Nienke van Atteveldt, Professor of Psychology and Co-Chair of a UNESCO panel that conducted a large-scale assessment of what we know about education, speaks to Annie Brookman-Byrne about the panel’s findings, her hopes for the future of schools, and personalised education.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: What is your vision for the schools of the future? Are you hoping to see radical changes?
Nienke van Atteveldt: Today, education is still primarily concerned with promoting economic growth. This focus has profoundly shaped assessments and the way most education systems work, which is to emphasise individual test scores. This is not the best way to enable children to flourish, because it increases often unfair competition.
Can society move away from the idea that children who are good at maths or have other academic talents are more worthy than others? Children with all kinds of developmental trajectories should be recognised as equally valuable.
I would like to see a new mindset in education, one that treats all trajectories as equally valid as long as children are learning new things and continuing to progress. These are the things we should value and reward, and shifting our focus could have a very positive impact on children and their learning experiences.
When children enter school, they bring with them very different experiences from their home lives. It’s not fair to test them at that point on reading, for example, because the results will be influenced by things that are out of their control, such as socioeconomic status. Instead, we should look at how children are improving. It would be much fairer if we moved to a more formative approach to testing. In dynamic testing, for example, children complete a task which sheds light on their learning potential. Children learn during the test, rather than being assessed on what they have learnt before. It’s about measuring children’s potential for learning and ensuring that socioeconomic status is not a limiting factor.
ABB: You recently co-chaired a UNESCO assessment panel that looked at what is currently known about education. When we think of major educational assessments, what comes to mind is usually something like PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares the reading, maths, and science scores of 15-year-olds in many different countries. This report takes a very different approach. Can you tell us more about it?
NvA: Our goal was not to assess children’s achievements, but rather to determine what kinds of achievement should be considered valuable – what should education develop in children? We gathered as much evidence as we could, making sure to cover all perspectives and all disciplines related to education. We benefited from input from about 300 experts in education, neuroscience, economics, and philosophy, and more.
“Our goal was to determine what kinds of achievement should be considered valuable – what should education develop in children?”
We had already recognised that “learning to know”, which is one of UNESCO’s four pillars of education, was only part of the story. The other pillars are learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together. We looked at how these various elements influence one another.
Rather than directly comparing countries, we looked for global trends. But most of the available evidence comes from the global north and the so-called WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic). A very important recommendation in the report is that education research should include much more diverse samples of students. At present, educational practice is often based on research conducted on very limited samples, and findings may not apply equally well to education in different contexts.
ABB: The report points out that every learner learns differently and is influenced by a complex combination of internal and contextual factors. Given that complexity, how far are we from providing the kind of personalised education – which the report calls a human right – that can take all of those things into account?
NvA: We still have a long way to go. One feasible first step is to make sure teachers and policymakers understand and acknowledge the huge individual differences between children. Every child is different, and that’s because development is influenced by the child’s immediate environment, larger contextual factors which may differ by neighbourhood, city, country, or global region, and individual, internal factors. One-size-fits-all practices and assessment methods are not the most effective approach.
“One-size-fits-all practices and assessment methods are not the most effective approach.”
ABB: Teachers often have as many as 30 students in their classes. Is there anything they can do now to personalise education, or will they have to wait for technology to be developed to support them?
NvA: We don’t yet have all the answers. Now is the time to explore how we think about the challenges – ethical issues, privacy, and the balance between digital pedagogy and personal relationships among students and teachers. Many people are apprehensive about using technology. While it’s true that technology can pose challenges, when combined with a teacher in the classroom it can also be a tool for creating a more personalised experience for students. Technology should never replace the teacher completely. We should aim for the best of both worlds.
Nienke van Atteveldt is a professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Section Clinical Developmental Psychology. She leads a research program aimed at investigating the underlying mechanisms of school motivation and resilience in adolescents. Additionally, her lab investigates neuroscience communication and the societal impact of developments in neuroscience.
A position paper presenting the conceptual framework of the assessment was published in 2021.
For more on these topics in the UNESCO report see: