Event img
Andreas Schleicher and Tom Fletcher on the “whole-society” education conversation this moment needs
This Autumn, as part of the “New Education Story” insight series from Big Change, I was fortunate to convene a conversation between Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, and Tom Fletcher CMG, former UK Ambassador to Lebanon and newly-appointed Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University. 
They shared their thoughts about the future of education in light of the pandemic and talked about the opportunity for change. Is now the moment for a conversation about whole-society education? What should a whole-society education focus on? We’d love to hear what you think, please share in the comments below.
In his role at the OECD, Andreas has overseen the evolution of PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, from a tool which monitored learning in reading, maths and science to one which is driving change in education by developing assessments of collaborative problem solving, global competence, and creative thinking. Andreas has also led the development of OECD 2030, which seeks to chart a course for a Future of Education and Skills oriented towards student agency, collective co-agency, and societal wellbeing. Tom has likewise been a long-term champion of broader goals for learning. Through his work with the Foundation for Opportunity and the project Towards Global Learning Goals, he has championed the importance of global citizenship and the right to a holistic education for all young people. His book The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age examined what technological change means for the field of diplomacy. His current work expands this field of vision to consider the “21st century streetcraft” we all need to make the most of living in an increasingly complex time.
Speaking across countries in different states of lockdown, Tom kicked off the conversation by asking whether, at this point in the COVID crisis, Andreas felt more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of education.
Despite feeling that “the overall picture is quite depressing,” Andreas saw reason for optimism: “I think I've seen more social innovation, more technological innovation in education in the last 6 months than in the last 6 years.” Moreover, given the scale of the people affected, this innovation is unlikely to stop now: “I think young people will probably no longer accept the kind of passive and industrial education when they have experienced new agency-based forms of learning, nor will teachers. I think you're going to see a lot of teachers go back to their Principal saying, hey, I've learned to teach, coach, mentor, facilitate and evaluate in so many new ways, why can't we incorporate that in a regular schooling day? And you are going to see a lot of Principals saying to the educational administration, hey, we were able to tear down walls and engage our communities in search for new forms of learning when you were not there, you should entrust us with greater professional autonomy and help build a more collaborative work culture, and you should make every effort to identify key agents of change, champion them, and find more effective approaches to scaling and disseminating innovations.”
These are changes that Tom is already seeing: his eight year-old son is asking why he could join his class virtually if he was isolating, but is not allowed to do that by choice. And professors at Oxford, where “traditionally the tutorial has been sacrosanct,” are saying that they can teach effectively over Zoom. As Tom put it:
“The people who some might think would be the reactionaries in this moment are actually saying, let's do this, we can actually do this better than we thought we could before now.”
Andreas highlighted the GCSE and A Level disaster in England as another key moment of change: “without this crisis, the exams would have been in place in the same form for another 20 years. Now, you can see, well, why don't we incorporate teachers' judgment into this, and students’ experiences, portfolios, or school marks? And suddenly you can see a whole discussion opening up.”
This opening up of discussion and debate applies not only to the media, but also to policy makers. Andreas has observed that, “the crisis has elevated the discussion at the policy level, and led ministers to engage in real dialogue in search for better policies” The uncertainty of the crisis means that, “people are much more willing to give up their habitual positions” and learn from one another.
As Tom observed, the crisis may even prompt some governments to become, “a bit more humble than they were before.” The disparities in successful handling of the return to school has brought some governments to the fore while others have cause to reflect on what went wrong.
Looking to the future, another reason for optimism is that countries have become even more engaged with the need for global competence. As Andreas explains, “now people realize how important it is, how connected the world is, and that we need to build a language that actually enables people to see the world through different lenses and perspectives, and value different ways of thinking and different cultures.” Tom observes that the crisis seems to push us towards being more “hyperlocal”, focused on our immediate communities, but also “hyperglobal”: where everyone is more aware of the interdependencies between national fates.
Both reflected on what Tom called the “cultural and identity awakening” represented by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the work it has done to foreground issues of equality and diversity. For Andreas, Black Lives Matter and globalisation are “two sides of the same coin. One is the outward-looking macro dimension of empathy, involving intercultural understanding and global competence, and the other is the inward-looking micro dimension of empathy, the building of bridging social capital between individuals, through which we can build a shared understanding among groups with diverse experiences and interests, thus increasing our radius of trust to strangers. And suddenly people realise we've got to address those issues.” He believes “that's something that will not go away.”
