These days, education is no longer just about teaching students something, but about helping them develop a reliable compass and the tools to navigate with confidence through an increasingly complex, volatile and uncertain world. We live in this world in which the kind of things that are easy to teach and test have also become easy to digitise and automate, and where society no longer rewards students just for what they know – Google knows everything – but for what they can do with what they know. Today’s teachers need to help students think for themselves and work with others, and to develop identity, agency and purpose.

That’s why we demand a lot from our teachers. We expect them to have a deep and broad understanding of what they teach and whom they teach, because what teachers know and care about makes such a difference to student learning. That entails professional knowledge, such as knowledge about a discipline, knowledge about the curriculum of that discipline, and knowledge about how students learn in that discipline; and it entails knowledge about professional practice so teachers can create the kind of learning environment that leads to good learning outcomes. It also involves enquiry and research skills that help teachers to be lifelong learners and grow in their profession. Students are unlikely to become lifelong learners if they don’t see their teachers as active lifelong learners.

There are aspects that make the job of teachers much more challenging and different from that of other professionals. Teachers need to be experts at multitasking as they respond to many different learner needs all at the same time. They also do their job in a classroom dynamic that is always unpredictable and that leaves teachers no second to think about how to react. And whatever a teacher does, even with just a single student, will be witnessed by many and can frame the way in which the teacher is perceived in the school from that day forward.

But we expect much more from teachers than what appears in their job description. We also expect them to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond to students from different backgrounds with different needs and promote collaboration and social cohesion; to provide continual assessment and feedback to students; and to ensure that students feel valued and included. Not least, most people remember at least one of their teachers who took a real interest in their life and aspirations, who helped them understand who they are and discover their passions, and who taught them how to love learning. And it is precisely these aspects that motivate the vast majority of people to become teachers: according to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), nine out of ten teachers in participating OECD countries and economies consider the opportunity to influence children’s development and contribute to society a major motivation to join the profession.

It seems many school systems can do more to support teachers in achieving that mission. For a start, school systems should take a greater interest in the professional views of teachers as experts on teaching and learning. Surveys such as TALIS – which establish a teacher perspective on how teaching and learning can be organised to achieve the best outcomes – are still quite rare. The laws, regulations, structures and institutions that education policy tends to focus on are just like the small visible tip of a huge iceberg. The reason it is so hard to move education systems is that there is a much larger invisible part under the waterline. This invisible part is composed of the interests, beliefs, motivations and fears of the people who are involved, teachers included. This is where unexpected collisions occur, because this part tends to evade the radar of public policy.

Policy makers are rarely successful with education reform unless they help people recognise what needs to change, and build a shared understanding and collective ownership for change; unless they focus resources, build capacity, and create the right policy climate with accountability measures designed to encourage innovation and development, rather than compliance; and unless they tackle institutional structures that, too often, are built around the interests and habits of systems rather than learners. Where teachers are not engaged in the design of change, they will rarely help with the implementation of change.

The views of teachers as expressed in TALIS tell us a lot about the gap between pedagogical vision and practice, and between professional aspirations and a still highly industrial organisation of work. To meet a growing demand for high-quality teachers, countries will need to work harder, not just to make teaching financially more attractive, but – most importantly – intellectually more attractive by better supporting a teaching profession of advanced knowledge workers who operate with a high level of professional autonomy and within a collaborative culture. This also means providing teachers with better opportunities to prepare for tomorrow’s world. According to TALIS, little more than half of teachers across the participating OECD countries and economies received training in the use of technology for teaching, and less than half feel well prepared when they join the profession. Contrast this with the view of two thirds of teachers who report that the most impactful professional development they participated in focused on innovation in their teaching.

Successful education systems in the 21st century will do whatever it takes to develop teachers’ ownership over professional practice. I meet many people who say we cannot give teachers and education leaders greater autonomy because they lack the capacity and expertise to deliver on it. There may be some truth in that. But simply perpetuating a prescriptive model of teaching will not produce creative teachers: those trained only to reheat pre-cooked hamburgers are unlikely to become master chefs. By contrast, when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, and when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when productive teaching takes place. So the answer is to strengthen trust, transparency, professional autonomy and the collaborative culture of the profession all at the same time.

The industrial model of schooling makes change in a fast-moving world far too slow. Even the best education minister can no longer do justice to the needs of millions of students, hundreds of thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of schools. The challenge is to build on the expertise of teachers and school leaders and enlist them in the design of superior policies and practices. Imagine a giant open-source community of teachers where they can share their ideas and practice, and which unlocks teachers’ creativity simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for their contributions. This is the next TALIS satellite project through which the OECD will establish a global video library of teaching, Global Teaching InSights.

For me, it is a given that the quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers. So, attracting, developing and retaining the best teachers is the greatest challenge education systems have to face. To meet that challenge, governments can look to other sectors of our societies to see how they build their teams. They know that they have to pay attention to how the pool from which they recruit and select their staff is established; the kind of initial education their recruits get before they present themselves for employment; how to mentor new recruits and induct them into their service; what kind of continuing education their employees get; how their compensation is structured; how they reward their best performers and how they improve the performance of those who are struggling; and how they provide opportunities for the best performers to acquire more status and responsibility.

TALIS reminds us that many teachers and schools are ready for that. To encourage their growth, education policy needs to inspire and enable innovation, and identify and share best practice. That shift in policy will need to be built on trust: trust in education, in educational institutions, in schools and teachers, in students and communities. In all public services, trust is an essential part of good governance. Successful schools will always be places where great people want to work, and where their ideas can be best realised, where they are trusted and where they can put their trust.


Andreas Schleicher

Director for Education and Skills

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