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17.4.2020 |

Andreas Schleicher and Pasi Sahlberg Respond to COVID-Related Education Community Concerns

After our last webinar, we were unable to get to all the questions from our community. So, we followed up with Andreas Schleicher and education expert Pasi Sahlberg with some of our community members' most pressing questions. We have broken these questions into ten major themes.

Over the past few weeks, the HundrED team has been curating and sharing innovative solutions, successful case studies, as well as hosting webinars on current issues in education during the COVID-19 pandemic. In our webinar on April 7th, we sat down with Andreas Schleicher, the Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) who shared multiple perspectives on this crisis. You can find a recording of the webinar below.  


Due to time constraints, we were unable to get to all the questions from our community so, after the webinar, we followed up with Andreas and education expert Pasi Sahlberg with some of our community members' most pressing questions. We have broken these questions into ten major themes.

Policy & Global Collaboration

What short- and long-term strategies should schools and Ministries of Education use to address disparities in access to quality education?

Andreas: This crisis exposes the many inequities in our education systems - from the broadband and computers needed for online education, through the supportive environments needed to focus on learning, up to our failure to attract talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms.

But as these inequities are amplified in this time of crisis, this moment also holds the possibility that we won’t return to the status quo when things return to “normal”. We have agency, and it is the nature of our collective and systemic responses to the disruptions that will determine how we are affected by them. For me, three factors are key: 

First, is our ability to truly individualise learning. We need to view diversity in students’ interests, capabilities and context not as the problem but as the inspiration for differentiated pedagogical practice. Second, we need to shift from the industrial model of schooling towards crafting enabling environments that can unleash teachers’ and schools’ ingenuity and build capacity for change. This initiative needs to be led by people who are sincere about social change, imaginative in policy-making, and capable of using the trust they earn to deliver effective reforms. Third, will we be able to better align resources with needs, and attract the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms. That is not as simple as paying teachers who work in disadvantaged schools more; it requires holistic approaches in which teachers feel supported in their professional and personal lives when they take on additional challenges, and when they know that additional effort will be valued and publicly recognised.

School Leadership 

According to the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), the majority of teachers say that they are open to new ideas for teaching and learning. However, they report on average, only 59% of principals take action to support cooperation among teachers to develop new teaching practices. What do you see as the reasons that principals are not tapping into this latent potential of eager teachers? 

Andreas: Innovative change can be difficult in hierarchical structures that are geared towards rewarding compliance with rules and regulations. Silicon Valley works not just because there are lots of great people, but because governments created the conditions for innovation. Governments cannot innovate in the classroom, but they can help by opening up systems so that there is an innovation-friendly climate where transformative ideas can bloom. That means encouraging innovation within the system and making it open to creative ideas from outside. 

Education systems need to strengthen professional autonomy and facilitate a collaborative culture where great ideas are refined and shared, then you will see school principals acting differently. Given the uncertainties that accompany all change, school leaders will often opt to maintain the status quo. To mobilise support for more innovative schools, education systems need to become better at communicating their needs and building support for change. 

Investing in capacity development and change-management skills will be critical; and it is vital that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too. Education systems need to better identify key agents of change and champion them, and they need to find more effective ways of scaling and disseminating innovations. That is also about finding better ways to recognise, reward and celebrate success, to do whatever is possible to make it easier for innovators to take risks and encourage the emergence of new ideas. One of the most devastating findings from the first TALIS was that three in four teachers in the industrialised world consider their workplace an environment that is essentially hostile to innovation. Nothing will change if we don’t change that perception.


How can we support all segments of the population, like adult mature-learners, "the home providers", who are in need to reinvent & upskill themselves?

Pasi: This is a tough question. I think that this question is independent from the crisis that we live with right now. My thinking in this issue is that those particular people mentioned in the question are the ones that are often marginalised when school reforms or future scenarios of education are discussed and debated. Again, this time and certainly the post-crisis era provide great opportunities to have more inclusive conversations in our communities, schools and families about the purpose of schooling and what the future schools could be. 

There are many brilliant examples in the HundrEd network of new ways of schooling that could enrich these new conversations. We need to be mindful with any massive upskilling efforts of anyone unless we are sure that the vision and future horizons are understood and accepted by these people. The post-crisis era will belong, whether we like it or not, to models of schooling that emphasise much more creativity, socio-emotional aspects of humanity, wellbeing and (ecological) sustainability that the old times.

Teacher Education & Professional Learning Communities

What is needed to build a strong professional learning community? What examples have been successful for such cooperation?

Andreas: To understand why people do the things they do, ask yourself what sort of incentives they have to act that way. Let me give you an example when I visited Shanghai in 2013, I saw teachers using a digital platform to share lesson plans. That in itself is not unusual; what made it different from other places was that the platform was combined with reputational metrics. The more other teachers downloaded, critiqued or improved lessons, the greater the reputation of the teacher who had shared them. At the end of the school year, the principal would not just ask how well the teacher had taught his or her students, but what contribution he or she had made to improve the teaching profession and the wider education system. 

Shanghai’s approach to curated crowdsourcing of education practice is not just an example of how to identify and share best practices among teachers, it is also so much more powerful than performance-related pay as a way to encourage professional growth and development. In this way, Shanghai created a giant open-source community of teachers and unlocked teachers’ creativity simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate, and be recognised for their contributions. This is how technology can extend the reach of great teaching, recognising that value is less and less created vertically, through command and control, but increasingly horizontally, by whom we connect and work with. 

