Without data you’re just another person with an opinion. Andreas Schleicher

As we all know – well, most of us – the climate is changing as a result of human behaviour. Maybe we could do something about it, but it won’t be painless. It would involve those of us living the developed world giving up some of the conveniences we take for granted. If we don’t make these changes we shouldn’t be too surprised if global temperatures change drastically resulting in all sort of disturbing possibilities.

Similarly, human behaviour has an effect on the educational climate and the beliefs and behaviour of certain high-profile educationalists might be particularly damaging. These include the usual suspects like Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra, but also the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The stated mission of the OECD is to “promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world” but the behaviour of the coordinator of their Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Andreas Schleicher may well be in opposition to this aim.

At the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession, Schleicher told delegates that education systems need to teach pupils the things that “distinguish humans from technology”. Unless we do so, he argues that more and more young people will join Islamic State:

Disenfranchised young people who are part of the countries assembled here have joined Islamic State… The fact that some of those young people ticked all the boxes of formal education and did everything we asked them to means it’s not as simple as more of the same education for them.

This misses the point that while technology is excellent at storing and processing information, it takes a human being to understand anything; the only way to understand something is to have it in your head.

Speaking to the TES, Schleicher said,

What else do we expect from school other than to solve the problems of today? The kind of pretence that we can somehow isolate schools from the real world is a dangerous one. It leads precisely to the growing disconnect between the world of work and the world of learning, a growing disconnect between social problems and education problems, and I think that is a huge challenge.

There are young people who have gone through all of what we think is right for them and they just don’t engage with us – they don’t see the value of pluralism and an outlooking perspective. This is not just essential from a social perspective it’s also essential from an economic perspective. Innovation today comes from you connecting the dots; being able to think across the disciplinary boundaries.

His solution is to teach generic skills like creativity and problem solving, and to “teach about aesthetics, design and civic life, and give pupils the ability to see the world from different perspectives”.

You can see him making this argument in debate with Daisy Christodoulou and Nick Gibb here.

The problem with Schleicher’s views is that they ignore the findings of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and, bizarrely, the results of his own organisations’ international assessments. If the OECD really wanted to focus on “policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world” then it should focus on research which tells us that generic skills can’t taught and what’s more are almost certainly innate anyway.

This is tricky for us to wrap our heads around because we have little or no ability to introspect about our own mental processes. Schleicher, Robinson and the gang are unaware how much they and every other educated person relies on what they know to create, communicate, collaborate, solve problems and think critically. The only real insight we have is to struggle with the often bafflingly counter-intuitive findings of cognitive science.

I’ve suggested before that we would get more of what we want if we should concentrate on making children cleverer. As Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, more higher your IQ, the less likely you are to commit violent crimes and less likely yo are to be the victim of a violent crime. He also shows that the cleverer you are, the more likely you are to cooperate with other people, weigh the consequences of your actions and think in such a way that allows you to escape the confines of your own limited experiences. There’s also good evidence that democracy – the form of government which is least likely to commit violent actions against its own people and go to war against another state – is most likely to take root and flourish in a literate, knowledgeable population.

The best guess is that the Flynn Effect (the finding that average IQ seems to increase 3 points per decade) is almost certainly caused by education. Pinker argues the case thus:

We have several grounds for supposing that enhanced powers of reason – specifically, the ability to set aside immediate experience, detach oneself from a parochial vantage point, and frame one’s ideas in abstract, universal terms – would lead to better moral commitments, including an avoidance of violence. (p 793)

To take Schleicher’s rather facile, ill-advised example, if we really want to deter children from becoming indoctrinated by fundamentalist ideologies, we best off teaching in such a way that allows them to know more.  You can’t think about something you don’t know – try it for a moment – and the more you know about a subject the more sophisticated your thoughts become and the less likely you are to blow up yourself and others in the cause of a belief.

Rather than give in to educational climate change, let’s make a stand and confront such dangerously ignorant nonsense wherever it occurs.