Friday, November 21, 2014

Trust is all we need…

by Lucie Cerna
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Trust is the glue that holds societies together. It is essential for most social and economic relations. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, OECD countries have been under pressure to restore trust in their institutions, especially in their governments. In a 2013 Gallup Poll, the average trust in government across OECD countries was only 42%. But there is also some good news. Citizens retain a high level of trust in their education systems (67%), health care (69%) and local police (72%) though trust levels vary across countries. The OECD’s New Approaches to Economic Challenges and the forthcoming Trust Strategy both seek to guide member states on how to rebuild trust in their institutions in a post-(financial) crisis world.

But what is trust? It is not easily defined due to its multifaceted character. Trust can be an expectation, an interaction, a belief, an emotion or a social coordination mechanism. Several forms of trust exist, ranging from institutional trust (trust in education systems), organisational trust (between parents and school as an organisation) to interpersonal trust (between student and teacher). While the OECD has mostly focused on institutional trust, it is important for the educational setting to also consider interpersonal trust.

Interpersonal trust can enable the development of social capital and is a measure of social cohesion. In high-trust societies, individuals are comfortable sharing ideas and exchanging information with family, friends and fellow citizens. This can facilitate reaching a consensus among stakeholders and enable more efficient interactions between individuals. In school settings, interpersonal trust is necessary for major structural changes because it allows teachers and school leaders to engage constructively in decision-making.

So why is trust in education systems much higher than in governments? Schooling is integral to everyday life. Most respondents may relate to it whether taking their children to the local school, interacting with teachers at parent-teacher conferences or remembering their own school experience. This is likely to create much stronger connections than with politicians at the national level.

Trust is an essential element of governance and functioning systems and as such it has been interwoven in discussions on the Governing Complex Education Systems project at the OECD Centre for Education and Research. A recently released education working paper analyses the centrality of trust for policy making and current governance issues. Trust enables stakeholders to take risks, facilitates interactions and cooperation, and reduces the need for control and monitoring. Trust offers flexibility to stakeholders to propose and implement innovative reforms. It allows engaging parents, students and communities as active partners. Other factors such as high levels of professionalism and attractiveness of teaching depend on it. For instance, teachers in Finland are so greatly trusted that there is no need for school inspections to take place. Teachers are also encouraged to take risks to implement innovative practices in their classrooms. The system works by trusting in a high level of professionalism and professional ethics of teachers and school leaders.

How can conducive conditions for building trust be created? An example from the United States provides some answers. Principals who favoured teacher interaction and collaboration complained about insufficient time to actually interact and build collegial trust. These principals then changed structures in order to increase interaction time: for example, by rethinking the daily schedule at school, organising more meetings and introducing a teacher room. Such changes can have a positive effect on building trust.

But what can be done when trust breaks down? There is some empirical evidence that trust can be rebuilt through, for example, greater communication, transparency and cooperation between stakeholders. Building trust, however, is a lengthy and difficult process. Most forms of trust require familiarity and mutual understanding, and thus depend on time and context. The social context can allow individuals to trust others more easily and to be rewarded for reciprocity in social relations. How can such an enabling context be created? Schools can play an important role in developing cognitive skills which facilitate trust development. Current work at the OECD is exploring such mechanisms, so watch this space!

Centre for Education Research and Innovation (CERI) 
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills 
OECD Public Governance - Trust in Government
Related blogs:
Balancing trust and accountability 
How can education systems embrace innovation? 
Photo credit: Group throwing girl in the air / @Shutterstock

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What PISA can – and can’t – tell us about adults’ skills

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Can PISA results predict the quality of a country’s labour force one decade later? To find out, we compared some of the results from the PISA 2000  and PISA 2003 tests with results from the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills (a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC). As we explain in this month’s PISA in Focus, we found that those countries where 15-year-old students achieved high scores in PISA were also the countries whose populations of young adults scored at high levels of proficiency in literacy and numeracy a decade after they had participated in PISA.

While, in general, countries tend to maintain the same level of performance in literacy and numeracy as they had achieved in reading and mathematics a decade earlier, PISA results don’t tell the whole story. For example, in Ireland, 15-year-olds performed well above the average score in reading in PISA 2000, but the same cohort scored below average in the Survey of Adult Skills 12 years later. In Italy and Spain, 15-year-olds scored close to the average in reading in PISA 2000, but the same cohort scored well below average in literacy in the 2012 adult survey.

These results tell us that, not only is it important to give all students an opportunity to achieve at high levels during compulsory education, but that the skills acquired in school have to be used later on, or else they’ll be lost (Learning beyond Fifteen: Ten Years after PISA; OECD Skills Strategy). That means that adult education and training systems, employers and labour market policies all have a role to play in making sure that the skills available in a country are used effectively, and in improving the proficiency of those young people who leave school before they have acquired basic skills in literacy and numeracy – which are now a pre-requisite for enjoying full participation in 21st-century societies.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 45: Do Countries with High Mean Performance in PISA Maintain their Lead as Students Age?
PISA in Focus No. 45: (French version)
For more on OECD work on skills go to:  
Photo credit: Head and Brain Gears in Progress / @Shutterstock

A chance to design the way forward for education

by Michael Ward
Senior Policy Analyst, the Development Co-operation Directorate

Want to get involved in shaping the future of education? As the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) reach their 2015 deadline, several international groups, including the OECD, are formulating a new set of goals and targets for sustainable development… and we’d like to know what you think.

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG), a UN-appointed task force, has proposed an agenda for development that includes goals for education, and educators from around the world have developed a set of specific education and learning targets that are closely aligned with that agenda.

The task now is to develop indicators so that progress towards achieving these new goals can be monitored.

To that end, a Technical Advisory Group, co-ordinated by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics and including members from the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, the OECD, UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, has proposed a set of indicators, which you can find here.

We’d like to hear from you

What do you think about the indicators?

Between today and 30 January 2015 you are invited to comment on each indicator or to respond to these questions:

1. For each target, does the report identify the best indicators that are most aligned with the concept and are already being tracked in a large number of countries?

2. What new indicators could be developed to be more closely aligned with the proposed targets and have the potential to be globally comparable?

3. For each target, please identify or propose the two most important indicators.

4. Are there key issues that the document has not addressed satisfactorily or other issues that also need to be taken into consideration?

Please visit the UIS website for details on how to submit your comments.

