by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Division, Directorate for Education and Skills
If one were to ask ministers of education what they consider to be the most important factor determining the quality of their education systems, the odds are high that they would refer to the quality of the teaching work force. The saying goes that the quality of an education system can never exceed that of its teachers. Ensuring that the most talented candidates are attracted to the teaching profession is now widely recognised to be the most effective strategy to improve education.
But how does one assess how teachers compare to the rest of the working population? We still lack reliable, robust and comparable measures of some of the essential elements of teachers’ knowledge and skills. A new tool developed by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, known as the Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning (ITEL) assessment, focuses on teachers’ pedagogical knowledge. It will provide comparative measures of some core elements of the knowledge and skills that we expect from teachers. In the meantime, the results of the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), provide some insights into the skills of countries’ workforces – including teachers – in key areas, such as numeracy, literacy and problem solving. These data make it possible to compare the skills of teachers with those of other college and university graduates and with the working population as a whole.
A recent OECD report, prepared for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, held earlier this year in Berlin, found that teachers’ skills in numeracy tend to be similar to those of other tertiary-educated professionals. The Survey of Adult Skills also assessed adults’ proficiency in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. The most recent Education Indicators in Focus brief compares teachers’ ICT and problem-solving skills with those of the working population as a whole and with other tertiary-educated professionals. The chart above confirms that, as with numeracy skills, teachers’ problem-solving skills using ICT more or less match those of other tertiary-educated professionals. On average, 51% of teachers, compared to 31% of the adult population as a whole, demonstrated good problem-solving and ICT skills (proficiency was characterised as “good” when adults demonstrated a high level of problem-solving competence and at least a basic level of ICT skills). But on average, the share of other tertiary-educated professionals who demonstrated “good” ICT skills was 3 percentage points larger than that of teachers. In only four countries/subnational entities (Canada, England/Northern Ireland, Japan and Korea) did teachers outperform their tertiary-educated peers. In many other countries and subnational entities (Denmark, Estonia, Flanders [Belgium], Ireland and Poland) teachers’ problem-solving and ICT skills were significantly weaker than those of other tertiary-educated professionals.
Age could be part of the explanation. After accounting for age, teachers are 4 percentage points more likely than other tertiary-educated adults to have good problem-solving skills using ICT. This finding reinforces the conclusion, consistently noted in Education at a Glance, that policy makers need to take seriously the implications of an ageing teaching force.
When only one in two teachers – and, in several countries, even fewer – are capable of solving problems using ICT, then it is not unreasonable to question their capacity to address complex issues in their professional environment. For example, if teachers lack these skills, they cannot be expected to move away from a routine-based professional practice, controlled by bureaucratic procedures, to a much more autonomous professional culture. And the use of technology to improve teaching and learning environments will depend on teachers’ skills to use ICT creatively and to its fullest potential.
The recent sobering findings from PISA about the role of computers in improving learning outcomes might be partly attributed to a lack of excellence in ICT skills among teachers. But the age gradient in problem-solving and ICT skills is also good news: younger generations of teachers seem to be closing the skills gap. New generations of teachers who are better trained and who participate in professional development activities throughout their careers will probably be able to adopt innovative practices that are more suited to 21st-century learning environments. Governments should not blame older teachers for having poor problem-solving and ICT skills; equally, they cannot afford to miss the opportunity to fill the teaching posts left vacant by retirees with younger, more tech-savvy problem solvers.
Teachers’ ICT and problem-solving skills: Competencies and needs. Education Indicators in Focus, issue No.40, by Elian Bogers, Gabriele Marconi and Simon Normandeau.
Compétences en TIC et en résolution de problèmes : où en sont les enseignants ? Les indicateurs de l'éducation à la loupe issue No. 40 (French version)
Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning - Teacher Knowledge Survey
Teaching Excellence through Professional Learning and Policy Reform
Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators
Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection
Chart source: OECD Education database, www.oecd.org/site/piaac/publicdataandanalysis.htm.