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News & Press: Blog

The Learning Tower of PISA

10 May 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Tamsin Fox-Davies
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In 2000 the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) launched a global academic benchmark for measuring student outcomes by testing 15 year olds. This has created a perceived hierarchy in education by country – sometimes referred to as the Education Olympics.

It’s called PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), and it was set up to enable countries to make cross-national comparisons of student achievement using a standard metric to increase human capital. Specifically, that higher academic achievement should correlate to a student’s future earnings and the standard of living in their country.

PISA has testing rounds every three years, and releases the results a year after the tests have taken place, so we will see the 2018 results in 2019.

Until recently, the focus of PISA tests have been subject-specific and the table below shows the country scores for science, reading and mathematics. This can be seen as a good starting point but does not address the skills that more agile businesses are recruiting for now – in other words, it doesn’t reflect Generation Agile.

What’s changing and why?

There have been criticisms of PISA, and since 2015 the tests that students take have been amended to cover new areas of collaborative problem solving and financial literacy (2015) and global competence (2018).

The Director of PISA, Andreas Schleigher, has suggested that additional significant changes are due to come as the modern world doesn’t reward us for what we know but for ‘how we apply knowledge’, and that PISA tests currently only reflect a ‘partial picture of what is important’.

In the next testing cycle in 2021, creative thinking (including flexibility in thinking and habits of creativity) will be added, and digital learning skills will follow in 2024. All vital skills for Generation Agile.

The impact on education for agility

PISA is also attempting to make a move away from multiple choice tests to ‘more adaptive, more engaging formats’, according to Schleigher. As several countries, such as Germany and Canada, have developed assessment systems that mimic the PISA test, this could mean that more agile testing will become the norm, as well as testing for agile skills.

But how big will be that impact be? According to a group of four academics writing for the World Economic Forum (WEF):

Education policies from high achieving nations don’t migrate across international borders without consideration given to national and cultural contexts. Rather, innovations and changes in education require teachers to have the time and opportunity to re-educate themselves in relation to more recent insights in what it means to get the best out of children.

(Volante, Jerrim, Ritzen, & Schnepf -

The implication is that we can’t improve (or test for) the education of agile skills in a uniform manner around the world, and that the key lies with our teachers who need more time and support. Neither of these things are a surprise, but spelling it out makes the message clear.

Schleigher holds the position that PISA can help improve public education globally by sharing lessons for top performing nations and economies, and the WEF seems to agree if the above considerations are taken into account.

A plea on behalf of Generation Agile

Generation Agile requires that young people are not just tested in relevant skills through programmes like PISA, but that our education systems are re-thought to intentionally teach those skills in the first place.

This means education policies and curricula that focus on agile skills, like creative problem solving and global competence, rather than hoping that they’ll be learned as a by-product of historical teaching methods – and it’s our teachers who must also be supported to become more agile themselves to help make that happen.

Learn more:

  • About Generation Agile:
  • WEF article:
  • Upcoming changes to international education testing programme:
  • About OECD:
  • About PISA:


About the author

Tamsin Fox-Davies is our Head of Brand. As well as directing brand strategy for the organisation, she leads Generation Agile – the Consortium’s campaign to embed agile skills into education for all ages and create a generation of agile talent.

When not at work, Tamsin is an avid reader, enthusiastic amateur gardener, and can’t stop collecting rescue dogs.    

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