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EPALE Interview: Andreas Schleicher - Learning is not a place, but a lifelong activity in the real world

“Learning builds communities, and helps them grow", says OECD-director Andreas Schleicher. "Learning does not stop behind a wall."

Interview card Schleicher

The growing complexity of modern living suggests that future learning systems for individuals, communities and societies should overcome the well-established physical formal learning settings. Learning should happen connected and closely related to real-world contexts in communities. Learning builds communities, and helps them grow. Learning does not stop behind a wall.

How can we enable and facilitate a lifelong and lifewide learning culture? How can we build a culture that facilitates learning, unlearning and re-learning throughout life? How can designers, connectors, storytellers and sensemakers giving meaning to our collective experiences, contribute to future-oriented learning ecosystems? How can we not only learn from best practices but rather invent next practices?

“What tomorrow’s learning systems need to be and do is easier said than done”, says Andreas Schleicher. Still, his years of experience and research as the director for the OECD Directorate of Education and Skills makes him perfectly placed to shed a light on this matter.

Learning ecosystems are put forward by OECD, among others, as levers to make citizens more eager to learn and continue to develop their talents. They seem to be promising initiatives to introduce a new way of thinking about learning and education.  According to you, why is this necessary?

Andreas Schleicher: We live in a structurally imbalanced world. Modern life is getting more and more complex, not only for individuals, also for communities and societies. Our changing world presents us with complex challenges at an accelerating pace. Solutions that have proven their worth in the past no longer seem to work today. New solutions to our problems will also be complex, having to reconcile diverse perspectives and interests. That is why we must evolve towards a real learning society. A learning society focuses on strengthening people and local communities and making them resilient. Learning ecosystems (definition below this interview) contribute to a transition to a sustainable future where people can enjoy a good life.

In today’s education systems problems very often are broken down into manageable bits and pieces. Learners then are taught how to solve these bits and pieces. You say this approach isn’t adequate anymore? Why not?

Our modern society requires combining different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that before seemed unrelated. Students nowadays typically learn individually and are certified for their individual results. But the world will become more and more interdependent. We will need orchestrators who can mobilize, share and integrate knowledge from diverse fields. The well-being of societies depends increasingly on people’s capacity to take collective action. That’s why tomorrow’s learning systems need to enable learners to develop an awareness of the pluralism and complexity of modern life. We have to teach and reward collaboration as well as individual academic achievement. Learners have to be able to both think for themselves, but also to act for and with others.

Machines are taking over more and more tasks from humans at work. Our society also has become notably more polarized in recent years. New solutions will have to strike a balance between competing demands and will demand a lot of creativity. How can we enable learners to handle these growing tensions and to develop the knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to social and civil life?

We will have to become more adept in handling those tensions and dilemmas. There is rarely one single solution to a problem. We have to trust in our ability to think in a more integrated and interconnected way. That’s why learning systems need to become better in helping learners to join others, with empathy and adaptability. Learners have to develop a deep understanding, whether as scientists or artists, of how others in different cultures and traditions live and think. They have to develop a strong sense of right and wrong, a sensitivity to the claims that others make on us and a grasp of the limits on individual and collective action. They need to be able to consider the future consequences of their actions, evaluate risk and reward, and assume accountability for the products of their work. Machines may be taking over tasks, but at work, at home and in the community the demands on our knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to social and civil life will keep rising. Future learning systems will have to enable learners to develop a sense of responsibility, and of moral and intellectual maturity, with which we can reflect upon and evaluate our actions in the light of experiences and personal and societal goals.

Education now is very often about received wisdom, subject-based instruction and hierarchy. Developing all the above capabilities seems to require a different approach to learning and teaching and a different kind of teachers?