To ensure that the consultation is open to as many people as possible, we invite you to spread the word among your networks and social media, referencing #Education2015.

After 30 January 2015, the Technical Advisory Group will review the list of indicators based on your feedback. The final proposal will be submitted for endorsement at the World Education Forum in Incheon (Korea) in May 2015. The final documents will then form the basis of the discussions at the UN General Assembly in September 2015 on the new UN goals for education.

Join the discussion on twitter via @EFAReport @UNESCO @WBEducation @OECD_Edu @UNICEFEducation and #Education2015.

OECD PISA for Development
Photo credit: ©UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Under the radar? Professional education and training

by Simon Field
Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Percentage of adults aged 20 – 45 who have short cycle professional education and training as their highest qualification

In centrally planned economies in the former Soviet bloc, apartments and housing came in rigid standard sizes - there was little choice. The same was true of cars. So households had little choice, and provision was dominated by the supply-side. 

We are quick to see the inefficiencies in those arrangements, we who have become so used to the idea of choice over everything. But oddly enough, education systems sometimes operate a bit like a centrally planned economy.  The most visible post-compulsory qualifications, come in standard sizes: two to four years of upper secondary education, and three to four years for a bachelors programme. Often this sequence is seen as the 'royal road' for a young person.

But out there in the labour market, modern economies are generating demands for skills that are every bit as diverse as our varying needs for housing or road transport. These demands come in chunks of different sizes, and quite often in the shape of demand for qualifications beyond school, but involving less time than a full three to four year bachelor's degree.  For example, a recent review of the United States concluded that in the decade to 2018, nearly one third of job vacancies will require a post-secondary qualification of some sort, but less than a four year degree.

So how are countries responding? Are they widening choice in response to demand, or, as in a centrally planned economy offering no more than a rigid and limited set of options? A new OECD report on Skills beyond School, based on 20 individual country studies, sheds light on this. 

Some countries have responded well. In the United States, around 12% of the labour force has a post-secondary certificate – typically a short vocational programme - and certificate graduation rates have tripled in recent years; a further 10% have associate degrees. In Austria, around 20% of the cohort graduate with a post-secondary qualification from a vocational college. In France more than one third of a million students are enrolled in two-year professional programmes. But in some other countries the response is weaker (see chart above).

Much of this activity is under the radar – it simply doesn’t get noticed in the way that university programmes do.With that in mind, the Skills beyond School Synthesis Report proposes a common international name for the sector – "professional education and training" – following the Swiss example. This would include all vocational post-secondary programmes requiring more than six months full-time learning (or the equivalent).

Of course these programmes are not without their challenges, and choice does not guarantee quality. Professional training sometimes needs to raise its game. Teachers and trainers need more up-to-date industry experience; qualifications need to be developed with the social partners nationally, and allow local flexibility to adapt to local labour market requirements; transition to higher education should be made easier; the needs of adults for flexible and part-time study need to be accommodated; recognition of prior learning, including informal workbased learning, also needs to be built in.

But there is also one topic that stands out. This report argues that work-based learning should be made a mandatory element of programmes, allowing employers not only to provide training, but also to strongly influence the mix and content of training provision.  As an aside, work-based learning is such a critical part of vocational programmes that a whole new OECD project will be devoted to this topic in 2015-16.

Full set of OECD Reviews of Post-Secondary Vocational Education and Training:
For more on OECD work on skills go to: 
Follow on twitter: #OECDSkills
Image credit: ©OECD

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Excellence through Equity

by Max Rashbrooke
Journalist, SGI News

In social terms, it’s essential to invest in education.  A recent OECD report How was Life?, looking at global well-being since 1830 finds that, in terms education, there has been a massive improvement.  A lack of educational opportunities creates a vicious circle, in which those unable to get a decent education are denied opportunities for social betterment, the socially disadvantaged then struggle to access education, and so on. Breaking this vicious circle not only improves the lives of individuals; it helps maintain the social fabric. At the same time, it makes good economic sense to nourish every child’s talent, so that they grow up to be productive members of the workforce.

In its assessment of equitable education, the Bertelsmann Stiftung new study “Social Justice in the EU – A Cross-national Comparison" has ranked all 28 European Union countries’ educational policies in several dimensions. The extent to which children’s socio-economic status determines their school results is a key measure. But the report also looks at spending on early childhood education, and countries’ success in lowering the rates of students leaving school early. Finally, it includes an expert assessment of countries’ overall educational policies.

In general, those doing best in the rankings are three Nordic European Union member states (Denmark, Finland and Sweden), two Baltic countries (Estonia and Lithuania), and a European Union new entrant (Croatia). Britain’s ranking is slightly below average. The very worst performers are Malta, Portugal, Slovakia and Greece. The biggest improver has been Luxembourg, while the worst slide down the rankings has come in Slovakia.

Countries should not focus on excellence per se but on equity

Several of the top-ranked countries in terms of equitable access to education such as Estonia and Finland are also the best performers when it comes to reducing the influence of students’ social background on their educational performance. What lies behind this success?

If Finland is anything to go by, the answer is that if a country wants high achieving students, its best bet is – counter-intuitively – to focus not on excellence per se but on equity. Finland’s school system, which is dominated by public schools and has no national testing, has some of the best-performing students in the European Union, as shown in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Despite these excellent results, the Finns don’t relax their focus: their latest four-year education plan places a special emphasis on preventing poverty, inequality and exclusion.

Estonia can boast a similar record: top school results, with little influence of social background on students’ performance. This shows that a high degree of social justice and a well-performing school system are not incompatible goals; in fact, emphasising one often delivers the other.

Investing heavily in the early years also pays dividends. Students who have been in pre-primary education do better than those who have not, especially when they have been in it for several years and its facilities have small pupil-to-teacher ratios.

Some countries have picked up on the importance of the early years. Poland, for instance, is making big strides by insisting on compulsory preschool education. Overall, Bulgaria, Denmark and Hungary invest the most in early childhood education. This is especially important in the latter two countries, where the link between social background and academic achievement has historically been very strong. In contrast, Germany, despite having recently increased public spending on early-childhood education, is still only spending at about the average level for the EU, and does not place sufficient emphasis on high-quality early education.

Early school leavers rates are declining across the European Union – yet not evenly

Reducing the number of students leaving school early is another important objective. Early school leaver rates are declining across the EU, but some countries are doing much better than others. Spain has the worst early leaver rates, at nearly one in four of all students, a situation being made worse by austerity policies that are cutting spending on education.

