Skills development: Rethinking the future

Global competition and the global financial crisis have put additional pressures on education programmes around the world. Radically new approaches to learning are now needed.

A new wave of globalisation is under way, in which outsourcing and offshoring no longer just affect unskilled and manufacturing jobs, but also skilled and service sector jobs. This trend has put new demands on education and training systems around the world, because in this new wave of globalisation, education and skills will be key, in particular those skills that emphasise flexibility and the ability to cope with change.

The trouble is, many existing educational systems are not equipped to face these challenges. The current standard model of learning fits neither people’s diversity of talents and attitudes nor the demands of employers. Schools and universities in many countries, despite recent reforms, still focus on developing traditional cognitive skills, teaching narrow facts and solving routine problems with rules-based solutions. Policies put too much emphasis on secondary and tertiary education, and too little on early childhood education and family and social environments.

How can conventional approaches be reformed? This is a major question and a source of much debate, but at the Global Economic Symposium (GES), an annual forum of leaders in policymaking, academia, business and civil society, three approaches were highlighted as necessary for addressing these challenges.

A first step is to make educational systems more flexible in scheduling and timing throughout life, and to refocus on “learning to learn” and solving sometimes novel problems.

Current educational systems must be reformed to enable people to take more personal responsibility for their own and their children’s education and development. This could involve providing more courses that are flexible in time scheduling and spreading educational expenditure across people’s careers. It would also mean raising spending on lifelong learning to keep it at least in line with the extra tax revenues such learning would be expected to generate.

Skills development should not be restricted to schools and universities, but should extend from early childhood to old age, from families to school and university, to business, government entities and society at large.

A more participatory learning process that features “learning to learn” and “learning by doing” should be emphasised. Active learning, based on student participation and taking initiatives, matters more for student potential than passive learning. Educators, especially in primary and secondary schools, should focus more heavily on developing students’ imagination, creativity, inventiveness, spontaneity, interaction, social abilities and communication skills, which will become ever more important for individuals to become competitive in the globalised service economy.

Schools must stimulate a child’s ability to solve new, non-routine problems, to combine different bodies of knowledge and to interact productively with others.

In science classes, students should be encouraged to run experiments on their own, rather than sticking strictly to textbooks. This would require changes in school curricula and in the ways of testing and grading students, for example, involving more open-ended questions and presenting them with ill-defined problems with no simple answers. It could mean organising more group activities and grading the performance of the group, rather than that of the individual. The UK’s SPRinG (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) Programs, which develop group-work skills in primary schools, are shown to have a positive effect on children’s academic progress because children are also encouraged to learn to think independently of the group, and to be self-confident and self-critical when facing different challenges.

A second step is to invest in early childhood education. Any reform of the education system has to pay particular attention to preschool and elementary school education. Some countries lag behind in making early childhood education available to all children, yet it is the key to equal opportunity and achievement later in life. Investment in pre-schooling provides not only high returns throughout the education cycle—approximately 7–10% returns per annum, according to some studies—but boosts achievement levels among children from disadvantaged families. Early education must be tied closely to complementary family support. This aspect is highlighted by the experience of Finland, which leads in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings: although formal school starts later in Finland than in most countries, learning benefits from strong family support.

Cognitive and emotional difficulties often emerge early in life, usually before schooling, and are difficult to correct later on. Family and social factors may be at play, which in turn influence classroom performance. That means that education policies should be complemented by family and social policies that provide support for disadvantaged families, help integrate immigrants, improve urban neighbourhoods and reduce rural poverty. One example is New Zealand’s Ministry of Education’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) Participation Program, which targets Maori and Pasifika children and children from underprivileged communities and includes subsidies, community participation projects, playgroups, and flexible and responsive home-based early childhood education. Financial assistance should be properly targeted and subject to conditions, to ensure that it really is used for the early education of children.

A third step is to reinvent education by using new technologies and e-learning tools. Information and communication technologies are the key driver of productivity growth and social change, yet there is a worldwide gap in educating professionals with these so-called “e-skills”. In particular, traditional curricula should be redesigned to allow a more efficient integration of e-learning materials into traditional paper-based methods. Learners should be taught not only how to use information and communication technologies (ICT) in a narrow sense, but also how to harness ICT as tools to help them to learn and think independently. They should be allowed to wander off the set learning path, to follow their own interests, and information search on the Internet or via integrated packages of e-learning materials, and be guided back along the learning path.

©REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Open access repositories for educational resources and open fora—such as that provided by the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), a foundation in Brazil, or the worldwide open educational resources clearinghouse currently provided by the African Virtual University (AVU) and Utah State University’s Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, for example—should be established and made available so as to enlarge the scope and scale of educational resources that can be provided to all interested learners. Open fora provide more opportunities for users to act independently, as well as interact and discuss with users interested in the same topics, thereby increasing the depth and intensity of their learning. This partially dissolves the boundaries between teachers and learners, and increases the efficiency of knowledge transfer and knowledge diffusion. Open fora can also benefit poorer countries, where the likes of community radio, audio and mobile phones combine to produce clear education and training value. For inspiration, policymakers could look to the “Text2Teach program”, a partnership of telephone companies, content providers, business corporations, and education ministries which has helped to improve science teaching and student learning at elementary school in the Philippines, Indonesia, and some African countries.

Whether improving ICT in education means investing in state-of-the-art hardware and software, or simply getting the most out of older, affordable, equipment, the lesson is the same: the new globalisation wave is transforming the world and so education must evolve too. Policies that put more focus on individual flexibility in learning, early childhood education and e-technology in learning environments would be a smart step in the right direction.

See: 

Baines, Ed, P. Blatchford and A.Chowne (2007), “Improving the effectiveness of collaborative group work in primary schools: effects on science attainment”, British Educational Research Journal, Vol 33, No 5, pp. 663- 680, London.

Heckman, J., S. H. Moon, R.Pinto, P. A. Savelyev and A. Yavitz (2010), “The rate of return to the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program”, Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, No 94, pp. 114-128, New York.

Hwang, D-J., H-K. Yang and H. Kim (2010), “E-Learning in the Republic of Korea”, UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, Moscow, Russian Federation.

“Global Economic Solutions: Proposals from the Global Economic Symposium (GES) (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011)”, Kiel Institute for the World Economy, www.global-economic-symposium.org

See also: 

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) Participation Program

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa)

The Brazilian Fundação Getulio Vargas

©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012




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