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.

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.

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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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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