Dr. Amel Karboul

Do teachers matter in a world of digitalization?

During the January meeting of the Education Commission in London, I participated in an intriguing debate about new technology and social media. In common with everyone else at the meeting, I am a true believer in the transformative power of technology, the Internet and social media. As a minister in post-revolutionary Tunisia, I do not need much persuasion since I have first-hand experience of how a whole society was empowered through the use of technology. So I want to believe that technology can bring creative solutions to 124 million children and youth worldwide in need of school access, as well as to the more than 250 million others lacking the necessary skills. Maybe new technologies can improve their education and foster improved outcomes in health, economic growth, job creation and employment, innovation, climate and security. One example is the experiment showing children in rural Africa using an iPad without any instruction and reaching a high level of technological ability.

But are we doing enough to invest in this type of technological education? Historically, the large amounts of funding for schools are used to pay teacher salaries. And funding is not only scarce, but education’s share in government budgets has been declining in a number of countries despite growing needs. With international assistance to education declining by nearly ten percent in recent years, the financing gap for basic education is unlikely to be closed without urgent action. Yet imagine if instead of bringing kids to schools, technology would allow us to bring schools to children. What a wonderful opportunity!

Our debate then moved to examining evidence-based research and the quality of instruction and teachers. All of us had been fortunate to experience how great teachers have been true game changers in our lives. One of my Commissioner colleagues pointed out, “only this morning we were talking about the fact that we may not need teachers at all in the future, yet now we are discussing how to increase the quality of teachers!” The Commission has a very clear objective to bring together the best evidence from around the globe as to what works to expand and improve learning opportunities – yet we have the responsibility to not be too quickly tempted to discard the value of teachers for the power of technology.

Evidence-based research does often challenge what is perceived as common sense and what some policymakers decide is their focus, or set of priorities. For example, the one policy almost every school system has pursued within the OECD countries is reducing class sizes. According to the OECD, “Class size reduction – reflected by lower student-to-teacher ratios – has probably been the most widely supported and most extensively funded policy aimed at improving schools.”[i] Yet the available evidence suggests that, except at the very early grades, class size reduction does not have much impact on student outcomes. Even when a significant relationship was found, the effect was not substantial. More importantly, every single one of the studies showed that within the range of class sizes typical in OECD countries, “variations in teacher quality completely dominate any effect of reduced class size.”[ii] Moreover, reducing class sizes had significant resource implications: smaller classes meant school systems needed more teachers, which in turn meant – with the same level of funding – they had less money per teacher. It also meant that because the school system required more teachers to achieve smaller class sizes, the system could become less selective about who could be a teacher.[iii]

High-performing school systems studied in many OECD and some developing countries – though strikingly different in construct and context – maintained a strong focus on improving instruction because of its direct impact upon student achievement.[iv] To improve instruction, these high-performing school systems consistently do three things well:

  • They get the right people to become teachers (the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers).
  • They develop the necessary skills for teachers to become effective instructors (the only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction).
  • They put in place systems and targeted support to ensure that every child is able to benefit from excellent instruction (the only way for the system to reach the highest performance is to raise the standard of every student).

As our Commission meeting came to an end, I wondered whether the answer may be not an ‘either/or’ in the teacher versus technology debate, but how we can harness technology to transform the role of the teacher, and thus transform learning. Is the 21st century teacher meant to be more of a facilitator of learning, or a developmental coach rather than a traditional instructor? If the latter, then the challenge ahead is even bigger. In order to give all children and young people the future they need and deserve, we have to invest even more in changing what happens in the hearts and minds of millions of teachers.

[i] OECD, “Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers.” (2005).
[ii] Hanushek, “The Evidence on Class Size.” (2003). Shapson, “An experimental study on the effects of class size.” Akerhielm, “Does class size matter?”
[iii] The most optimistic estimates of the effectiveness of reducing class size on student achievement suggest that a reduction in class size from 23 to 15 in the early grades leads to an improvement in performance equivalent to 0.2 standard deviations.
[iv] McKinsey and Co., “How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top.” (2007)