Countries such as Croatia and Slovenia, by contrast, have exceptionally low rates of early leavers. However, there are fears that many of their students are parked in low-quality vocational courses that do not provide the skills employers need and therefore do not lead to good job opportunities.

There are, in contrast, few question marks over Germany’s justly famous vocational system. It is hugely important to the country’s functioning, with over half of all young workers having gone through the system. Helping reduce youth unemployment, it is well-calibrated to employers’ needs, and leads to strong job and income prospects.

It is, however, situated within a wider education system that is highly selective and segregated. Children are pushed down a particular path, whether it is academic or vocational, at a relatively early age. This tends to create a ‘twin-track’ approach, in which a child’s ability in early life – which tends to be heavily influence by their background – pushes them into a path that, to some extent,determines their fate for the rest of their life.

Avoiding early selection in schools is essential

In countries with early selection, educational success depends strongly on a child’s origin and socioeconomic background, and children from disadvantaged and immigrant backgrounds have much less chance of doing well at school than they would in other European Union countries.

In short, to advance social justice and equal access to educational opportunities, avoiding early selection is essential. Over and over, countries with early selection are marked out as having poor opportunities for the most disadvantaged. Luxembourg, for instance, has this issue, despite spending more per student than any other European Union country.

In Austria, experts have criticised the early division of children into multiple educational tracks. This policy means that parents’ social status very often influences whether children go onto higher education.

PISA results highlight another aspect of this issue. The earlier children are tracked and separated according to performance, the more influence their background has on their educational success. But the countries that do this early separation do not see their overall results rise. In other words, it is not possible to say that even if some children’s prospects are damaged by this approach, most children are better off.

The lesson to be drawn here is not too different from that provided by the Estonian and Finnish systems, which, as above, focus on equity and – as a by-product – also deliver excellence. School systems that don’t separate children out early seem to do better both on educational justice and in terms of learning success. And this exemplifies that social justice and economic progress, far from being competing ideas, are actually entirely compatible. In other words, you really can have your cake and eat it.

A forthcoming OECD Education Policy Outlook will provide policy makers with the policy options to deliver equity and quality in education,  such as investing in early childhood education and care (ECEC), tackling system-level policies that may hinder equity (such as grade repetition, unsupported school choice or early tracking) and supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Education Policy Outlook
How was Life?
PISA 2012 Results
OECD work on Early Childhood Education and Care
Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education : Policy Lessons from Around the World
Related blog posts:
OECD educationtoday: Building the knowledge economy
Photo credit: Toys seesaw wooden blocks / @Shutterstock

Monday, November 10, 2014

School size: A literature review

by Deborah Nusche
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

How big should schools be?

Is bigger better? Or do all the best things come in small packages? For education systems, the question of how school size influences quality and efficiency has long been an important issue. It has become especially pertinent in recent decades, as fiscal pressures and a falling school population in rural areas have meant that countries are looking for the best way for their schools to be effective.

A new OECD working paper on school size policies, published today, shows that there are many ways in which school size may influence learning environments. Small schools make personal contact easy and are often strongly defended by local communities, while larger schools can provide more options to meet a diverse range of interests and needs. Sometimes, due to demographic or geographical challenges, there may be little choice regarding decisions on school size. But disadvantages can be offset, whether through connecting small schools using ICT, or through providing incentives to make larger schools more attractive for teachers and students.

Australia, for example, has used technology to help small schools in rural areas connect with each other through blogging, emailing and engaging in collaborative projects. This has reportedly led to students being more excited about their learning and more motivated to work. In Korea, where over a third of schools have fewer than 60 students, there has been a focus on consolidating schools in rural areas. The process involved many challenges, but due to targeted investments, many of these consolidated schools have thrived and are now attracting students even from urban areas.

In a time of fiscal constraints, consolidating schools is an appealing policy option for governments under pressure to reduce spending. Large schools are often seen as more efficient than small schools: they can use facilities to full capacity, buy large amounts of materials at lower cost and hire support staff to reduce the administrative burden on teachers. But such calculations often forget about hidden costs of consolidation such as increased transportation cost and time for staff and students. There is also evidence that the student body in large schools is often divided with some students taking full advantage of the broader learning options and others not participating at all. Younger students and those from less advantaged families are more vulnerable and may disengage when lacking personalised attention.

While, certainly, there is no “one size fits all approach”, there is much that can be learned from existing research and experience in different countries. This new literature review draws attention to the many factors to be considered when making decisions about school size. What are the transport and cost implications? How can interested parties become informed and engaged in the process? Will the effects of school size changes be different for differing school populations? What type of additional care would be necessary to support those affected by the change? Including such elements in the planning process will help make the full costs and benefits of school size changes transparent and support a constructive debate among stakeholders.

This paper is the first in a series of literature reviews looking at the use of resources in OECD school systems to be published in the coming months.

School Resources Review - Background papers and studies
Photo credit: Art Supply, An Illustration Different Size of Sharpened Detailed Pencils for Writing or Sketch and Draw A Picture /@Shutterstock

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Lessons for the UK

by Ken Manson 
Co-ordinator (Communications), UK Commission for Employment and Skills

Simon Field is an expert on the comparative analysis of vocational education and training (VET) systems. He leads the OECD’s policy review of VET systems, and is lead author on the OECD’s VET policy publications. I spoke with him about the upcoming launch of the Skills Beyond School review of post-secondary VET systems based on studies in 20 OECD countries.

Skills Beyond School Synthesis Report will be published on the 13th November, and will hold its publication launch at the VET Conference at the Skills Show at the NEC in Birmingham. For information on how to attend, see the Vocational Education and Training Conference website.

Ken Manson: Could you talk a little bit about the background to the report and some of the individual country studies you've done that have fed into this synthesis? 

Simon Field: We have done a lot of work on vocational education and training (VET) at the upper secondary school level, where a number of European countries have substantial apprenticeship systems. We published a report called Learning for Jobs back in 2010 which drew that together. One of the things that came out of that was the importance in many countries of post-secondary vocational systems.

First of all, if you go to some of the countries with very strong classical dual apprenticeship systems, like the Germany and Austria and Switzerland, what you find is that at post-secondary level they support that system with a whole tier of further vocational qualifications. That's very important, because it provides a career ladder for apprentice graduates to aspire to and go on to.

