From rote learning to robotics

 Fabien Dworczak, teacher and researcher, Lyon, France

A session at the 2016 OECD Forum entitled “Teaching & Learning with Robots” brought Nao, a humanoid robot, to meet with a class of young students from the Sections Internationales de Sèvres (SIS) school. Catherine Potter-Jadas, head of the primary school, noted the children’s reactions to the robot.

Educators will take comfort from views such as: “For the moment, the robot can’t replace teachers because, in a country like France, children are too immature, and because they need a real human to control them. A robot wouldn’t have the authority.” In fact, most of the children saw the robot as useful assistant, rather than a substitute: “I think it’s great that a robot helps children in schools. They’ll find it interesting and become more open” said one, echoed by a classmate who thought that “Nao could be really helpful to education.” And of course some were more attracted to the entertainment value: “When the presenter said ‘Nao can carry anything lighter than a wooden spoon,’ he flexed his muscles! I liked the way the robot laughed and showed his muscles, it made me think of an odd little creature.”

Robots first made their appearance in industry, starting in the automobile sector in the 1960s. For decades, industrial robots were bulky and expensive. They were operated from stationary posts inside the workshop, and they carried out a small number of repetitive tasks, sometimes dangerous ones like soldering and cutting metal. With improvements in technologies, a second generation of robots was born. Less bulky and expensive, more autonomous, adaptable and cooperative, these robots are programmable and can be used by workers without any specific qualifications. They can also play new roles in services, health (surgical operations), education, training, commercial information, services to the elderly…

The children’s comments and questions raised a number of issues about the evolving role of technology in society and the economy, and how to equip people to take advantage of the profound impacts digital technologies will have on all of us. The majority of concerns related to robots are based on loss of jobs in developed economies. That said, there could be a “relocation” of low-skilled jobs to countries that have robots.

It is quite clear that challenges to the development of robots remain, in particular in the areas of perception, specific object recognition in a visually cluttered environment, object manipulation, and cognition. But smarter and more autonomous robots will soon be a reality thanks to improvements in a number of areas, including computational performance, electromechanical design tools and computer numerical control machines, storage of electrical energy and energy efficiency of power electronics, availability and quality of local digital (wireless) communication, scale and effectiveness of the Internet, and data storage capacities and their computational power.

In the commercial and industrial sector, beyond the improvements in reliability of manufacturing processes, robots have already shortened delays in the manufacturing of finished products, which allows for greater reactivity to detailed variations in demand. The market for personal domestic robots is growing from year to year (20% a year), while the prices should drop in the near future.

But even if people with no particular training will be able to use the next-generation of robots, those who have not mastered ICTs will find themselves more and more limited in their access to many basic services, to rewarding jobs, and to opportunities to improve their skills through training. Without ignoring the problems that arise from the disappearance of certain jobs and the serious repercussions on people and society, we must acknowledge that these innovations are full of opportunities for productivity development; they could create the new jobs of tomorrow.

It stands to reason that workers who acquire the skills necessary to adapt to changes in their line of work will be less vulnerable to replacement by digital technology. The innovations sparked by digital technologies could also present the potential for development and management of social improvements, in areas like public administration, health, education, and research. The creation of huge amounts of data and the capacity to extract knowledge and information from this data (known as big data) will launch a new wave of innovation, the creation of new services, the emergence of new products and markets…

Employee skills management will become vital in order for companies to adapt to rapid technological change, with support from complementary public investment in, for example, education and training. Primary and secondary schools will be responsible for preparing young people for an interconnected world where they will live with people of different origins and cultures, an undeniably “globalised” world.

The children from SIS didn’t sound at all worried by the prospects of more and better robots, quite the contrary: “I found it quite amazing and fabulous that technology is able to do such things. The people who built Nao must be very proud of their invention.”

Useful links

OECD work on innovation in education

What teachers – and the rest of us – can learn from the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey – TALIS

TALIS 2013Today’s post is by Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

We entrust our children – and our countries’ future – to teachers; but do we really know how they feel about teaching, or what teaching practices they consider effective, or what makes them successful in their work? Today we reveal the results from our Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), which asked more than 100,000 teachers in 34 participating countries about how their daily work is recognised, appraised and rewarded, about their attitudes towards teaching, and about their own experiences as lifelong learners. The results are important.

For example, if a teacher is convinced that students learn better when they are encouraged to think through and solve problems on their own, then they are likely to use more active, student-centred approaches to teaching and learning, such as having students work in small groups or doing project work. Indeed, TALIS shows that over 90% of teachers believe that students should be allowed to think of solutions to a problem themselves before teachers show them the solution. But in Italy, Norway and Sweden, only between 45% and 59% of teachers agree that students learn best by trying to solve problems on their own.

