young people with a bleak future. Now, they have lost a lot of learning, particularly the disadvantaged, they are not going to catch up with this and I think … that’s just for the individuals. For our systems, I think we have been very good to educate young people for our past, but we need to think harder about how to educate them for their future. And I think this crisis has highlighted that success is not just about, you know, cognitive learning outcomes, the kind of social and emotional development is very important. And again, those are the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values for the 21st Century and I think this crisis has brought that home. And if we take this to heart and redesign our curricula, shift some of the emphasis, I think this could be a very, very important change.

When it comes to technology I think in the crisis we have seen how technology access, use and quality of technology, amplifies social inequality but again I see that in the future we could do things differently I think. We have seen in the crisis also that technology well used cannot just conserve pedagogical practice, but really transform it. You know, as a teacher you can better understand how different students learn differently and engage with those differences much more productively, with learning analytics, with big data. I think with modern learning systems why would you listen to the results of an experiment when students can actually do that experiment in a virtual laboratory. So I think technology can actually allow us to reach students much more individually, well supported by their teachers.

So, I think another … [addressing the inequalities], I think how do we align resources better with needs? This crisis has really highlighted this as well, and I think that message got home to most policymakers – that we need to do a lot better in ensuring that we find ways to attract the most talented people to the most challenging environments, and align resources with needs. So, I think that makes me hopeful that this crisis highlighted the important social role of education. Again, it’s not a transactional phenomenon, it’s a relational phenomenon.

Parents have seen how important it is, what learning actually means for children, and I expect that you will see many parents who will become much more engaged in the education of their children beyond this pandemic. So, this is an important momentum that education could use to reinvent itself, rather than just go back to the status quo. The work organisation in education – we still have this kind of very, hierarchical kind of structures, and I think the people who have taken initiative, taken responsibility, they I think will want to see that changed in a more productive way.

So, that’s the possibilities that arise from this and I’m certain that some countries will leverage those possibilities. Maybe not everyone, but I do think this crisis will certainly mobilise many good ideas in education systems for transformational change.

JE: Well, it certainly will be interesting to see what happens. Andreas, it’s been fascinating getting your insights today. Thanks for joining us at Teacher and we wish you all the best for 2021.

AS: Thanks so much, same for you.

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Andreas Schleicher says the COVID crisis has highlighted the fact education is a relational process. How do you build strong relationships with your students and their families?

As a school leader what have you learned from the shift to remote teaching and learning? How will this experience inform your leadership practice and priorities in the future?