The next step that they hope for is better ways to support the teachers now charged with addressing these issues in their classroom. While many resources are available, “there's no common framework”, says Andreas, and so teachers “face this tsunami of material and technology that you can't find your way through, so the result is that technology still often conserves traditional teaching rather than transform it.”
Tom suggests that the materials are out there for teachers who want to help students develop “empathy and emotional intelligence and cultural understanding”, but many may not realize they can access them. Both saw the need for more efforts to organise the vast world of educational learning resources, and to overcome some of what Andreas called the “Babilonic” culture in education.
Along with “finding common languages, frameworks, standards”, in a top down way, Andreas advocated for “platforms where teachers and educators and also educational researchers can better share and scale their own ideas.” He has been inspired by education systems that have created open-source communities of teachers and unlocked teachers’ creativity simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for their contributions. Compared to even just a year ago, he sees many more teachers who are leading innovative changes in practice and pulling others along with them.
Andreas would now like to see much more opportunity for teachers to take part in the kind of open conversation policymakers are having, noting that:
"Where we don’t engage teachers in the design of change, we can’t expect them to help with implementing change."
He has observed teachers who are “really looking for transformation”: “They say, look, we don't want to go back to where we came from. That's no longer going to work for us. It's not going to work for our students.” And yet there are few opportunities for teachers to really have those conversations and take the steps together towards changing their work: “I think teachers are still very much in isolation.” Because of the “atomistic” organisation of teachers working alone in classrooms, “it's very, very hard to connect and collaborate.”
What makes both of them hopeful is that new opportunities for these conversations are appearing. Tom hopes that the book he is currently writing will be a way of telling the stories of already existent examples “at a moment when we've got people's attention”. As an experienced diplomat, he knows that “we'll all move on to the next crisis very soon.” But the book - and this conversation as a whole - is “not just talking about educating young people in different ways, but the new skills and values we all need to understand.” In other words, this isn’t just a conversation about pedagogical methods or use of technology, but about what we really value.
First and foremost amongst these skills and values is social and emotional learning. Andreas has seen this topic really move in from the margins, and go from being “controversial amongst policy makers” to being “central.” Even Nick Gibb, England’s Schools Minister who has previously steered clear of the topic, is now “very open in that debate and discussion.”
The need for more focus on social emotional learning is clear. And for Tom, it is important not just for school children but for everyone. “One of the things I've been trying to do is to say to policymakers, this isn't just about teaching young people this set of social and emotional skills. We all lack them, you the policy makers, we lack these social emotional skills because we never had these as part of education.”
Tom argues that we have to really be self-critical when thinking about how we have been served by our own education. “We come to education thinking that our role is to pass on the best of what we've learnt. Actually, it's about passing on some of the best of what we didn't learn ourselves.”
Without naming names, Tom suggests that, “a bunch of these people in public life are clearly completely ill-equipped to have the empathy and emotional intelligence to cope with something like this pandemic.” Curriculum conversations therefore need to start with our adult selves: “We need to have a conversation about what are the most important skills you learn in school, what are the most important skills you learned in life, what would you now tell yourself as a 14 year old?”
This is a conversation many more people may now want to have. Andreas believes that we are seeing the emergence of “a whole of society approach to education.”
“I think if you look at the last 10, 15 years, they have been dominated by commodification of education, students becoming consumers, parents: clients, teachers: service providers. And that's created a lot of distance between the actors in the education system,” Andreas explains. But “this crisis has brought people together. Parents have figured out what it means to educate. They are much more part of the solution now. Teachers see, well, if I do not have a really good relationship with my students forget any education in this moment of crisis.” Likewise, “policymakers are very much aware that this is not something that you can just push. You need to really engage all aspects of society.” The upshot is that, “No government is going to go it alone.”
Out of this crisis, therefore, they see an opening for a different way of thinking and talking about education, not only for policy makers and teachers, but also all of society. And both are clear that this is a movement not just about platforms and tools but about “skills and values”. As Tom put it, “perhaps people are readier now for that conversation.”
It was a real pleasure to be able to host this conversation and inspiring to hear about the demand for change, and particularly that social and emotional development is starting to get the attention it deserves. 
What do you think a whole-society conversation about education should focus on? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment and share!