Did the OECD Turn Against Technology?

The headlines about the latest OECD report were loud and clear:“Computers do not improve pupil results.” These controversial headlines were the outcome of a study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) examining the impact of school technology on international test results such as the PISA test taken in more than 70 countries. The study concluded that investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve students’ performance and that students using  computers and tablets very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately. For an organization such as the OECD, whose declared mission is that people of all ages can develop the skills to work productively and satisfyingly in the jobs of tomorrow, this conclusion sounds almost like blasphemy. When looked at only from the perspective of these headlines, it sounds as if the OECD does not believe in advancing into the 21st century and that they joined the ‘going back to the basics’ movement.

As I was skimming through the articles covering this piece of news, interpretations differed depending on the author’s bias. Some were happy to focus on the headlines that computers did not improve student learning because they never believed in them anyway and a back to basics approach would benefit students much more. Those who actually read the report or saw the OECD’s brief about the subject:“New approach needed to deliver on technology’s potential in school,” found out that the OECD did not develop an anti computer attitude overnight, but rather believes that the methods we are currently using to incorporate technology in the curriculum fails to produce desired learning outcomes.

To fully understand the conclusions of this report,It is important to understand what are the skills that the PISA test claims to measure. According to the OECD, the tests are “designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.” Being held every three years, the PISA test is administered to 15 year olds in 70 countries. Students cognitive skills are being assessed through tests in Math,Science and Reading. A newer test also assesses students’ problem solving and collaboration skills.

One can ask, what is it that makes these conclusions of the OECD so impactful all over the world? Why are so many countries initiating new education reforms based on the latest outcomes of the PISA test? With all its influence, the test is quite controversial. In a letter to Dr. Andreas Schleicher, director of the Programme for International Student Assessment, academics from around the world expressed deep concern about the impact of PISA tests, calling for a halt of testing. They claim that the “OECD’s narrow focus on standardized testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning.”

Dr. Yong Zhao, presidential chair and director of the institute for global and online education in the university of Oregon, is also a big critic. He says that “PISA has become the star-maker in the education universe because of its bold claim to assess” students’ ability to handle the demands of the modern economy. Although PISA assesses students’ cognitive skills, creativity and entrepreneurship have a lot more to do with non-cognitive skills. Confidence, resilience, grit, mindset, personality traits, social skills and motivation have been found to be at least as important as cognitive skills in the workplace. He concludes by saying that countries are misled to believe that scores are the only worthy outcome of education and put shame to nations that  spend more on education as inefficient.

Indeed, the criticism above is valid and makes a lot of sense. The success of entrepreneurial ventures depends on a wide range of characteristics, that cognitive skills are just part of. However, as innovative a person’s entrepreneurial venture may be, lacking the ability to solve business related problems and make wise decisions, can be detrimental to the future of any business. The world is changing at a fast pace and with it the way business is handled. An entrepreneur needs to deal with a whole new set of variables, technologies and business practices, that to a large extent depend on how able he is in tackling the daily problem solving situations he needs to face. Being in possession of those cognitive skills can be invaluable to accomplish the work successfully.

The drive to incorporate technology into the curriculum is dictated by the need to address the requirements of this changing new world. When new technology is adopted at the workplace, it is almost always in response to a need or as means to improve work efficiency. Being last to adopt technology, schools are still confused how to incorporate it the right way. This is partly due to an industrial age education system having difficulty understanding the changes that are happening at the workplace and how those affect the skills that students need to possess. In addition to the challenges that come with adopting computers and new technologies, the focus on a whole new set of skills, such as:critical thinking, communication, collaboration, innovation, etc.,creates a tremendous load of new things that schools need to wrestle with. In view of how fast the world is pacing towards a digital future, the urgency for schools to adjust has created hasty adoption practices, lacking a systematic analysis of the needs and how best to approach them.

Borrowing a chapter from the workplace practice of adopting new technologies in response to a  need, it becomes clear that technology adoption in schools should address pedagogical needs and not vice versa. Many schools have difficulty relinquishing the old ways of teaching and their response for adopting technology is by trying to force new technologies to work with the old ways of teaching. One example is that the adoption of word processors in schools focused primarily on making minor stylistic, grammatical and spelling corrections, while hardly using its potential for structural transformation of the text, or in using computers to show students how to solve problems by hand, that the computer should be doing anyway, instead of teaching them to get answers to real life problems.

Although the PISA test has the look and feel of a standardized test, students are not required to base their responses on memorization. The questions posed to students are thought provoking, for which answers depend on how well they are able to rely on those deep learning cognitive skills. These are also the same types of questions that people encounter in different situation in life, such as picking the best health plan, the best mortgage, or any other life or business decisions that we are expected to make throughout our entire life. The secret for performing best on these types of questions is pedagogy. Students can become excellent problem solvers without ever touching a computer, which probably explains why all those countries that have not emphasized computer use, did so well on the PISA test. It is no surprise that one of the main findings for the low achievement of frequent computer users was a lack of understanding of pedagogy and instructional design. However, once the foundation for good understanding was laid down, computers enable presenting information in unique perspectives that otherwise would be impossible to experience. These alternative views can become the spark that ignites many aha moments and the seeds of new innovations.