Research and knowledge management

Drivers for Reform Strategies – Learning and Innovation


Keynote address by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the Conference marking the 40th Anniversary of OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) on “Learning in the 21st Century: Research, Innovation and Policy

OECD Conference Centre, 16 May 2008
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I address you at this conference which is the highpoint of a year of celebrations of the 40th birthday of our Centre for Educational Research and Innovation - CERI. It is no coincidence that this anniversary is shared exactly with those marking the upheavals which took place in France and elsewhere 40 years ago. New analyses and understandings, as well as social and political change, were being sought in the heady days of 1968 with education in the forefront. The OECD was caught up in this fever too, out of which CERI was born.

Global progress, global problems

Let me share with you a few insights on how we here perceive the broader global environment. These are important to set your deliberations about learning in their broader OECD context.

We at OECD aim to become the “hub” of a dialogue on global issues. Globalisation has contributed to significant progress but it has also produced a growing number of challenges of increasing complexity and urgency. Climate change, for instance, is a planetary challenge with huge social and economic implications. Poverty worldwide is an obvious and urgent challenge. One billion people don’t have access to clean water, for instance; 2.6 billion have no sanitation services; every year, 14 million people are killed by neglected infectious diseases. These are enormous figures, enormous challenges which affect us all.

The OECD is also addressing the two interlinked challenges of population ageing and international migration. The numbers of working aged people declines while the numbers who have retired continues to grow as we live longer and longer, all with far-reaching consequences for education. The pressures of migration come with the stark global inequalities I’ve just described and are rapidly increasing the diversity of all our societies. At the same time, migration also slows population decline in OECD countries and helps to alleviate the fiscal pressures of the ageing society.

These challenges not only impact directly on the landscape of education. They help to give direction to what learning should be for: learning about and for a better world, for individual and social enlightenment, for creativity and innovation.

Innovation: the seed of prosperity

CERI has innovation in its name and at the heart of its remit - and rightly so. Innovation is the main driver of progress in all aspects of human and economic activity. At the OECD, innovation is becoming a common thread. Most of our committees and publications, from education to environmental issues, from energy to employment and regional competitiveness, are impregnated with this “magic powder” of innovation.

Bearing in mind the growing importance of innovation as a tool to generate growth and meet the great challenges of globalisation, the Ministers of the OECD countries have given us a mandate to develop an Innovation Strategy. This will be a cross-disciplinary package of policy elements and recommendations to understand, compare and boost innovation, including better metrics to identify and benchmark innovation capacity and performance.

I am very pleased that CERI is taking the lead in the OECD’s education work for this Innovation Strategy.

Raising the Quality of Education, not just Quantity

At the very heart of Innovation we have the Education System. Education has moved to the top of policymakers' agendas in OECD and developing countries. Economic reasons are prominent - in a highly competitive globalised economy, knowledge, skills and know-how are key factors for productivity and economic growth – but so are the powerful arguments about social inclusion, cultural development, and individual growth.

Huge progress has been made in raising education levels in OECD countries. But if this were to mean increasing just the quantity of education without regard to its quality it would at best be expensive inefficiency, at worst a lost opportunity and a waste of money. This is why we at the OECD place a very strong emphasis on developing tools to help countries improve the quality of their education systems. You all know about PISA, which examines how well prepared are 15-year-olds to meet the challenges of today's knowledge societies. This is now being joined by PIAAC, the OECD programme focusing on adults and assessing achievement in the cognitive and workplace skills needed for successful participation in today's work environment.

CERI is about Research and Innovation

To strengthen our understanding of what works and what does not in Education, we have very interesting contributions by CERI. Its work has not only been about promoting educational research and innovation; it has analysed how well research and innovation are exploited in education systems to raise the quality of learning. It has found fundamental shortcomings in many countries; I will focus on three of them.

First, CERI’s work on knowledge management has shown that education in general and schools in particular are conventionally poor at managing the very thing at the heart of their “business” – knowledge. Too much educational practice takes place in isolation – individual teachers in individual classrooms - using old-fashioned methods in bureaucratic organisations.