No matter how good teachers’ initial teacher education was, it won’t have prepared them for all the challenges they face in the classroom. TALIS shows that induction and mentoring programmes can provide teachers new to a school or new to teaching with invaluable assistance; and participating in professional development activities throughout a career hones teachers’ skills even further. These activities do not have to be costly or involve external experts. For example, TALIS shows that mentoring systems can be based on collaboration with other teachers in school. Teachers can also form, or join already established, collaborative research groups and teacher networks, and/or simply observe their colleagues as they teach.

TALIS also shows that constructive and fair teacher appraisals and feedback have a positive effect on teachers’ job satisfaction and on their confidence in their abilities as teachers. Some 88% of teachers, on average, said that they receive feedback in their school. But in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Spain and Sweden between 22% and 45% of teachers said that they have never received feedback in their current school. That’s very disappointing, because feedback makes such a difference. On average across countries, 62% of teachers said that the feedback they receive in their school led to moderate or large positive changes in their teaching practices: more than one in two teachers said moderate to large improvements in their use of student assessments (59%) and in classroom management practices (56%), and 45% of teachers said that feedback led to moderate or large improvements in the methods they use for teaching students with special needs. What this tells us is that teachers can use appraisals and feedback as tools to improve teaching practices that will, in turn, improve student learning. They should also work with other teachers to develop a system of peer feedback on all aspects of teaching, from lesson planning and classroom practice to student evaluation.

While in many countries there is a lot of debate about the ideal class size, TALIS finds that class size has no measurable impact on teaching efficacy. But teachers who reported that they teach classes where more than one in ten students are low academic achievers or have behavioural problems also reported significantly lower levels of confidence in their abilities to teach, or what is known as self-efficacy. Yet TALIS also finds that having good relations with students and with other teachers in school can at least partly offset the negative impact of teaching these kinds of classes.

Most encouragingly, nine out of ten teachers across countries said that, overall, they are satisfied with their jobs, and nearly eight in ten said they would still choose to become teachers if they had to make the decision all over again…even though fewer than one in three teachers believes that teaching is a valued profession in society.

So what can teachers learn from these findings? Since TALIS finds that teachers who participate more in decision making in their school are also more likely to believe that society values teachers, they should be open to work together with colleagues and school leaders. If formal collaborative activities aren’t already established, they should take the initiative to create them. They should also take advantage of professional development opportunities, especially if they are provided in the school and involve colleagues.

And what can the rest of us learn? That we need to value our teachers more and treat them like the professionals they are.

Useful links

Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

AHELO: Telling you what you need to know about higher education outcomes

Click to go to the AHELO website

Rankings of higher education institutions always grab the headlines, but they only include a small selection of the world’s colleges, and may not tell you what you’d like to know about what it’s like to study there.

We asked Karine Tremblay to tell us about AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes), an ambitious OECD project that could prove far more useful than simple league tables.

What is AHELO?

AHELO is the first attempt at measuring at international level what third-year undergraduate degree students have learned and are capable of doing. It will produce measures at institution or department level, not at national level, unlike other OECD studies such as PISA or PIAAC.

At this stage, we’re testing the feasibility of measuring learning outcomes in institutions in different countries, with different missions, languages and cultural backgrounds. In fact non-OECD countries make up nearly a third of the participants – Colombia, Egypt, Kuwait, Russia, and Saudi Arabia as observer.

We’re focusing to begin with on generic skills (the so-called 21st Century skills – critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving and written communication) and skills in economics and engineering.

When can we see the results?

We’ll be releasing the results of this feasibility study in 2012. These won’t be data products. The idea is to show that it’s possible to devise a set of test instruments applicable across a range of different institutions, cultures and languages and that the practical implementation of these tests is feasible.

We’ll provide feedback to the institutions who helped us with this part on how their students perform relative to international benchmarks if the data proves comparable across countries, but we won’t be going public with these results.

If a main study is launched, we would publish performance data on learning outcomes, along with context information to interpret performances – type and mission of institution, selectivity, characteristics of student intake, and so on.

How will you rank institutions?

We won’t. Current rankings like the Shanghai or Times Higher focus on inputs such as libraries or faculty characteristics and research performance, measured by numbers of citations, number of Nobel prizes, and the like. That’s fine if you’re picking a PhD programme for instance. For prospective undergraduates or employers though, it’s highly misleading to use such measures as proxies of higher education quality.

But in the absence of any better information, we see higher education institutions all over the world in a race to research excellence to make it to the top of the rankings, to the detriment of their teaching mission.

So, how is AHELO more useful than rankings?