Conversely, if you go to the United States, what you find is that very often people are going through general high school education, and later on, at post-secondary level they will be pursuing some form of technical or professional training that will lead them into work. So that would be their first vocational qualification. That’s a different model, but it is still one where post-secondary vocational programmes are very important.

In the UK, there isn't a huge amount of post-secondary vocational education and training in the sense of shorter, after-school vocational qualifications. Where it exists, it has very often occupied quite niche areas where there is a particular legally required qualification in a regulated profession like childcare.

KM: One thing that UKCES is particularly interested in is trying to encourage employers and training providers to work together. In your research, have you seen any good examples of that, and what lessons do you think the UK could draw from those systems?

SF: We think that encouraging partnership between training providers and employers is absolutely fundamental. Unless you have that, you don't have very much, in truth.

Sweden is a particularly interesting example, and this example will be presented at the event on the 13th November. Their higher vocational education system involves grant funding by central government of employer/training provider partnerships. They're not just funding training providers. Instead, they're funding training providers who are in partnership already with employers to provide a programme of study to students with a built-in element of work based learning. That has been very successful, the labour market outcomes look good, and there is very rapid growth in that programme.

The key thing about this model is that it changes the incentives, because instead of saying, well, we'll fund people to provide training places, and they're going to try very hard to work with employers who will then provide some element of work-based learning, but often they fail. Instead, it's very simple: unless you actually have the employer from the outset working in conjunction with the training provider, then the programme is not funded. That changes the incentives radically.

KM: Where have you seen examples of [education] providers making links with employers to make their qualifications more attractive? Almost a promotion exercise, where providers have been proactive and marketed themselves to that employer audience. Have you seen good examples of that?

SF: There is no better test of marketing to an employer audience than by building in work placements into your programme of study. If an employer is interested enough to provide work placements and support a programme of study, then that almost certainly means that the employer is going to be interested, potentially, in employing graduates of that programme. If there is a programme of study that can't find an employer willing to offer a work placement, then that raises some serious questions about whether the programme of study, if pursued, is likely to lead to employment.

That led us to recommend building in work-based learning as a mandatory element in programmes. It is often said, well, you can't make this mandatory, because you won't be able to find the employers to offer work placements.  But we find this fairly robustly contradicted in a lot of different country circumstances. We believe it is feasible to insist on work-based learning.   Whats more, work-based learning brings other good things in its train, linking teachers in vocational colleges with employers, getting employers interested in working with providers to build relevant vocational qualifications.  In many ways it is the key that unlocks the door to employer engagement.

KM: How will we know when it works? With the broad range of systems that you've studied, what kind of metrics would you be looking at to quantify the success of that system? 

SF: Well, you've put your finger on it. The data in many countries are very weak. The acid test of any vocational programme is whether it leads to a job in which the skill that has been learnt is exercised. There are different types of destination surveys which measure exactly that; you follow up students six months or one year after they've left the vocational programme to find out what they're doing. They have to be used with a little bit of discretion, of course. It's well established that, even in countries with dual-system apprenticeships, you often follow up apprentices and find that they're working in slightly different fields of study. That's not a bad thing; it shows that their careers are developing.

KM: If someone reading this interview wondered if they should come along to [the VET Conference at the Skills Show in] Birmingham, why should they come to the launch of this report?

SF: The main reason is that the Birmingham event and our report will provide a picture of what is going on in the UK and how it compares with other countries, and that's hugely valuable. The truth is, what is going on in the UK is really quite different from other countries.  One can have all sorts of opinions on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing and in what ways things are done better or worse in different countries, but there is no question that a lot can be learnt from those comparisons. It means that at the very least what goes on in the UK is less likely to be seen as something that is just taken for granted. It is a particular and special system that has grown up in a particular way. It could be managed in other ways. Seeing that in itself is enormously healthy and will open eyes to all sorts of possibilities.

The National Vocational Education and Training Conference, at The Skills Show, Birmingham, 13-14 November 
The Skills Show: Programme
Skills Beyond School Synthesis Report
A Skills beyond School Review of England
Learning for Jobs
OECD Vocational Education and Training (VET) webpage
UKCES blog: “What is going on in the UK is really quite different from other countries”
Photo credit: Teacher teaching students bricklaying in vocational school / @Shutterstock

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Addressing inequities in the Slovak Republic through evaluation and assessment

by Claire Shewbridge
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

It is taken for granted in OECD countries nowadays that the vast majority of children and young people have access to education, regardless of their wealth or background. However, despite this great achievement, in many countries, the socio-economic background of children will still have a large impact on how well they succeed at school.

In the Slovak Republic, there are considerable equity challenges, and a very clear link between students’ socio-economic background and their educational achievement. The educational differences between rural areas and cities are significant, regional disparities are more pronounced than in other OECD countries, and the educational outcomes of the Roma minority are particularly poor. This has a lasting impact on a child’s life, as the reduced risk of unemployment for Slovak men and women with upper secondary education is particularly strong when compared internationally. These regional challenges and the important role that education plays in promoting a more inclusive growth are also underlined in the OECD Economic Survey launched today by OECD's Secretary-General in Bratislava.

An essential tool to help the Slovak Republic address this inequity is an effective evaluation and assessment system that will help them to monitor teaching and learning, set educational goals, and improve practice and outcomes. This has been the focus of the OECD’s Review of Evaluation and Assessment in Education, of which the Slovak Republic Review is the final publication.

To improve the evaluation and assessment system in the Slovak Republic, a strategic approach is needed, with the clarification of long-term goals for schooling, and capacity building at the national level so that results from evaluation and assessment feed into policies for school system improvement.

The Slovak Republic has made a positive move by strengthening the objectivity of examinations at the end of upper secondary schooling (Maturita) and developing national assessments in Year 9 that help embed the competency-based national curriculum. Next week, also, children in selected primary schools will sit a new assessment in Year 5.

To keep moving forward, the entire school community needs to be empowered to get involved, from parents associations, to students associations, to teachers associations. An important part of this is ensuring that teachers and school leaders have access to adequate professional development. With strategic national leadership, and meaningful community feedback, positive changes can be driven forward so that all students, regardless of their background, will have the opportunity to succeed.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Schools Call for Improvement through Strong Leadership

by Marie-Amélie Doring Serre
Trainee, Directorate for Education and Skills 

Every organisation needs a strong leader to get a sense of direction, to set and achieve specific goals. Howard Gardner defines a leader as "an individual (or, rarely, a set of individuals) who significantly affects the thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviours of a significant number of individuals". Being a leader clearly involves a good understanding of human nature, no matter what the area of leadership.