Educators tend to be reluctant to exploit the key motors of innovation that many other sectors do:
i) research knowledge in education and related fields,
ii) networking among professionals and organisations,
iii) modular reorganisation of basic structures,
iv) using technology to create the opportunities to work differently.

Education thus needs to develop better its own culture of innovation, though this is certainly beginning to happen.

Second, a related point: educational R&D is not given the support it needs to effect change and promote innovation. Despite the key role of knowledge-based innovation in education, our systems typically have low levels of investment in educational research; low levels of research capacity; and weak links between research, policy and innovation. A great deal is still to be done -  through effective brokerage and promoting collaborative forms of professional development, for instance – to ensure that the research that is going on directly informs the practice of teachers in schools and classrooms.

Third, too much of educational decision-making is preoccupied by the short term, with disincentives to innovate. Today’s world is increasingly complex and uncertain, with a growing number of stakeholders making new demands on education. Yet, so much of education is still determined by short-term thinking – preoccupation with pressing immediate problems or simply seeking more efficient ways of maintaining established practice. This is understandable perhaps but education has such long-term consequences that a better balance needs to be found between responding to the immediate and working towards the strategic and long term.

Finding this balance will mean softening education’s pronounced “risk adversity”. The parallel is often drawn with heart surgery: you can’t tolerate any failures in education - just as you don’t want the surgeon to make any mistakes- and hence the call for robust accountability measures to expose any problems the moment they arise. But if the accountability regimes are testing for a very limited range of knowledge and capacities or are so punitive as to stifle any genuine initiative, they will promote neither quality nor innovation. What is assessed and how it is done are critical factors in promoting or hindering innovation and ultimately the quality of learning. 

I am not pretending that we can wish away the political realities of education systems. We should recognise the sheer complexity of organising learning on a mass scale. Ensuring that thousands or millions of learners and teachers work effectively on a daily basis in 21st century learning environments which offer genuine equality of opportunity is a daunting task for any country to achieve.

CERI – from the present to the future

I want in conclusion to come back to the key place that I believe that CERI has in the OECD and its family of educational programmes. We have at the OECD developed a very strong capacity for producing comparative educational statistics and indicators. We have strengthened our capacity for policy analysis and advice. The third main leg of the three-legged stool to complement these other two is our capacity to look to and clarify the longer-term issues, and promote educational research and innovation. In a fast-changing knowledge society, all organisations must develop their capacity to understand the bigger picture, to anticipate future changes and to innovate – this is CERI’s particular contribution.

It has been doing this for 40 years and I can refer to valuable contributions it has made internationally within the past decade. Its forward-looking scenarios for the future of schooling and of higher education – Schooling for Tomorrow and University Futures – have been highly influential in providing tools for long-term thinking which seems so difficult even for the educational community. Its work on the international “learning market” has exploited our privileged international vantage point to offer analysis of genuine significance and high relevance. Providing a forum for leading experts to elaborate the concept of social capital – networking and trust – has provided a very useful counterweight to the conventional economic focus on human capital, as well as broadening the understanding of education and learning outcomes.

I referred earlier to educational innovation and R&D, drawing on CERI work which made powerful connections between education, on the one hand, and practices and developments in other sectors. This is something CERI has done so well over the years and widens the terms of debate in countries and shows new possibilities ahead for education. The new focus is on systemic innovation – looking to understand how something as ephemeral and individual as creative innovation can be promoted into the very culture of learning systems.

The project on brain research discussed at this conference has been pathbreaking in recognising an important nascent field with far-reaching consequences and digesting the rapidly-developing knowledge for an educational audience. It has helped to create new knowledge by fostering dialogue between neuroscientists and educators who otherwise would have occupied separate worlds.

This conference shows that these are not just past achievements. There is ambitious new work on New Millennium Learners, which is bringing analytical rigour to understand the importance of the digital age as experienced by the learners themselves. Innovative Learning Environments is a new project pushing at the limits and boundaries of the conventional variables of reform and will offer new models for the future.

These examples summarise the particular value of CERI: 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.

I look forward to CERI continuing to make this contribution for many years to come.

Thank you.


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