AHELO data will allow a much more accurate assessment of higher education quality, focusing on one of the key missions of institutions: teaching. And in fact, thanks to the context data, it will be possible to analyse what is distinctive about high-performing institutions and spot best practices.

That makes it possible to identify what works, for which students and in which contexts. There is a huge potential for reducing dropout rates and enhancing more equitable outcomes. Remember that across the OECD, 3 out of 10 students entering higher education will drop out without a degree. With $53 000 spent per higher education student on average, the costs of failure are huge. The social costs for those dropping out are equally high.

Who will use AHELO results?

Anyone  interested in higher education. Students can make better informed decisions. Institutions can improve their teaching and learning processes. Governments can effectively account for public expenditure on tertiary education. Employers are better informed as to the capacities and capabilities job candidates.

Are you optimistic about progress so far?

Yes. All the insights from our work so far suggest that AHELO is feasible, and interest is growing steadily. We’ve reached our target of 15 participating countries in the feasibility study, and received expressions of interest from twice as many, which is very promising for a main study.

One reason for this is that we’ve tried to involve as wide a range of participants as possible. Governments, institutions and academics serve on our expert groups. Students are at the core of the feasibility study, and we consult stakeholders regularly to report on progress and seek their feedback.

Interest is particularly high in the MENA region as well as in Latin America. Egypt for example remains highly committed despite the political turmoil. We’re also pleased to have Colombia with its strong track record in national assessments of higher education.

How have teachers and students reacted?

One of the big surprises was that obtaining agreement on frameworks and instruments was easier than we expected – getting academics from different countries to agree on what to measure in the disciplines, and to agree on a test. We included economics to see if agreement was possible in a social science.

Students have taken the generic skills test in their own language and provided qualitative validation that the test is meaningful and relevant to them. Students are now validating the disciplinary assessments as well. Here, initial feedback suggests that the tasks stimulate students’ interest and desire to participate. 

What comes next?

AHELO seems feasible, and we’re moving to phase 2 with larger groups of students. The goal is to deepen our analyses and provide a quantitative proof of concept – demonstrate that practical implementation is feasible and that the tests yield relevant and statistically acceptable results.

Useful links

UNESCO Global Forum: Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, Paris, 16-17 May 2011, organised with the OECD and World Bank, will address university rankings in light of their impact on policy and decision-making at institutional, national and regional levels.

OECD work on education

Good morning. How are you? Shut Up.

Tanta Prep School

I used to teach English in Egypt. To be more accurate, I used to teach pupils to pass their English tests. We had a book called Living English, based on a series of dialogues. These usually started out well then exploded in mid-flight. “What school are you in? I am in Tanta Prep School. The walls are big and the ceilings are high”.

Not that that bothered the kids. They understood, well before me, that you had to treat the thing like a catechism. So all over the country, when you asked any child where they went to school, they all replied Tanta Prep. Some of my colleagues dreamed of organising a pilgrimage to this mythical school, but we never got round to it.

The result, naturally, was that pupils who got a perfect score in the exam couldn’t hold a simple conversation with a native speaker. Except me. One of my fondest memories is of a post office in Cairo where two boys who’d obviously tried their English on every foreigner they’d seen asked me “How are you, mister?” It was liking watching the sun rise on their faces when I replied “Fine thank you. How’s Nabil? He’s fine too”.

I thought this kind of caricature of learning had long since disappeared, but looking at the results of the “Raise your hand” exercise organised by the OECD Education Directorate, I’m not so sure. People from over 90 countries, including Egypt, cast 27,000 votes on what the priorities for education should be.

“Teach to think, not to regurgitate” is top of the list, and judging from the most popular proposals, the other flaws in the system where I taught are still widespread. For instance, many participants mention equal opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In my school, children whose parents couldn’t afford private tuition had practically no chance of succeeding.

And it wasn’t just a question of money either. At a university where I also taught, one of my co-examiners wanted to fail a student in the spoken English exam on the grounds that her parents were peasants and she shouldn’t be allowed to become a teacher.

It happens in OECD countries too, though probably not so blatantly. A working paper from OECD’s Deborah Nusche talks about the “dreary results” in the education of migrants and even students whose parents were migrants. The good news, as Deborah points out, is that this situation is not inevitable.

If you’d like to find out more, the Education Directorate has produced a short introduction to their work that’s also a practical summary of the main concerns in education today and how teaching will have to evolve to respond to new needs and expectations in the years to come.

And for tomorrow, learn this: “Let us go and say hello to our old classmates. Goodbye.”

Useful links

OECD work on education

Education at a glance 2010: OECD Indicators

educationtoday – OECD’s education lighthouse for the way out of the crisis