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Why the OECD’s education agenda matters to students, communities, and teachers in British Columbia,
Tom Kertes, Teacher in Prince Rupert, BC

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a transnational organization comprised mostly of the richest countries in the world, recently came to British Columbia to hold a conference on educational policy and to unveil its model of a “learning compass” for the world’s students. The conference brought together hundreds of delegates from across the globe, including many local delegates, for a bird’s eye view into the organization’s agenda for public education. Attended by Premier Horgan and Minister Fleming, along with other policy makers at all levels of public education, the conference provided a rare chance to view a side-by-side comparison of the government’s vision and the OECD’s vision.

The OECD, known for ranking countries by educational performance using its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, has its own global agenda for education. This agenda includes standardizing educational outcomes, a vision clearly reflected by how the OECD attempts to measure and compare educational systems of different countries. Standardized measurements promote standardized approaches, which can result in damaging consequences for local schools and their communities. No matter how well-intentioned (or utopian) of a vision that the OECD may have for the world’s children, standards at the global level must be stripped of cultural contexts— simply because that is the only way for any set of standards to function at this level.

That’s a shame, especially given the actual diversity of the world’s cultures. This diversity is far more valuable than any stripped-down approximation of education. Educational measurements, at the global scale, can either be stripped down to the most rudimentary of outcomes or they must narrowly privilege one set of cultural norms above all others. Either way, such measurements will miss most of what’s really happening in the world’s schools. Stripped back measurements result in a lessoning of standards, to the lowest common denominator. Privileging certain cultural values over all others devalues most of the world’s cultures and is oppressive.

It should be no wonder then, given the OECD’s interest in influencing educational policy, that part of the British Columbia conference included the launching of a new “compass” framework to guide how teaching and learning are understood. The new framework, launched to an audience that included superintendents and principals from across the province, follows the OECD pattern of both de-contextualizing educational policy and imposing a single global agenda onto all children. In British Columbia, this framework makes little sense, especially for education that must be grounded in the Indigenous knowledges and experiences of each First Nation for it to be relevant to—and respectful of—our shared histories. As we strive to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal students, and to enhance the teachings of traditional and contemporary Indigenous perspectives for all students, a global compass is of no good. Not only is the OECD’s “compass” framework metaphorically colonial, especially when it was launched with reference to explorers who used the compass to guide their ships to new lands, but it is also incompatible with reconciliation.

Reconciliation requires more than looking back at the past or apologizing for the wrong doings of the Indian Residential School System. It also requires more than closing the graduation gap for First Nations and other Indigenous students. Reconciling the contradiction between colonial violence with liberal idealism requires ending colonialism. We must therefore go to the roots of the problem. This means that beyond providing equitable access to public education and supporting each student with the resources required to achieve the high standards that they can exceed, reconciliation requires transforming our schools to reflect the teachings of the land itself, as known by the keepers of this knowledge—the cultural legacies of the First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia. A “learning compass” framework, built somewhere else by the OECD for some other purpose, cannot contain this knowledge. We have nothing to gain by adopting the approaches contained in the OECD’s “learning compass” framework.

But despite communities and students in British Columbia having nothing to gain from the OECD’s “compass” framework, the Ministry is heavily invested in what it has to offer. Unfortunately, the Ministry has already internalized the OECD’s vision of a standardized approach to education, an approach that is centred more on corporate values and ideas (such as flexibility or adaptability) than on core values of public education.1 There’s a good chance that your school district’s superintendent or other administrators are already familiar with the language, ideas, and implications embedded within the OECD’s vision for education. That’s because the OECD model has already taken root in the minds of many of our province’s educational leaders.

Much of the OECD’s vision is grounded in the language it uses to describe teaching, learning, and education. For example, rather than call education “education,” the OECD model relies instead on the notion of a “learning system.” Far from a mere semantic distinction, the difference between an education system and a learning system is actually quite a lot. That’s because, paradoxically, a learning system is an idea that is both much bigger and much smaller than is the idea of an education system. Education includes lots of learning, but its aims are much more than just learning. At its heart, education is about relationships. Relationships between people, within communities, amongst ideas, and with ourselves and the land itself. The aim of education is to know, through the production of knowledge, and to be human.

The way that the OECD presents the “learning system” of its compass model is quite expansive at the same time as it is instrumental. That’s because the model expands the notion of learning from cognitive learning to include social emotional learning as well. This way of thinking about education, as a system of learning made up of different kinds of learning components, opens up the possibility to spilt up these learning domains into different instructional modalities. The OECD calls these modalities “competencies,” a language that has already made its way into the provincial curriculum. But here’s the catch: Throughout all of the OECD’s presentations at the Vancouver conference an explicit pitch was made. That pitch was to replace teachers and schools with artificial intelligence and computers. Rather than provide students with an education system in whole, the OECD proposes to break its system into various learning modules. Some of these modules can be taught with computers (such as reading and mathematics). Other modules (such as caring and social development) can be taught with humans (for now). In the OECD learning system, the cognitive domain is for computers, freeing up the learning system’s educators (not necessarily teachers) to focus on the social-emotional module.

Much of the OECD’s presentation at the Vancouver Conference came across as more sales pitch than detailed policy development. We were told that, given the uncertain future presented by changing times, innovation is needed. Since artificial intelligence and other computer programs threaten to create mass unemployment, policy makers should use computers to train students in the cognitive competences, freeing up educators to just focus on the social emotional competences. The OECD’s “learning compass” framework is organized in ways that makes this division of labour, between human carers and computer teachers, easier to see. At the core of the compass are its foundations, which are “skills and knowledge” and “attitudes and values.” The pitch: Once computers teach skills and knowledge, such as for reading and mathematics, humans are free to focus on the attitudes and values that students will need in this new world. Some of this language, or this mindset, is already embedded into our provincial curriculum. For example, the “core competencies” are woven throughout the provincial curriculum. As “sets of intellectual, personal, and social and emotional proficiencies” the core competencies (which should not be confused with the similarly named “curricular competencies” of the various subjects and grades) organize learning, beyond what students demonstrate in terms of specific skills and understandings, into the sets of communication, thinking, and personal social. Like the “learning compass,” the Core Competencies broaden education to include everything and then divide everything into categories that separate the social-emotional aspects of teaching and learning into its one domain. Public education, with its sole mandate of, quite simply, public education has no need to separate the feeling from the knowing. Teachers engage with each student, in whole, and help students develop relationships in all domains.

The OECD’s agenda promotes a vision of education based on values that are incompatible with a broad mandate for public education in the province. Rather than provide an education based on local community values, traditional knowledges and ways of knowing, and sustaining the land through shared responsibility, the OECD promotes learning systems that seek to transform learners to create new value, resolve tensions and dilemmas, and exercise personal, or individual, responsibility. A broad mandate for public education calls for much more than simply creating value or promoting individualism. Yes, value creation and identity formation are important. The individual matters as much as the community. But all of our students deserve a deep, caring, critical, and rigorous education, too. The OECD model is not useful for teachers, students, and communalities in British Columbia because it is based on global notions instead of local needs. Far from providing innovative “new value” the OECD’s compass framework offers little of value for our province.


1 See, for example, the BC Charter for Public Education: BuildingOurProfession2003.aspx

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