The PISA tests, which are used to compare countries’ secondary educational performance, are to undergo radical changes in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Andreas Schleicher, the official in charge of the program told Al-Fanar Media in an interview.
“There will be a special emphasis on creative thinking,” he said. “The only thing that won’t change is the age of the children.”
Schleicher is director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and runs the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in which 15-year-olds are tested every three years for their ability in reading, mathematics and science.
The results of the six Arab countries which took part in 2018 were “deeply disturbing,” Schleicher said at the time, and showed that the region had further to go than any other part of the world. Asked whether he saw any reason to revise that assessment today, he replied that he was “quite optimistic” about changes to curriculum design. (See two related articles, “Arab Countries Rank Poorly in Latest PISA Tests” and “Looking at Arab Education Through PISA Tests.”)
“You can see that there has been a lot of reflection in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia in particular,” he said.
Those two countries, together with Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Qatar, have again confirmed their participation in the next PISA tests, which have been postponed from this year until 2022 because of the pandemic. The Palestinian Authority has also signed on. Schleicher said he expected the whole Gulf region to take part, “which is very encouraging,” but that Egypt would delay until 2025.
Changes to Curriculum Design Not Enough
“The incentive structure is still geared to producing students who can repeat what they have memorized. The Arab students were quite good at that.”
Curriculum design was, however, only “the top of the pyramid,” Schleicher said, adding that he was less optimistic about implementation.
“The incentive structure is still geared to producing students who can repeat what they have memorized. The Arab students were quite good at that,” he said.
But the purpose of a modern education “is not to reproduce the established wisdom but to be able to question the established wisdom.”
Among the methodological changes to the tests, there will in the future be little or no reliance on multiple-choice questions. In the past, critics of PISA have accused the program of cultural bias in using multiple-choice questions to assess children’s ability, but Schleicher said the reason for scrapping them was that “they test the kind of things that technology is now doing for us.”
The aim of a science test, he said, should not be to tell whether a student had memorized scientific facts, but to see whether she or he could think like a scientist and could, for example, conceive a new scientific experiment.
There would be a new focus in the reading component of PISA to see whether students could distinguish fact from opinion, he said.
PISA data show that the time spent online by the average 15-year-old rose sharply from 21 hours a week in the 2012 cycle of tests to 35 hours a week six years later, and the OECD says children should be taught strategies to enable them to detect biased information or fake news.
Pandemic ‘Dramatically Amplified Inequalities’
Asked what lessons could be drawn from the pandemic, Schleicher said it had “dramatically amplified inequalities in education.” Children who had access to digital technology and who had good family support were able to continue their schooling despite closed doors. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
But it was not all bad news: “We have seen more social and technological innovation in the past year than in the previous ten years, or even in the previous hundred.”
The pandemic had made it clear that “learning is not a transactional process, it is about social relations,” he said, and “there is a big lesson there for the Arab countries.” Children learn more easily and better when their teachers know them, and interact socially with them, than when the teachers are remote.
“Any country can apply to join the program. They need to meet some technical criteria, but basically any country that is serious about it can take part.”
Schleicher was interviewed on June 7, the eve of a three-day OECD conference on digital education for a strong recovery. The aim of the conference is to examine advances in educational technology based on artificial intelligence, robotics and blockchain.
Among the applications are using digital technology for students with special needs, such as autistic children. Some of the most important insights into educational technology have come from outside the 38-nation OECD, from China or Singapore, for example, Schleicher said.
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The PISA tests were first used in 2000. Since then, more than three million children from over 90 countries have taken part. The main focus in 2018 was on reading skills; next year it will be on mathematics and in 2025 on science.
“Any country can apply to join the program,” Schleicher said. “They need to meet some technical criteria, but basically any country that is serious about it can take part.”