Learning for an interconnected world: COBIS21 conference link article
Andreas Schleicher takes an in-depth look at the measurement of ‘Global Competence’ in PISA 2018. As he argues at the COBIS21 conference, the associated concepts and skills should be at the core of any modern curriculum.
Disconnects in a connected world
Globalisation and digitalisation have connected people, cities, countries and continents in ways that vastly increase our individual and collective potential. But the same forces have also made the world more volatile, more complex, more uncertain and more ambiguous. The world has seen a growing disconnect between the infinite growth imperative and the finite resources of our planet; between the financial economy and the real economy; between the wealthy and the poor; between the concept of our gross domestic product and the well-being of people; between technology and social needs; and between governance and the perceived voicelessness of people.
No one should hold education responsible for all of this, but neither should anyone underestimate the role that the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values of people play in social and economic development and in shaping the cultural context.
Success in education today is about building curiosity – opening minds, it is about compassion – opening hearts, and it is about courage, mobilising our cognitive, social and emotional resources
In this world, education is no longer just about teaching students something, but about helping them develop a reliable compass and the tools to navigate with confidence through an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world. Success in education today is about building curiosity – opening minds, it is about compassion –opening hearts, and it is about courage, mobilising our cognitive, social and emotional resources to take action. And those are also our best weapon against the biggest threats of our times – ignorance – the closed mind, hate – the closed heart, and fear – the enemy of agency.
Education and what makes us human
The kind of things that are easy to teach and test have become easy to digitize and automate. We know how to educate second-class robots, people who are good at repeating what we tell them. In this age of accelerations and artificial intelligence, we need to think harder about what makes us human. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of human beings.
Even a construct as basic as literacy has fundamentally changed. In the 20th century, literacy was about extracting and processing pre-coded information; in the 21st century, it is about constructing and validating knowledge. In the past, teachers could tell students to look up information in an encyclopaedia, and to rely on that information as accurate and true. Nowadays, Google presents them with millions of answers, and nobody tells them what’s right or wrong and true or not true.
On average across OECD countries, just 9% of 15-year-old students were able to distinguish facts from opinion when the cues were implicit.
The more knowledge technology allows us to search and access, the more important becomes deep understanding and the capacity to navigate ambiguity, to triangulate viewpoints, and to make sense out of content. Contrast that with the finding from the PISA 2018 assessment of reading literacy where, on average across OECD countries, just 9% of 15-year-old students were able to distinguish facts from opinion when the cues were implicit. True, this figure was up from 7% in 2000, but meanwhile the demand for literacy skills had changed entirely.
The homogenisation of opinion
The fact that advancements in literacy skills have fallen sharply behind the evolution of the nature of information has profound consequences in a world where virality seems sometimes privileged over quality in the distribution of information. In the “post-truth” climate in which we now find ourselves, assertions that “feel right” but have no basis in fact become accepted as fact.
There is scarcity of attention, but an abundance of information. We are living in this digital bazaar where anything that is not built for the network age is cracking apart under its pressure.
Algorithms that sort us into groups of like-minded individuals create social media echo chambers that amplify our views, and leave us insulated from opposing arguments that may alter our beliefs. These virtual bubbles homogenise opinions and polarise our societies; and they can have a significant – and adverse – impact on democratic processes. Those algorithms are not a design flaw; they are how social media work. There is scarcity of attention, but an abundance of information. We are living in this digital bazaar where anything that is not built for the network age is cracking apart under its pressure.
The modern challenge of synthesis . . .
The conventional approach in school is often to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces and then to teach students how to solve these bits and pieces. But modern societies create value by synthesising different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated, connecting the dots where the next innovation will come from.
In the past, schools were technological islands, with technology often limited to supporting and conserving existing practices, and students outpacing schools in their adoption of technology. Now schools need to use the potential of technologies to liberate learning from past conventions and connect learners in new and powerful ways, with sources of knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another.
. . . and the importance of integration
The past was also divided – with teachers and content divided by subjects and students separated by expectations of their future career prospects; with schools designed to keep students inside, and the rest of the world outside; with a lack of engagement with families and a reluctance to partner with other schools. The future needs to be integrated – with an emphasis on the inter-relation of subjects and the integration of students.
Teaching for autonomy and empathy
Schools need to help students learn to be autonomous in their thinking and develop an identity that is aware of the pluralism of modern living. This is important . . . .