School leaders are the connection between teachers, students and their parents or guardians, the education system and the wider community in which a school exists. Because their central role is combined with rising expectations of schools and schooling in a century characterised by technological innovation, migration and globalisation, we understand that school leaders can no longer be simple managers. The increasing demands of education stakeholders require that these leaders manage human and material resources, communicate and interact with a wide range of individuals, and make evidence-informed decisions.

The role of the school principal is changing: an effective school leader is an instructional leader. Harold Brewer defines a school principal as the “one that requires focusing on instruction; building a community of learners; sharing decision making; sustaining the basics; leveraging time; supporting ongoing professional development for all staff members; redirecting resources to support a multifaceted school plan; and creating a climate of integrity, inquiry, and continuous improvement”. That’s why many regard instructional leadership as the most important professional responsibility with which principals are entrusted. But are school leaders well-prepared to assume such responsibility? Do they feel they get enough support and have enough opportunities to do so?

The OECD Teaching and Learning Survey (TALIS) asked principals in over 34 countries about the leadership activities in which they engage most frequently. Depending on the country, the most frequently mentioned activities range from taking action to ensure that teachers take responsibility for improving their own teaching skills and for their students’ learning outcomes, to working with teachers to improve classroom discipline. Principals’ responsibilities do not end there. Principals also give information to parents about students’ performance, and they also have administrative duties, such as resolving conflicts in the lesson timetable in the school. Some of their other activities are also related to teaching, such as observing classroom instruction. The breadth of these activities shows that principals need sufficient preparation and continual training to be able to work effectively.

The latest Teaching in Focus brief, “School Improvement through Strong Leadership”, addresses the issue of how school leaders could benefit from more pre- and in-service training relevant to the core nature of their work. It is striking to see that although principals are highly -educated individuals with good professional experience, instructional leadership is often lacking in their preparation to become school leaders. As a result, their training does not match the diversity of their responsibilities.
It is even more worrying to see that this gap is not filled later on during their career. School leaders are not always able to benefit from instructional leadership training once in their role, even though they recognise their need for further development in this field. TALIS data show that many principals cite conflicts with their work schedule, insufficient opportunities and a lack of employer support as reasons why they do not participate in professional development activities.

Those findings are relevant to principals’ everyday work. One must not forget that strong school leadership can greatly facilitate school improvement and student achievement. But in order for strong school leadership to exert its influence, the concept of instructional leadership has to be fully understood and put in practice by all parties at the system and school levels. Principals should seek opportunities to further develop skills associated with those of instructional leaders. But for this to happen, the education system must provide such initiatives. Policy makers should thus help remove barriers by creating an effective initial education and training environment for school leaders. Only then will better student learning outcomes and school improvement follow.

The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey
A Teacher’s Guide to TALIS 2013
Teaching In Focus No. 7 : School Improvement through Strong Leadership by Marie-Amélie Doring Serre and Katarzyna Kubacka
Teaching in Focus No. 7: French version
International Summit on the Teaching Profession, Banff, Alberta, on March 29–30, 2015.
Photo credit:Group of People and Leadership Concepts / Shutterstock

Friday, October 31, 2014

How can education systems embrace innovation?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Innovation in education is a highly contentious issue. Talking to education ministers one quickly gets the impression that education systems in general are very reluctant to innovate, and that there is strong resistance to change among teachers. But teachers would give you the opposite idea, by telling you that there are too many changes imposed on them without much consultation and without ensuring the necessary preconditions for a successful implementation of change. In some countries, innovative change has been implemented without either the care and diligence needed or the appropriate prior testing, experimentation and evaluation.
In its recent publication, Measuring Innovation in Education, the Innovation Strategy project of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) provides evidence that suggests that there are a lot of changes happening at various levels of the system. The widely accepted view that education professionals are change-aversive seems to be wrong. But few of the innovative changes the book documents are the result of deliberate top-down reforms. Other work in CERI, specifically in the Innovative Learning Environments (ILE) project, has revealed a huge reservoir of innovative energy at the micro-level – definitely the most relevant level where teaching and learning actually happens.

How to square these different views on innovation in education? Maybe the core of the dispute is not so much about the actual amount of change and innovation in education, but about the process - how change and innovation happen. A lot of well-intentioned innovations fail not because of a lack of quality or because their intended direction of change is wrong, but because of how they have been implemented. Teachers will be able to give you rich accounts of top-down innovations, implemented without much consultation, without taking into account the experiences and knowledge base at the point of delivery of education. Lack of trust, lack of ownership, a poor evidence base, and lack of empowerment of the key actors – these seem to be the main ingredients of the recipe for failure in changing education.

To better understand this, we need to know more about how the governance of education systems has changed. Many attempts to bring about innovative change in education do not yet seem to be based on what we already know about how education systems are governed. Decentralisation, greater complexity, multiplication of stakeholders, broader dispersion of knowledge and expertise, more levels of decision-making all make education systems more difficult to steer and to change. At least that’s the impression one gets when looking at the system from the outside. Indeed, the complexity and the multilevel nature of decision-making in education systems make top-down reform much more difficult to achieve. But complexity, in itself, does not necessarily jeopardise change through innovation.

Too often education ministers and policy makers react by tightening the screws, i.e. by reinforcing accountability, supervision and bureaucratic control systems. This may lead to short-term behavioural adjustments of the actors in the system, but very rarely to sustainable change. Work in CERI’s Governing Complex Education Systems project has shown us what makes for effective, sustainable innovation and reform: the professionalism of teachers and school leaders, strong knowledge-management frameworks and trust among all stakeholders and actors in the system. Professionals bring about innovation when they have a stake in it, when they see the evidence and the supporting knowledge base as credible, and when they trust their colleagues. In the same vein, parents will commit to innovative change when they feel involved and listened to, and when they understand the rationales and underlying evidence for change.

Does this mean that the capacity of education leaders, ministers and policy makers to steer the direction of change in education has evaporated? Have education ministers become powerless? No, definitely not. But they have to find new ways to set the course of change. Building a convincing case for change and articulating a credible narrative that appeals to both the professionalism of teachers and the interests of parents and stakeholders in the community can go a long way towards effecting change in complex systems. But change also works the other way around. The enormous reservoir of innovative energy at the micro-level can result in sustainable change if the actors involved can make a compelling case that gives direction and meaning to change.

