Once a physicist: Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher is the deputy director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Andreas Schleicher

Why did you decide to study physics?
I have always been fascinated by the search for universal laws and principles that help us understand and act in this complex, volatile and uncertain world in which we live. And there is probably no other field of study that opens up so many interesting and different life chances than physics.

Did you enjoy studying it at university?
Definitely, and I had truly inspiring professors. But I was also fortunate that, from my very first years at the University of Hamburg onwards, I always found interesting opportunities to apply what I learned in research and product development. Generally, I think universities can do better in integrating the world of learning and the world of work.

How did you get involved in education research?
I got my first job in educational research (at the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement in the Netherlands) because of my efforts to make complex educational issues amenable to quantitative analysis. In other words, I was successful because I was able to apply the paradigms and research methods of physics to the world of education where these were generating new insights. I learned a lot from this. Conventionally, our approach to physics in university classrooms is to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces, and then teach students how to solve them. But in today's world, we create value by synthesizing the disparate bits. This is about curiosity, open-mindedness and making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated – all of which requires being familiar with and receptive to knowledge in other fields than our own. If we spend our whole life in a silo of a single discipline, we will not gain the imaginative skills to connect the dots to where the next invention will come from.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned in your research over the years?
When I started my career, many educators still held the belief that education was a unique personal experience, that schools were entirely shaped by their social context and that education systems were operating in unique cultural contexts. Today, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys are able to statistically account for 85% of the performance variation of schools in the industrialized world. The field of education has learned to develop data and propose explanations, and to recognize key features of scientific investigations and the types of answers one can reasonably expect from science.

If you could change one thing about the schools in France, where you're living now, what would it be?
In French schools, teachers are often left alone in classrooms with a lot of mechanic prescription of what to teach. A modern enabling education system sets ambitious goals, is clear about what students should be able to do, and then provides its teachers with the tools to establish what they need to teach to their individual students. The past was about delivered wisdom, compliance and conformity. The future is about user-generated wisdom, being ingenious and personalizing educational experiences.

Has your background in physics helped you?
Yes, every day!

This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Physics World.

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Once a physicist

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