Educating students for the fourth industrial revolution

It is so much easier to educate students for our past than for their future. Schools are inherently conservative social systems. As parents, we worry when our children learn things we don’t understand, even more so when they no longer study things that were so important to us.

Teachers are more comfortable teaching how they were taught than how they were taught to teach. Politicians can lose an election over education issues, but they rarely win one, because it takes far more than an election cycle to translate intentions into results. 

{mosads}The biggest risk to schooling today is not its inefficiency, but that our way of schooling is losing relevance. Education has won the race with technology throughout history, but there’s no guarantee it will do so in the future.


We live in a world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitize and automate. When we could still assume that what we learn in school will last for a lifetime, teaching content knowledge and routine cognitive skills was rightly at the center 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. The future will be about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills and values of humans. Tomorrow’s schools need to help students think for themselves and join others in work and citizenship.

One of the reasons why we get stuck in education is that our thinking is framed by so many myths:

  • “The poor will always do badly in school.” That’s not true: The 10-percent most disadvantaged 15-year-olds in Shanghai did better on the global PISA math test than the 10-percent most advantaged students in large American cities.
  • “Smaller classes mean better results.” That’s not true: Whenever high-performing education systems have to make a choice between a smaller class and a better teacher, they go for the latter.

   Often it is small classes that have created the Taylorist culture where teachers end up doing nothing other than     teaching and don’t have the time to support individual students, collaborate with other teaching professionals       or work with parents — activities that are hallmarks of high-performing education systems.

  • “More time spent learning always means better results.” That’s not true: Students in Finland spend little more than half the number of hours studying than what students in the United Arab Emirates spend, but students in Finland learn a lot in a short time, while students in the United Arab Emirates learn very little in a lot of time.

The good news is that our knowledge about what works in education has improved vastly. The first thing I learned is that the leaders in high-performing education systems have convinced their citizens to prioritize the future.

Chinese parents and grandparents will invest their last money into their future — the education of their children. In the West, we have already spent the money of our children for our own consumption.

But valuing education highly is just part of the equation. Another part is the belief that every student can learn. A hallmark of education in Estonia, Canada, Finland and Japan is that schools personalize learning because they understand that students learn differently.

Nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers. Top school systems select and educate their teaching staff carefully. They have moved on from administrative control and accountability to professional forms of work organization.

They encourage their teachers to be innovative, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues and to pursue professional development that leads to better practice. In top school systems, the emphasis is not on looking upward within the administration of the school system.

Instead it’s about looking outward to the next teacher or the next school, creating a culture of collaboration and strong networks of innovation.

The best-performing school systems provide high-quality education across the entire system so that every student benefits from excellent teaching. They attract the strongest principals to the toughest schools and the most talented teachers to the most challenging classrooms.

Still, knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it. To transform schooling at scale, we need not just a radical vision of what is possible, but also smart strategies to help drive change. The road of education reform is littered with good ideas that were poorly implemented.

The trouble is that the laws, regulations, structures and institutions on which education leaders tend to focus are just like the small tip of an iceberg. The reason it is so hard to move school systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline.

This invisible part is about the interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved in education, including parents and teachers. This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part of education reform tends to evade the radar of public policy.

That is why education leaders are successful only when they build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change and when they build capacity and create the right policy climate, with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation rather than compliance. 

In short, the changes in our societies have vastly outpaced the structural capacity of our current governance systems to respond. And when fast gets really fast, being slower to adapt makes education systems seem glacial and disconnected. Top-down governance through layers of administrative structures is no longer working.

The challenge is to build on the expertise of the hundreds of thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of school leaders and to enlist them in the design of superior policies and practices. When we fail to engage them in designing change, they will rarely help implement it.

Andreas Schleicher is the director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and special advisor on education policy to the secretary-general of the OECD.

Tags Critical pedagogy Education Education in South Korea Education policy Education reform Educational administration Educator effectiveness Philosophy of education

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