The education community shows a great interest in better understanding these processes of change, reform and innovation in education – and the governance arrangements that support or obstruct them. That’s why some 200 policy makers and professionals will be gathering at the CERI Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education in Paris next week. The findings from CERI work in four different research projects will be shared and discussed so that we all can better understand the conditions under which sustainable and effective innovative change can be realised.

CERI Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education
CERI Conference Webcast
CERI Conference Agenda
CERI Conference Background Paper: Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education
Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective 
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

Follow the conference on twitter: #OECDCERI

Photo credit: Brainstorming / @Shutterstock

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Doctorate degree holders take research skills outside academia

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The doctorate degree, or PhD, is the highest qualification included in the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED, level 8 in the ISCED 2011). It is also  unique because it bridges education with scientific research and innovation. Although the number of professional doctorates is increasing, in most cases they are qualifications acquired after several years of research leading to an original contribution to the scientific evidence base. The qualification rewards deep knowledge of  a specific field of research and mastery of research methodologies. It acknowledges the doctorate holder as a member of the scientific community and grants access to academia.

In recent years the doctorate degree has been the focus of policy initiatives, both from the higher education policy field and the policy field of science and research. Many countries have tried to radically increase the numbers of doctorates in recent years. Bursary schemes, grants and various support systems, both for individual students and for universities and research institutions, have been developed to attract more students into doctoral programmes. These policies have been very successful. The latest Education Indicators in Focus issue, based on data published in Education at a Glance 2014,  notes that between 2000 and 2012 the graduation rate among doctoral students has increased by 60% on average  across OECD countries, from 1.0% to 1.6%. That’s probably the largest increase ever observed in any qualification level in such a short period of time !

Obviously, there are huge differences among countries, both with regard to the current graduation rate and to the speed of increase since 2000, as is evident from the chart above. Ambitious countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, have expanded doctoral programmes as part of their efforts to rapidly improve their relative position in the science and research  fields and in global university rankings. They take the lead, with graduation rates of 3.3%, 2.8% and 2.7%, respectively.    The  largest relative increases in  graduation rates among doctoral students since 2000 are found in the Slovak Republic (330% increase), Greece (420% increase, but starting from a much lower base), Denmark, Norway and Ireland.

A large and growing production of PhDs certainly contributes to the creation of new research evidence and a country’s research output. But, apart from the scientific outcomes of doctoral research, what does a doctoral degree actually contribute to the degree holder and the wider society? Surely the academic system itself – especially in an age of economic crisis and austerity – is not expanding at an equivalent rate, so employment opportunities for  PhDs in academia are limited. Many countries try to increase the return on the huge investments made in doctoral programmes, by offering more opportunities at the post-doctoral level; but despite those attempts, the prospects of successfully pursuing an academic career is not bright.

This tension between a larger number of doctoral degrees and limited employment opportunities in academic and research institutions, has triggered a debate on the purpose and utility of this qualification. Governments have developed policies to widen the scope of the doctoral degree, by including various skills sets useful for future employment in other parts of the public and private sectors, so that a  doctorate does not prepare a student exclusively for a research career. More frequently now, PhDs leave universities and research institutions to join research labs in private companies, public administrations and non-research jobs in various organisations. Some doctorate holders may regard this as a second-choice option, as research training often evolves into a university career.  At the societal level, however, an increase of highly-skilled workers with research skills can be regarded as beneficial, even if some would see it as a form of qualifications inflation and/or a threat to lower-qualified workers.

The data provided in the EDIF brief show that the employment opportunities for doctorate degree holders, outside research institutions, are very good. On average across OECD countries, the employment rate for PhDs reaches 91%, compared with 85% for bachelor’s and master’s degree holders. And, even more interesting, their employment rates in the private sector and government agencies are very significant in a number of countries. No longer are doctorate degrees simply entry tickets to the guild of university professors. Society at large increasingly benefits from the research skills and experience that these people have acquired.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 25, by Eric Charbonnier, Joris Ranchin and Laudeline Auriol
Education Indication in Focus: French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Photo credit: ©OECD

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Maths education for innovative societies

by Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin
Senior Analyst and Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills

Mathematics is at the core of science, engineering and technology. Mathematic modelling of various phenomena underpins technology innovation. No wonder that mathematics education has always ranked high on the innovation policy agenda.

There is now ample evidence that preparing students for an innovative society goes well beyond preparing them for science-related professions. Given that a large share of professionals contributes in some way to innovation, the new educational imperative is to equip a critical mass of workers and citizens with the skills to thrive in innovative societies.

How can education systems meet this demand through mathematics education? First, they should improve students’ technical skills in mathematics. By technical skills, I mean the know-what (for example, the theorems) and the know-how (for example, the procedures to solve different types of problems). The 2012 results of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that many countries still have room for improvement. They also reveal that too many students still perceive mathematics as an educational stumbling block.

How could one possibly improve the learning outcomes in mathematics that are traditionally tested and, at the same time, develop other important skills for innovation, such as reasoning, understanding, posing (rather than just solving) problems, self-confidence, and even communication skills?

This is precisely the question that Zemira Mevarech and Bracha Kramarski address in a new OECD report entitled Critical Maths for Innovative Societies. Strong experimental and quasi-experimental research evidence points to one solution that teachers could easily adopt more systematically in their teaching: the explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies.

Meta-what? Let’s not be intimidated by scientific language. Metacognition simply means “thinking about” or “regulating” one’s thinking. While one often thinks about one’s thinking when learning, metacognitive pedagogies make students develop explicit (rather than implicit) learning and problem-solving strategies by making them systematically go through a series of questions about their learning.

Initiated by the Hungarian mathematician George Polya, these strategies have had several developers and promoters. For example, the teaching method developed by Mevarech and Kramarski, called IMPROVE, asks students to answer four types of questions when exposed to new content knowledge or when solving a problem: comprehension questions (e.g. what is the problem about?); connection questions (e.g. how does this problem relate to problems I have already solved? Please explain your reasoning); strategic questions (e.g. what kinds of strategies are appropriate for solving the problem, and why? Please explain your reasoning), and reflection questions (e.g. does the solution make sense? can the problem be solved in a different way?). These questions and their related processes then gradually become a habit of mind. Rigorous research shows that using this pedagogy, and others like it,  yields positive results on a variety of outcomes and skills that matter in innovative societies.

