Teaching for lifelong learning

Secretary-General of the OECD

Since I arrived at the OECD in 1996, I have participated in more conferences on more issues than I would have imagined possible. These many and varied meetings focused on almost every area of public policy. Without exaggeration, I can report that in all cases a common thread of consensus was education as the fundamental building block of social and economic progress. Would this have been the case, say, 100 or even 50 years ago? I doubt it.

The OECD’s report on the causes of growth in the “new economy”, which will be delivered to our Ministerial Council in May, will assign an important role to human capital. Another driver of growth in the new economy is technology, particularly information and communication technologies (ICT). What matters is how they work together: countries can be awash with technology, but it takes human skills and talent both to operate it and to undertake the reorganisation of work and commercial relation-ships that can improve productivity and lift growth potential. The new skills required to use technology are becoming more important, both in the workplace and as a means of participating fully in today’s knowledge-based society. At the same time, basic competencies, like writing, reading and arithmetic, continue to be vital. And educators are also beginning to wonder about how to teach “creativity”. Altogether, these are formidable challenges for our policymakers, educators and teachers.

Today many more young people complete and go beyond secondary education than a few decades ago. Yet the International Adult Literacy Survey 2000 showed that at least a quarter of adults in the 20 countries surveyed – and as many as three-quarters in a few of them – lack the minimum literacy skills necessary for modern life and work. These people will have difficulty getting jobs and run the risk of being locked into low-paid work or becoming unemployed as skill demands rise. Providing good initial schooling for all, including those most at risk, is an important part of the solution.

But initial education will not be enough and adults have to renew their knowledge and skills to cope with a lifetime of constant change. Nevertheless, it is the adults who did well in their early formal schooling who are most likely to take up further education or training in later life.

The OECD’s 2001 Education Ministerial in April will no doubt emphasise the priority we must give to lifelong learning for everyone. This requires clear incentives on both the demand and the supply side of the system. Individuals, companies and countries must see clear benefits from investing in the acquisition of new skills. Adult training has to be stepped up too, but it must succeed more in drawing in those who have missed out when young. The OECD’s work shows that this can be done. But this is “catching up”. We need to do a better job of transmitting competencies at the outset. We need to invest in formal schooling, starting at the earliest stages, and also raise school completion rates. Recent advances in ICT have enabled policymakers to look more seriously at how education might flourish outside the formal classroom and in the myriad circumstances of work and leisure. ICT is more commonplace than it was five years ago, even routine to many students and adults. This is a reflection of how useful it is. Computers are a great self-learning tool, whose basics most people, young or old, seem to master quickly. Even the disabled can find computers empowering. Distance learning, workplace training, home-based course cycles: investing in all of these could help to improve everyone’s competencies.

But there is no magic formula. The Education Ministerial will be an opportunity for policymakers to share experiences about what has worked and what has not. I wonder if it is not time to focus more attention on teachers.

This once esteemed vocation appears to be in some difficulty. The profession is ageing in a number of OECD countries, as it fails to attract qualified young people. Reversing this will be difficult unless teachers’ pay becomes more competitive with that of other careers. Moreover, formal requirements for entry to school teaching often restrict movement in and out of the profession. This can stifle the career prospects of teachers and, in today’s mobile job market, may affect their status as well as performance. More fundamentally, I ask whether governments, communities and parents should not make creative efforts to restore the prestige of this critical occupation. After all, in our information-filled age, we still need guidance on what is worth learning. This is especially true of the young, and all parents want to be sure their children have good teachers. They should be entitled to find this in our public systems. It is therefore time for countries to invest. And that means in teaching, as well as in learning.

©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001

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