New Kinds of Learners

If learners are to become more demanding when they get back to school, how can we best prepare teachers to meet those demands?

Pasi: It may well be that students will return to schools with more and different demands. But, again, it may well be that most students are simply very happy to get back to school, see their teachers, and meet their friends. I think most of them will be relieved to have somebody in the classroom who is prepared and ready to provide help in learning. I believe that what will happen also is that many children will look at their schools with new eyes. Those old things that they disliked or complained about all of the sudden seem to be alright. We also need to remember that for surprisingly many children school is the only place where they feel safe. Most teachers in most countries are prepared to meet students’ demands. Perhaps it is the system leaders and bureaucrats who need to understand that what children demand is that these authorities let the teachers teach the children rather than aim at haphazard measurable targets.

Online Learning & Safeguarding

This crisis has shown us how important social-emotional competencies such as adaptability, metacognition, resilience and others are. Do you believe that these competencies can be effectively developed via digital solutions with limited personal interaction? And with more students and adults interacting online, how do we safeguard learners online?

Pasi: Socio-emotional competencies can certainly be learned and developed through online learning arrangements – if we understand how to do that. If we assume that all or most of what students are supposed to learn while they can’t go to school must happen digitally it will probably not happen. But if we build in activities, as many more advanced solutions already do, that require students to turn off their gadgets and engage themselves in human interaction, it will become possible. I think that if we were able to take stock now of all the possible ways online teaching and learning are arranged around the world, we would be surprised by the creative and innovative solutions that are available to help students learn broader competences. I believe that the key condition for these new ideas to flourish is to have a deeper common understanding of what the overall purpose of schooling is, which goes beyond learning and remembering traditional subject-based knowledge. When the purpose of schooling changes, then the methods to achieve these new goals will also change. This is the right time for these fundamental conversations in schools and communities.

Under-Resourced Communities

What is your outlook towards learning opportunities for children from lower-income backgrounds? They are at a very high risk of getting left far behind during the ongoing lockdowns. How do we as a society at large, plan to cover this gap?

Andreas: What wise parents want for their children is what societies should want for all children. Children from wealthier families will find many open doors to a successful life. But children from poor families often have just one chance in life, and that is a good school that gives them an opportunity to develop their potential. Those who miss that boat rarely catch up, as subsequent education opportunities in life tend to reinforce early educational outcomes. The statistics on this look bleak, but we also see so many good examples, even at a systemic level. Think about Finland, just 5% of the performance variation of students on the PISA test lies between schools, so the closest school is always the best school. Or think about Shanghai, in the 2012 PISA math assessment, the 10% most disadvantaged 15-year-olds performed as well as the top 10% of students from the wealthiest American families. That shows us that universal high-quality education is an attainable goal, that it is within our means to deliver a future for millions of learners who currently do not have one, and that our task is not to make the impossible possible, but to make the possible attainable.

Holistic Wellbeing

How can we ensure that other areas of development (beyond academic) are also factored into this new online learning model (e.g collaboration, empathy, physical development etc.)?

Pasi: It is important that schools have enough autonomy and parents are encouraged to find their own best ways to engage children in activities that develop collaboration, empathy, physical development, musical and artistic areas of learning. This is a great opportunity to emphasize the importance of whole-child development as the main focus of formal school education. Designing remote learning outside the school around inquiry-based teaching or project-based learning as much as possible will help students to develop socio-emotional skills and habits of mind. Some good lessons now suggest that study time for typical academic subject knowledge through online learning should be limited to two or three hours a day. The rest of their time could be better spent on other kinds of activities, such as music, arts, play outdoors (whenever possible) and cooking. It may be helpful if the overall goals for online learning would be adjusted so that they would clearly include a broader range of achievements rather than just academic knowledge.

Reframing Mindsets

How do we prevent a regression back to an industrial model of chalk and talk which could so easily happen and thus would cut the rich development of contemporary soft skills of our young and old?

Andreas: Indeed, that is perhaps the biggest risk that we face in these times. In a moment of crisis, when curriculum time is limited because of social distancing and a lack of resources, people may turn to the things they can reach easiest. But the kind of things that are easy to teach and test are now also easy to digitise and automate. In the industrial age, we learned how to educate second-class robots, in the age of artificial intelligence we need to think much harder what makes us first-class humans.

These days, 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. If we want to stay ahead of technological developments, we have to find and refine the qualities that are unique to our humanity, and that complement, not compete with, capacities we have created in our computers.

Future of Education

What do you think will be the “new normal” or “permanent change in education systems” as we begin to see an acceptance of changes in schools and educator workspaces?

Pasi: I think, and I may be wrong with this, that we will not see any significant sudden changes in education systems after the crisis is over. In other words, in many places, the “new normal” will probably be pretty much like the “old normal” that we all know so well. What is likely to happen is, first, that students will appreciate teachers and schools more than they did before. Around the world, children are already asking when they can get back to school. Second, I believe, and also hope, that parents will understand better how difficult things teaching and learning are, and will, therefore, value more teachers’ efforts to teach their children at school. When these two things happen, we will see a new renaissance of schooling that could have an unexpected effect on the teaching profession, for example, advancing teachers’ sense of professionalism and empowering them in their work. Third, instead of “new normal” we are likely to see much more clearly some of the critically important aspects of education systems that in normal situations are harder to see. One of them is a much better understanding and acceptance of inequalities in education systems that online learning through technologies will make concretely noticeable to us all.

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