First, compared to traditional pedagogies, these methods lead to better learning outcomes in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, and their effectiveness increases in co-operative learning settings and when they also address learners’ emotional responses.

Second, they do not enhance only traditional learning outcomes, but also other skills for innovation. Metacognitive pedagogies help students to articulate their thinking, actively use the “mathematics language”, be more curious as they relate their learning to their interests, provide elaborated explanations, and also be involved in conflict resolutions and mutual learning. Students thus become better at mathematical reasoning, and better at regulating their emotions when confronted with mathematical problems. Students who have been taught using these pedagogies show less anxiety towards mathematics, for example.

Metacognitive pedagogies work for students in primary, secondary and tertiary education, as well as in teacher training; and some longitudinal studies show that they have a lasting effect and lead to much better retention of knowledge.

A noteworthy finding for policy makers is that metacognitive strategies are effective both for traditional and for complex, unfamiliar and non-routine math problems. Because they can be more authentic, more open, and more related to real life, these kinds of problems may arguably better prepare students to exert their creative and critical minds. An example of such a problem is the following: “several supermarkets advertised that they are the cheapest supermarket in town. Please collect information and find out which of the advertisements is correct.” Students then have to design and implement a strategy to come up with a reasoned answer. These kinds of problems may have several solutions, depending on how students interpret the problem: the students may go for a different basket of goods, or take into account qualitative differences in a different way – as we do in real life.

Some mathematics educators believe that complex, unfamiliar and non-routine problems are not “real maths” problems; but the good news is that, whatever the type of problem they prefer, metacognitive strategies will still improve their students’ learning outcomes.

Would metacognitive pedagogies have positive effects if mainstreamed in mathematics education (and possibly other disciplines)? Singapore is the only country where metacognitive strategies are now one explicit dimension of the mathematics curriculum. That means they are taught in teacher training and teachers are obliged to use them. This might partly explain why Singapore is consistently one of the top performers in mathematics, in both the PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests.

Many educators and policy makers call for more evidence to support improvement of educational practices and reform education systems before adopting education reforms. For once, we have strong evidence. So why wait any longer to promote the use of metacognitive pedagogies in the classroom?

Critical Maths for Innovative Societies The Role of Metacognitive Pedagogies
PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving (Volume V)
PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I)
Measuring Innovation in Education: A New Perspective
Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education
The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice 
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
OECD Insights: Want to improve your problem solving skills? Try metacognition
Photo credit: © Aakash Nihalani (“Sum Times”)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Combatting bullying in schools

by Tracey Burns and Andrew Macintyre
Directorate for Education and Skills

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me". So goes the English nursery rhyme taught to children to console them if they have been called names, or teased by their friends or classmates. But no matter how often you repeat it as a child, it doesn’t really make you feel better. Why? Because it’s not true.

Being called names does hurt. A lot. So does being picked on, being pushed around, being excluded from groups – in short, being bullied. Bullying is not new – Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote about it in 1847 and Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) brought the issue widespread attention. It has been the subject of countless  teenage coming of age books. And it regularly makes national headlines with stories of teens being pushed into desperate situations, even suicide, as a result of relentless bullying.

While bullying has been around for a long time, it has recently taken on a new form: cyber bullying. Cyber bullying includes many different forms of online bullying such as sending threatening emails, copying personal conversations and sending them to others, creating derogatory websites about a person or humiliating them repeatedly on social networks. A recent Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looked at this issue and found that estimates of the prevalence of cyber bullying vary widely but an EU-wide study indicates that on average, 6% to 9% of 16-year-olds report being bullied online.

So what can be done? First, it is important to emphasise that although cyber bullying is often represented in the media as something new, it is an extension of traditional face to face bullying. Certainly there are differences – for example, it can be especially hurtful because it can be witnessed by a much larger audience than face-to-face bullying, such as when pictures of a humiliating event or abuse are circulated and recirculated among an entire school or village. Cyber bullying is also not confined to school hours and can happen anywhere, anytime.

However these differences should not blind us to the similarities with face-to-face bullying in the damage it can cause. Bullying, in all of its forms, is no laughing matter. Bullies, motivated to enhance their status among their peers, bully in front of witnesses, whose approval (or at least tacit silence) is crucial. They tend to choose their victims from those who sit in the bottom line of the social ledger, those least able to fight back. And it works, both to raise the popularity of the bully and to hurt the victim: the research to date shows that victims of bullying do worse at school, tend to have lower self-esteem, and are more likely to attempt suicide – both during childhood and later on in life.

There is one interesting finding that also emerges from the research: the bully and victim roles can be interchangeable and related. Of the young internet users surveyed in the EU Kids Online Survey quoted above, only 4% of those who reported not bullying others had been the victim of cyber bullying themselves. For self-confessed online bullies, 47% reported being bullied in turn.

This finding is key. It shatters the myth that the bully is always an evil, swaggering strongman (or woman) who ruthlessly attacks the weaker, more vulnerable peer, so popular in comic books and superhero films. While this may be true in many circumstances, it is not uncommon that those who bully are also bullied, and vice versa. This is a useful reminder for us that the dynamics of human behaviour are complex, and not given to easy solutions. So what can be done?

Luckily, we know quite a bit about what can be done to fight bullying, both face-to-face and online. A recent systematic review of the literature has demonstrated that school-based anti-bullying programmes are often effective. The most successful interventions were in-depth work in parent trainings, improved playground supervision, use of disciplinary methods (both punitive and non-punitive), and work on classroom management and in teacher training. Programmes were also more effective when addressed to older children (age 11 or more). However, and this is important - one type of programme was associated with an increase in victimisation, and that was work with peers, for example peer mediation and peer mentoring.

These results and work on bullying more generally give policy makers a number of good options for addressing the issue in their schools and systems. Parents and teachers can and should intervene in suspect incidents. In all aspects of bullying an important role is played by the bystanders whom, by saying nothing, silently condone the practice. Schools can therefore take action both by raising awareness and by educating students and parents about their role and responsibility in its prevention. As Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace prize winner and South African inspiration put it: If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

Trends Shaping Education
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Related blog posts:
2much 2handle? Schools, social networks, and cyber bullying
Making bullying prevention a priority in Finnish schools
Photo credit: Schoolyard bullies, boy walks away with head down / @Shutterstock

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spread the wealth, reap the benefits

by Marilyn Achiron, 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Quick: Who has more up-to-date textbooks: students in wealthier schools or students in poorer schools? Actually, it depends where you live. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, not only are some countries better than others in allocating their educational resources more equitably across schools, but students in these countries generally perform better in mathematics.

