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A Skills Manifesto: Why Education (Not Finance) Is The Only Lasting Economic Solution

At the blackboard, in Laos
At the blackboard, in Laos
Andreas Schleicher*

PARIS – Everywhere skills transform lives, generate prosperity and promote social inclusion. And if there’s one lesson the global economy has taught us over the last few years, it’s that we cannot simply bail ourselves out of a crisis — stimulus plans and printing money can never be a lasting solution to our economic problems.

A strong bet for policy-makers to grow themselves out over the long term is to equip more people with better skills to collaborate, compete and connect — and to create better opportunities to use those skills effectively. If there is one central message emerging from international comparison, it is that what people know, and what they do with their knowledge, has a major impact on their life chances.

At the aggregate level too, the distribution of skills relates closely to how the benefits of economic growth are shared among individuals and social groups. Over the last decade, well over half of the rise in productivity in the industrialized world has been driven by better skills.

So jobs and growth these days are mainly about working smarter. And the alternative is clear: Without the right skills, people are left on the margins of society, technological progress does not translate into economic growth, and countries can’t compete globally.

But the toxic co-existence of unemployed university graduates and employers who say they cannot find the people with the skills they need, also shows that more education doesn't automatically mean better jobs and better lives. Even at the height of the economic crisis in 2009, more than 40% of employers in Australia, Japan, Mexico and Poland faced skills shortages; and in Egypt, there were 1.5 million unemployed youth while firms could not fill 600,000 vacancies.

To succeed in converting education into better jobs and lives, we need to better understand which are the skills that drive outcomes, ensure that the right skill mix is being learned and help our economies to make good use of those skills.

It all starts with better anticipating the evolution of skill-demand. The scarcity of science-related skills in many countries is a case in point. But it is more subtle than that. Labor demand in the industrialized world shows amazing changes over the last decades. The steepest decline in skill demand is no longer in the area of manual skills, but in routine cognitive skills, memorizing something and expecting that’s going to help us later in life. When we can access the world’s knowledge on the Internet, when routine skills are being digitized or outsourced, and when jobs are changing rapidly, accumulating knowledge matters less, and success becomes increasingly about ways of thinking, including creativity, critical thought, problem-solving and judgment; about ways of working, including collaboration and teamwork; and about the socio-cultural tools that enable us to interact with the world.

In a nutshell, schools need to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve problems we just cannot imagine today.

Conventionally our approach to problems in schooling was breaking them down into manageable bits and pieces, and then teaching students the techniques to solve the pieces. But today we create value by synthesizing the disparate bits, by integrating different fields of knowledge. This is about curiosity, open-mindedness, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated, which requires being familiar with and receptive to knowledge in other fields than our own. If we spend our whole life in a silo of a single discipline, we will not gain the imaginative skills to connect the dots where the next invention will come from.

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Afghan students with access (Daniel Wilkinson)

The world is also no longer divided between specialists, who know a lot about very little, and generalists, who know little about a lot. What matters is our capacity to keep learning and growing, build new relationships, assume new roles, and reposition ourselves every day new in this fast-changing world.

One last key point: much of the time in school is spent learning individually. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the greater the premium on having great collaborators and orchestrators. Innovation today is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation but an outcome of how we mobilize, share and link knowledge. Everything that is our own proprietary knowledge today will be a commodity available to everyone else tomorrow. Expressed differently, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks — with knowledge that is stacked up somewhere depreciating rapidly in value — to a world in which the enriching power of collaboration and communication is increasing.

So the premium in education needs to shift from qualifications-focused education upfront to skills-oriented learning throughout life. Our data also show that skill development is far more effective if the world of learning and the world of work are linked. Compared to purely government-designed curricula taught exclusively in schools, learning in the workplace allows people to develop “hard” skills on modern equipment, and “soft” skills, such as teamwork, communication and negotiation, through real-world experience. Hands-on workplace training is also a great way to motivate disengaged youth to re-engage with education and smoothen the transition to work.

Achieving this is no doubt difficult, and requires a very different approach to education.

In the old bureaucratic school system, teachers were often left alone in classrooms with a long prescription of what to teach. Modern forward-thinking school systems set ambitious goals, are clear about what students should be able to do and then provide teachers with the tools to establish what content and instruction they need to provide to their individual students. The past was about delivered wisdom, the future is about user-generated wisdom.

In the past, different students were taught in similar ways; today the challenge is to embrace diversity with differentiated pedagogical practices. The goal of the past was standardization and conformity, now it’s about being ingenious, about personalizing educational experiences. The past was curriculum-centered, the future is learner-centered.

In the past, the policy focus was on the provision of education, today it’s on outcomes, shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy towards looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school.

In the past we emphasized school management, now it is about leadership, with a focus on supporting, evaluating and developing teacher quality as its core, which includes coordinating the curriculum and teaching program, monitoring and evaluating teacher practice, promoting teacher professional development and supporting collaborative work cultures.

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A primary school lab in Laos (Masae)

We also need to take to heart that learning is not a place but an activity. School systems need to recognize that individuals learn differently, and differently at different stages of their lives. They need to foster new forms of educational provision that take learning to the learner in ways that that are most conducive to their progress.

And finally, we need to look outward. We can no longer ignore countries like China. Today, the talent pool is roughly equal in Europe, the United States and China. But by 2020, China alone will have more highly educated kids than Europe and the United States have kids, regardless of education level.

All of this is everybody’s business and we need to deal much more creatively with the question of who should pay for what, when and how, particularly for learning beyond school. Employers can do a lot more to create a climate that supports learning, and invest in learning. Some individuals can shoulder more of the financial burden. And governments can do better in designing more rigorous standards, provide more effective financial incentives and create a better safety net so that all people have access to high quality learning.

It’s worth getting this right. If the industrialized world would raise its learning outcomes by 25 PISA points — the level of improvement that we have seen in a country like Brazil or Poland over the last decade — its economies could be richer by over 100 trillion euros over the lifetime of today’s students. I know that many countries still have a recession to fight. But the cost of low educational performance is tremendous: It is the equivalent of a permanent economic recession.

*Andreas Schleicher is the Deputy Director of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the coordinator of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). He is a recipient of the “Theodor Heuss” prize, awarded in the name of the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany for “exemplary democratic engagement.” See his TED talk here.

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Photo of a demonstration of anarchist protesters in Rome in November

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