It is so much easier to educate students for our past than for their future. Schools are inherently conservative social systems: as parents we get nervous when our children learn things we do not understand, and even more nervous when they no longer study things that were so important for us. Teachers are more comfortable teaching how they were taught than how they were taught to teach. And while politicians can lose an election over education issues, they rarely win one over education, because it takes way more than an election cycle to translate intentions into educational outcomes. The biggest risk to education today is that our way of education is losing its purpose and relevance. And when fast gets really fast, being slower to adapt makes education systems really slow and disoriented.
Many of us live in a world where the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate. Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there is no guarantee it will do so in the future. When we could still assume that what we learn in school will last for a lifetime, teaching content knowledge and routine cognitive skills was appropriately at the centre of education. Today, the world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know. If all we do is teach our children what we know, they may remember enough to follow in our footsteps. But it is only if we help them build a reliable compass and develop navigation skills that they will be able to find their way through this increasingly complex, volatile and ambiguous world.
Fact versus fiction
Our thinking is framed by so many myths. ‘The poor will always do badly in school.’ That’s not true: the 10% most disadvantaged kids in Shanghai do better in math than the 10% most advantaged students in large American cities. ‘Immigrants will lower educational performance.’ That’s not true: there is no relationship between the share of immigrants and the quality of an education system, and the school systems where immigrant students settle matter a lot more than the country they came from. ‘Smaller classes mean better results.’ That’s not true: in fact, whenever high-performing education systems have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they go for the latter. ‘More time spent learning always means better results.’ That’s not true: study hours in Finland are little more than half of those of students in the United Arab Emirates, but in Finland students learn a lot in little time, while in the UAE they learn very little in a lot of time.
The good news is that our knowledge about what works in education has improved vastly. Still, knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it. To transform education at scale, we need not just a radical vision of what is possible, but also smart strategies that help make change. The road of educational reform is littered with good ideas that were poorly implemented. And the laws, regulations, structures and institutions on which educational leaders tend to focus are just like the small visible tip of an iceberg.
It is so hard to move school systems because of the much larger part under the waterline. This invisible part is about the interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved in education – parents and teachers included. This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part of educational reform tends to evade the radar screen of public policy. That is why educational leaders are rarely successful with reform unless they build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change, and unless they build capacity and create the right policy climate, with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation rather than compliance.
Making the possible attainable
In the face of all these challenges we do not need to be passive. Technology and globalisation may have disruptive implications for our economic and social structure, but they do not have predetermined implications. It is the nature of our collective responses to these disruptions that determines what the outcomes are – it is the interplay between the technological frontier and the cultural, social, institutional and economic agents that we mobilise in response. G20 members such as Canada, China or Japan show that universal high-quality education is an attainable goal. So our task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable. This is the only way to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one.