Innovating education

OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

André Faber

The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008. Its future is still very much ahead of it.

A professor of a well-known business school in Spain once remarked that the one thing people forget to do in a crisis is “think”. He could have added “think innovatively”. For 40 years, that is precisely what OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has been doing: helping educators and policymakers think and so better tackle challenges and prepare for the future. How are patterns of teaching and learning changing in the face of scientific advances, new technologies and diverse student populations? What about innovation in the classroom? What might education systems and institutions look like in the future? These are just some of the questions CERI has tackled every day since it was founded four decades ago.

These questions have particular resonance today, especially in light of anxiety over the present economic and financial turmoil. Indeed, in some ways, 2008 resembles 1968 when CERI was established. That timing was no coincidence: new analyses and approaches as well as social and political change were being sought in the heady days of the 1968 social upheavals, with education in the forefront. The OECD was caught up in this desire for innovation, and CERI was born. To put it in context, in the late 1960s education was rapidly expanding in part to keep up with the demand of the post-war “baby boom” and in part in growing recognition of education’s central role in developing human capital. In addition there was accumulating evidence regarding education’s part in structuring social inequality. This was a dominant theme emerging from educational research at that time, a research field still in its infancy in the 1960s but taking off in leaps and bounds. The desire for experimentation saw spawning educational innovations all over the world.

In this exciting context, the idea of creating an international centre specifically on educational research and innovation and connected to the policy world by its privileged location at the OECD was forged. It needed vision and entrepreneurialism from its architects, including Ron Gass, CERI’s Director for its first 20 years (see article by Ron Gass), and a financial leg-up from two major foundations–the Ford Foundation and Royal Dutch Shell.

CERI has its own place at the table of OECD educational programmes. Its remit is to address the bigger picture, with forward-looking studies bringing in different disciplines and stakeholders. This neatly complements the comparative statistics, analyses and educational reviews carried out in the rest of the department. Perhaps less well-known is how CERI has served as a “nursery bed” for the more mainstream education work at the OECD over the years, nurturing new areas and handing them on as they come to stand on their own feet. This happened, for instance, with the OECD publication entitled Education at a Glance, which began life in CERI in 1992 and was built up there for a decade before moving on to the high profile position it enjoys today.

Instead of addressing policy areas defined within the familiar institutional boundaries–such as early childhood policies, vocational education and training, higher education, teacher or leadership policies, evaluation–CERI has taken a transversal approach to address complex issues which is otherwise difficult in the departmentalised and often politicised world of national education systems. A selection from CERI titles over the years gives a flavour of its transversal, forward-looking spirit (see note below).

To take some of these examples, CERI in the 1970s was seeking to put lifelong learning in place long before the current policy focus which took off in the 1990s. The early work on disability (as the term ‘handicapped’ was no longer accepted parlance) was calling for radical educational reorganisation in order to allow disabled students as far as possible to be in school alongside their contemporaries and showing how it could be done. CERI analysis of “new technologies” as they were called then, broke new ground in understanding how they might transform the teaching of reading, writing, science and mathematics, again well before the recent priority for investing in information and communication technologies to modernise education.

Recent CERI studies have been no less ambitious, bringing new dimensions and sometimes uncomfortable conclusions to emerging issues. Take knowledge management, for instance, where CERI work took the research into organisations and practices in other advanced sectors to argue that education’s own knowledge management is largely inadequate for a world in which knowledge is central. In What Schools for the Future? we presented a set of six scenarios of what schooling might look like in 2020, which have been extensively used since in OECD and non-OECD countries to widen the horizons of educational planning.

CERI’s work on trade in educational services jarred at first with many in education uncomfortable with the economic language and stakes at play. The notion that education was emerging as a global business was unpalatable to many. But the analysis revealed the size of the international learning market–around 2.4 million foreign higher education students in OECD countries–and the enormous disparities between the exporters and importers of educational services. Open technologies and the shared creation of knowledge, the implications for intellectual property rights, copyright and business and marketing plans: all have come under CERI’s pathfinding spotlight.

But CERI has not just looked inside institutions, classrooms and technology. We also took a hard look at what really makes up human capital. For a two-part study, Understanding the Brain, CERI brought together neuroscientists and educators to explore a rapidly-burgeoning field of research and to create synergies between disciplines normally worlds apart. As this magazine has reported, we described the brain as “a sculpture carved by experience”. We emphasised the importance of understanding adolescence as a period of “high horsepower and poor steering”. Furthermore education is not only for the young, as the field of neuroscience is charting how even ageing brains retain a remarkable capacity to learn.

So what of the future? Ambitious new work is examining new millennium learners in the digital age, teacher education for diverse student populations and “learning to innovate” programmes. Publications, seminars and conferences are in the pipeline. CERI will also be leading the educational contribution to the OECD-wide programme on Innovation, developing understanding both of the skills and capacities needed for people and countries to be more innovative and how education and training systems themselves can improve their capacity to innovate.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría defined CERI’s mission well at a conference on learning in May 2008: “to identify glimmering but significant signals just off the radar screen, to shed light and bring them into focus; to make connections between different and often novel perspectives; to provide an international forum for developing new ideas and knowledge; and all this with an eye always on policy rather than as isolated academic pursuits.”

Not everyone has time to think in a crisis, but one thing seems clear: the world of the future will be even more knowledge driven than ever before. CERI is thinking now about that future, and stands ready to light the way forward for educators and policymakers for many years to come.


Some of CERI’s thinking over the years can be found in these OECD publications:

  • Recurrent Education: A Strategy for Lifelong Learning, 1973.
  • The Education of the Handicapped Adolescent: Integration in the School, 1981.
  • New Information Technologies: A challenge for education, 1986.
  • One School, Many Cultures, 1989.
  • Education at a Glance, 1992 and subsequently.
  • Environmental Learning for the 21st Century, 1995.
  • Knowledge Management in the Learning Society, 2000.
  • The Well-being of Nations: the role of human and social capital, 2001.
  • What Schools for the Future? 2001.
  • Internationalisation and Trade in Higher Education – Opportunities and Challenges, 2004.
  • Understanding the Brain: The Birth of a Learning Science, 2007.
  • Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, 2007.
  • All titles available at or by contacting the OECD Observer
  • See also
©OECD Observer No 270/271 December 2008-January 2009








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