In today’s schools, students typically learn individually and at the end of the school year, we certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators. We can see during this pandemic how the well-being of countries depends increasingly on people’s capacity to take collective action. Schools need to help students learn to be autonomous in their thinking and develop an identity that is aware of the pluralism of modern living. This is important. At work, at home and in the community, people will need a broad understanding of how others live, in different cultures and traditions, and how others think, whether as scientists or as artists.
Social capital that builds bridges
The foundations for this don’t all come naturally. We are all born with “bonding social capital”, a sense of belonging to our family or other people with shared experiences, common purposes or pursuits. But it requires deliberate and continuous efforts to create the kind of “bridging social capital” through which we can share experiences, ideas and innovation with others, and increase our radius of trust to strangers and institutions.
2018 PISA and measuring ‘global competence’
These considerations led PISA, the global standard for measuring the quality of educational outcomes, to include ‘global competence’ in its latest evaluation of 66 school systems. To do well on this assessment, students had to demonstrate that they can combine knowledge about the world with critical reasoning, and that they were able to adapt their behaviour and communication to interact with individuals from different traditions and cultures.
It is perhaps no surprise that countries doing generally well in education also tended to show higher levels of global competence: Students in Singapore and Canada, who do well on the PISA subject matter tests, also came out on top in global competence. What is more interesting is that a country like Colombia, where students often struggle with reading, math and science tasks, does far better on global competence than predicted by its reading, math and science scores. Also Scotland, Spain, Israel, Panama, Greece, Croatia, Costa Rica and Morocco did better than expected. In turn, students in Korea and the Russian Federation did less well than predicted.
Vietnam, a country where students excel on the PISA math test, had the smallest share of students feeling confident to deal with unusual situations . . . . Mexican students, who perform poorly in mathematics, were not afraid to navigate ambiguity and manage uncertainty.
Countries also vary in the extent to which their students are resilient and open to the future. Vietnam, a country where students excel on the PISA math test, had the smallest share of students feeling confident to deal with unusual situations, that they can change their behaviour to meet the needs of new situations, or that they can adapt to different situations even when under pressure. In turn, Mexican students, who perform poorly in mathematics, were not afraid to navigate ambiguity and manage uncertainty. All this shows that some capabilities and attitudes that are key for success in our times don’t come automatically as a by-product of academic success. Equally important, these outcomes relate closely to what happens in schools and classrooms.
Global competence and gender
While most school systems have done well in closing gender gaps in key school subjects, global competence may have slipped through policy attention. Girls seem to have much greater openness to understand different perspectives, greater respect for and interest in learning about other cultures, and more positive attitudes towards immigrants. On the other hand, boys seem often more likely to show greater resilience and cognitive adaptability than girls. Again, these differences don’t fall from the sky but are mirrored by differences in what boys and girls do: boys were more likely to learn about the interconnectedness of countries’ economies, look for news on the Internet or watch the news together during class. They were also more likely to be invited by their teachers to give their personal opinion about international news, to participate in classroom discussions about world events and to analyse global issues together with their classmates. In contrast, girls were more likely than boys to learn how to solve conflicts with their peers in the classroom, learn about different cultures and learn how people from different cultures can have different perspectives on some issues.
Teaching for global competence
These findings show how education can make a difference. Preparing students for an interconnected world starts with a curriculum that is open to the world. The findings from PISA show large differences between countries in the extent to which global issues such as public health, climate change, poverty, migration or conflicts, as well as issues around intercultural understanding are covered in the curriculum. Importantly, the coverage of global issues in lessons was positively associated with related student dispositions and their engagement in these issues. For example, where the causes of poverty were discussed more, students were more aware about issues around migration and the movement of people.
Overall, the schools and education systems that were most successful in fostering global knowledge, skills and attitudes among their students were those that offer a curriculum that values openness to the world, provide a positive and inclusive learning environment, offer opportunities to relate to people from other cultures and have teachers who are prepared for teaching global competence.
As important as reading, mathematics and science
Getting this right is important, and not just for international schools! The global competence of our young people today may shape our future as profoundly as their reading, math and science skills. Not least, it will be the societies that value bridging social capital and pluralism most that can draw on the best talent from anywhere and nurture creativity and innovation.
Dr. Andreas Schleicher is Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development.
To download the OECD’s PISA Global Competence framework, go to
Images by kind permission of the OECD