Indeed, education systems still rely mainly on administrative forms of accountability, and bureaucratic command-and-control systems to direct the teachers’ work. To convey all these cognitive, social and emotional capabilities we need to make teaching a profession of advanced knowledge workers who enjoy a high level of professional autonomy in a collaborative culture. Tomorrow’s learning has to be about user-generated wisdom, project-based instruction and collaboration. We have to help learners to think across the boundaries and recognize both teachers and students as co-creators.

Goals of the past were standardization and compliance. Learners were taught in similar ways, in same-age-groups, following a standard curriculum, all assessed at the same time.

We have to better recognize that individuals learn differently, and in different ways at different stages of their lives. It is obvious that we need new ways of providing education that are most conducive to learners’ progress. We need to embrace this diversity, with differentiated approaches to learning. We will have to take learners’ passions and capacities into account, helping them personalize their learning in ways that foster their engagement and talent. We have to encourage them to be original, creative and inventive.

You also say ‘Learning is not a place, it is an activity’. What do you mean by this?

Teachers and content nowadays still are divided by subjects. Learners are separated by expectations of their future career prospects. Most schools are designed to keep students inside, and the rest of the world outside. This has to change. The future must be integrated and with an emphasis on the inter-relation of subjects. Technology has the potential to liberate learning from these past conventions and can connect learners in powerful ways, with knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another. There should be more engagement with families and partnering with other school. Learning needs to be connected and closely related to real-world contexts and contemporary issues. Learning should be open to the rich resources in communities. Tomorrow’s learning systems need to constantly seek synergies and find new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others: families and communities, with higher education, with businesses, and especially with other learning environments. That’s what I mean with ‘learning is not a place, it’s an activity.

Now, these things are indeed easy to say, but hard to do…

To introduce an interconnected lifelong and lifewide learning culture will still require a lot of experimentation, documentation, measurement, and collaborative reflection time. It will ask a lot of our imagination, knowledge, skills, common values and sense of responsibility to develop a coherent framework for future-oriented learning ecosystems. But when we succeed I’m sure the world will have become a better place.



Flanders is a largely urbanized region and one of the most densely populated parts of Europe. Nevertheless we find some sparsely populated areas, especially in the western and eastern parts of Flanders. There the adult education provision and the participation rate is low. Through the ESF Learning Ecosystems project efforts are made to stimulate the development of learning ecosystems in the province of Limburg (in the east of Flanders) and in the province of West-Flanders.

ESF Flanders defines a learning ecosystem as follows: 

In a learning ecosystem, various local and (sub)regional actors bring forth solutions for shared local urgencies that none of them could have achieved alone. Local players, whom today we don’t necessarily yet see as learning partners, join forces and shape what is learned and the learning processes. Cultural associations, museums, libraries, healthcare institutions, sports clubs, traditional educational institutions, companies and individual citizens… provide a wide range of learning opportunities for, by and in the local community.

Learners can follow their own interests, talents and passions. That makes taking the first, or next, step to learning more attractive. In this way, every learner creates a unique personal, flexible and natural learning path. Learning takes place autonomously and can be done alone or together in a (diverse) group, always in interaction with each other. This ensures cross-pollination between people of different age, educational level, gender, expertise and competences… This obviously also benefits inclusion.

Mentors/coaches guide learners on their learning path(s). They have relevant skills and/or professional experience and a good view of potential learning opportunities. Their social network provides access to interesting resources. They assist people to overcome (learning) obstacles. They look for existing talents, for the necessary knowledge and solutions for others, but also for themselves.

All actors in the learning ecosystem together form a reflexive and dynamic network with constant attention to learning and adjusting together. Management follows the principles of organizational networks that transcend traditional sectoral thinking. Everyone in the organizational network gives shape to it together and makes flexible and equal use of the available expertise and the wealth of physical and digital learning spaces, people and resources. A learning ecosystem operates at the local level and initially organizes itself within its own boundaries and possibilities. However, it also seeks to connect with other local, regional, national and international learning ecosystems to learn together, expand learning opportunities and come up with even better solutions.

Learning Ecosystems An Emerging Praxis For The Future Of Education (2020)

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