The OECD and Irish education


Sir, – The soon to be released OECD report on the Irish education system will, no doubt, reignite the debate around the Leaving Cert and whether it is fit for purpose in the 21st century (“Leaving Cert ‘too narrow and rigid’, OECD review finds”, News, November 30th). Ignoring the fact, for the moment, that there seems to be no clear agreement on what the purpose of that exam actually is, it is worth first asking ourselves about who the OECD are when it comes to education.

Obviously, the OECD looks at education from the perspective of economic development and growth but what else do we know about it? The first thing to know is that the key person in all of this is Dr Andreas Schleicher, director for the OECD directorate of education and skills, a statistician by training.

The second thing to know is that the OECD defines good teaching as being “clear, well-structured classroom management; supportive, student-oriented classroom climate; and cognitive activation with challenging content”.

Dr Schleicher has a particular view of education that can be summed up in this quote from an interview in a Sydney newspaper: “We’re thinking about 2030, knowledge about maths and science is easy to digitise but the future is different, the modern world doesn’t reward us for what we know, we can get that from Google, but how we apply knowledge.”

The belief is that, in the age of Google, knowledge (retained in long-term memory) is rendered obsolete, and education should focus on developing the skills required to use knowledge that can be sourced from the internet in seconds.

Many eminent cognitive scientists and teachers disagree profoundly with Dr Schleicher’s view, including Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia, Paul Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands, and countless others, including Daisy Christodoulou whose short book, Seven Myths about Education, is an essential read for all teachers. Indeed, I suspect that if you did a poll of third-level lecturers, you would find the vast majority would disagree with the premise that students don’t need to have lots of knowledge in their long-term memories because, as the saying goes, knowledge is what we actually think with.

So what about the OECD’s definition of good teaching? It looks like there is very little to argue with but the phrase “student-oriented classroom climate” is reminiscent of the phrase “student-centred learning” used by those who advocate for a so-called constructivist approach to teaching and learning. While the phrase “student-centred” sounds like a benign term, it is often used as an umbrella term for such pedagogies as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning and the like.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests form the basis for the OECD’s education policy, and it is interesting to take a dive into their findings on the efficacy of student-centred approaches. In Pisa 2012, it was found that the more teacher-led the instruction, the better the performance in maths. In Pisa 2015, it was found that when it came to science teaching, the best outcomes were achieved when “the teacher explains how a science idea can be applied to a number of different phenomena” while the worst outcomes occurred when “students are allowed to design their own experiments”. In a report on the use of computers in the classroom, it was concluded that: “Overall, the relationship between computer use at school and performance is graphically illustrated by a hill shape, which suggests that limited use of computers at school may be better than no use at all, but levels of computer use above the current OECD average are associated with significantly poorer results.”

None of these findings received much publicity except online where Australia-based teacher, research and blogger Greg Ashman did some forensic work on the raw Pisa data.

There is little doubt that the OECD must have been disappointed with these findings and when their 2015 data on collaborative problem solving showed that scores in that “skill” correlated very well with scores on science and maths, they must have been tempted to admit that yes, relevant domain knowledge is important.

But it seems it resisted. What is clear for now is that the OECD directorate of education and skills is struggling under the weight of its own cognitive dissonance: it is ignoring its own evidence, and whatever it says about the Irish education system should be taken with a pinch of salt. – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor,

School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.