By Sara Dube

Recently, I read Sean Coughlan’s article about how schools in the UK and the USA will not be incorporating the new Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) global competencies test run by the OECD into their curriculum. I would disagree with this decision. The PISA global competencies test, as described by Coughlan, is “designed to assess respect for other cultures, challenge extremism and help identify fake news.” If the aim of education is truly to equip children with the skills to take on the ‘real world,’ then the qualities mentioned in the description of the PISA test could not be more relevant in today’s increasingly globalized, ‘post-truth’ world experiencing an alarming rise in extreme nationalism across several countries.

As a greater number of areas in the job market – such as law, marketing, manufacturing, and many others – must adapt to an international atmosphere, the values of cultural understanding and tolerance are ones that are now more essential than ever in the workplace. The PISA global competencies test, measuring “how well young people [are] prepared to work alongside people from different cultures and with different beliefs,” would therefore emphasize the significance of such skills to students from an early age, which I would argue is as important as teaching them the basics of mathematics and language. Most schools place a lot of value on subjects such as English and foreign languages. For example, as a graduate of the IB Diploma Programme, it was compulsory for me to take both an English as well as a foreign language course. It seems to me that it should be no less obvious that educators should ensure students are competent in understanding and appreciating the values of other cultures. For what good will learning a foreign language do if you cannot communicate with the people of its country due to an inability to overcome cultural differences?

My arguments for the importance of this cultural awareness are not just hypothetical. Fast-food chains such as McDonalds and Subway quickly realized that to operate and to flourish in the Indian market, where so many people are vegetarian or do not eat beef due to cultural and religious beliefs, they must open all-vegetarian branches – which they did in many cities across India. This shows how it is essential to recognize and to respect differences in cultures across the world – while globalization has made many things common to people across countries, it also serves to highlight certain cross-cultural differences that must be respected in order to achieve a more peaceful world order. The particular example of the fast-food chains demonstrates how appreciating these differences is useful in succeeding in business.

Mr. Coughlan goes on to recount how Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education director, emphasized that there has to be a greater awareness of “values” as social media tends to isolate people within their “echo chambers” – since the pages and websites they follow on networks such as Facebook or Twitter serve only to reinforce their own views, with little to no exposure to contradictory perspectives that are so crucial in experiencing the world in all its colours, so to speak. After all, the challenges to one’s views that can be found in studying other cultures can only be of benefit: either one is able to rationally respond to the challenges and one’s own perspectives are developed and strengthened, or one may find the challenge valid and therefore grow to experience the world from a new point of view. Even better, one may realize that cross-cultural values can coexist within a respectful environment. Much of what is taught in current education systems deals with objectivity – such as the rules of mathematics or the grammar of a foreign language. These are facts that do not change depending on what one’s cultural or religious background is. It therefore becomes very easy for students’ personal, subjective viewpoints to go unchallenged as they associate with people and frequent social media propagating the same views as their own, outside of school. Tests dealing with international differences are therefore very important in understanding cultural values of different societies and recognizing that just because one is surrounded by people of the same views and ideals does not mean that these opinions are objectively the right ones for everyone in the world to hold.  

Besides increasing appreciation of others’ values, heightened cultural awareness will also be beneficial for students as it will demonstrate not only the differences in societies across the world but also their similarities. It can, at its best, teach students to understand intercultural differences as well as to realize that despite these differences, we all share a common “human dignity” that, above all, must always be respected. This is something that some forget when they look at a person and the first thing they see is their race, colour, or religion, unable to move past these differences to see the underlying common humanity.  

I cannot emphasize how important I think it is for students across the world to take the PISA global competencies test and to increase their cultural awareness. As Mr. Schleicher pointed out, the most successful education systems tend to be those that are the most “open and diverse,” such as that of Canada. As someone who has lived in Mumbai, Warsaw, Dubai and Oxford I can attest to the immense value of recognition of, respect for, and exposure to the wealth of diversity in our world – both for personal development as well as for social cohesion and harmony. I certainly hope that schools in the UK and the US will recognize the importance of tests such as this one and incorporate them into their education systems. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stressed, “He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Man…For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass.” We must learn from our differences and take refuge in our common humanity to find our strength and to progress as a truly global society.

Sara is an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. She is very interested in human rights and plans to pursue a career of law.



Works Cited

Coughlan, S. (2018, January 24). England and US will not take Pisa tests in tolerance. BBC. Retrieved January 25, 2018.