PISA 2012 asked school principals to report whether teacher shortages, or shortages or inadequacy of physical infrastructure or instructional materials, like textbooks, hindered their school’s ability to provide instruction. PISA found that while disadvantaged schools benefit from investments in smaller classes, they are also more likely to suffer from teacher shortages and inadequate instructional materials than advantaged schools. In general, schools with more socio-economically disadvantaged students tend to have less adequate resources than schools with more advantaged students.

It may come as a surprise, but according to PISA data, the United States is the second least-equitable OECD country, after Mexico, in the allocation of educational resources. One in four disadvantaged students in the United States attends a school whose principal reported that a shortage or inadequacy of science laboratory equipment hindered – to some extent or a lot – the school’s capacity to provide instruction. Meanwhile, only around one in seven advantaged students in the United States attends such a school. The differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools are even starker among Latin American countries, including the OECD countries Chile and Mexico. For example, fewer than one in two disadvantaged students, but more than three in four advantaged students, in Mexico attend schools that have adequate instructional materials.

Apart from making a huge difference to individual students, inequity in resource allocation has an impact on a country’s overall performance in PISA. After taking into account countries’ relative wealth, 19% of the variation in mathematics performance across all the countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012 can be explained by differences in principals’ responses to questions about the adequacy of science laboratory equipment, instructional materials, computers for instruction, Internet connectivity, computer software for instruction, and library materials. At least 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by how equitably resources are allocated across all schools.

PISA has consistently found that, when it comes to education, money isn’t everything, and that beyond a certain minimum level of expenditure per student, how the money is spent is more important than how much money is spent. When money is translated into such tangibles as up-to-date textbooks, reliable Internet access, and a school library full of books, spreading the wealth evenly across all schools, regardless of their socio-economic profile, gives all students, not just those in the wealthiest schools, the nourishment they need to succeed.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 44: How is equity in resource allocation related to student performance?
PISA in Focus No. 44 (French version)
Photo credit: Teenager students outside protecting their heads from a rain of books / @Shutterstock

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Infinite Connections: The Digital Divide

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills
Roxanne Kovacs 
 MSc in International Development at Sciences Po, Paris

In 1973, Martin Cooper, a researcher at Motorola, made the first call from a handheld mobile phone prototype. This phone weighed 1.1 kg, took 10 hours to re-charge and was limited to 30 minutes of talking time. When it was commercialized in 1983, the phone cost approximately 7,000 USD.

Today, only 30 years later, mobile phones are not just smaller and more affordable, they are also much more powerful. Smartphones now function as small computers and allow us to do everything from shopping online to programming complex applications.

Increasingly affordable, adaptable and powerful ICTs have influenced all aspects of our lives. As OECD societies continue to become more knowledge-intensive, the importance of digital skills continues to grow. And yet, not everyone in OECD countries has the digital skills they need to succeed in our modern world. A recently released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight analyses the role that education plays in ensuring that everyone can reap the benefits of our technology-rich world.

All indicators of ICT use (such as computers per household, global internet traffic and hours spent online) have grown in the last decade, effectively erasing the first digital divide between those who had access to computers and those who did not. However a second digital divide has emerged between individuals who moved to embrace a technology-rich world and those who have been left behind.

Part of this divide is generational: the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) shows that on average 16-24 year olds are much more competent at solving problems in technology-rich environments than their older counterparts. Further, in many countries large parts of the adult population have insufficient ICT problem-solving skills - meaning that they either failed the assessment or were unable to take part because they had never used a computer. Between 30% and 50% of the adult population in Ireland, Poland and the Slovak Republic fall into this category.

However, the digital divide is not only generational. Eight percent of young adults aged 16-24 also had insufficient ICT skills on the PIAAC assessment. Unfortunately, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be less confident and less proficient at using new technologies. There is also a gender gap. Girls use ICTs less intensively and for fewer tasks on average than boys.

What does this mean for education? Schools can play a role in narrowing the digital divide in a number of ways. For disadvantaged students who don’t use ICTs at home, schools are an important access point. In addition, schools can help their students gain confidence in working with new technologies, not just in the classroom but also in their day to day life. Girls – who tend to make effective use of social media and other communication tools but can be less comfortable with programming and other types of software – can be supported to develop a wider array of digital skills.

Developing curriculae that take advantage of the individualised and personalised learning that is supported by ICTs is one good way to do this. Integrating technology into lessons is another: Social networks, often considered an impediment to learning in traditional classrooms, can also be used creatively. Facebook, for example, has been used by some teachers to bring characters from novels and poems to life.

Other examples include the flipped classroom, which attempts to invert the traditional model of teaching and learning by using technology to deliver lectures in the evenings, thus freeing teachers to work on assignments with students during the day. The “homework” in this case is the video lecture, not the exercises.

ICTs can also promote collaboration across schools and classrooms. For example, e-Twinning  is an initiative of the European Commission that aims to build a virtual community of schools. Available in twenty-five languages, it counted over 230 000 members in January 2014.

However, in spite of the potential of our schools to narrow the digital divide, ICTs have remained a niche phenomenon in many schools. Both teachers and students report that students’ ICT-use during lessons still lags far behind their use of ICT outside of school. And while teachers use ICTs for administrative tasks, they are far less likely to do so in their lessons.

What are the barriers to a more extensive adoption of ICTs in schools? Teachers need to be convinced of what works in the classroom, and how they could use technology to achieve those goals (European Schoolnet, 2013). One of the most prominent issues is a lingering concern about quality of ICTs as learning tools. There is a need to provide evidence of what works and how, as well as continuing efforts to improve the quality of educational resources and software.

Our world has changed at a rapid pace since Martin Cooper made the first call from a handheld mobile phone. Our schools and education systems must do their best to keep up, and ensure that all students have the digital skills they need to take part in our knowledge-intensive world.

Connected Minds: Technology and Today’s Learners
OECD Communications Outlook 2013
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
Trends Shaping Education 2013 
Center for Education Research and Innovation (CERI)
More on Flipped classroom
More on eTwinning
Photo credit: Concentrated students in lecture hall working on their futuristic tablet during lesson / Shutterstock