Utilizing PISA Results on Student Global Competence

Clare Sisisky, GEBG Executive Director
May 14, 2021
Utilizing PISA Results on Student Global Competence

The 2020-2021 School Year has given us all much for reflection. Our wider community of students, educators, and parents has perhaps seen more clearly this past year that we need to more intentionally prepare students to understand a complex and interconnected world and to develop skills such as adaptability and the ability to see issues from multiple perspectives–all components of global competence.

As we look to the next iteration of global education at our schools–and are perhaps considering taking time this summer to reflect and reimagine where our efforts should be prioritized next school year–the research and assessment results from the OECD’s recent work on global competence are worth considering (learn more about their definitions and framework here).

In late 2020, the OECD published the 2018 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, an extensive 400+ page report of their first substantial effort to assess high-school student global competence. While there are inherent limitations to the methodology and subsequent results, the large-scale attempt across 27 countries from different parts of the world (not including the United States) to answer the question “Are students ready to thrive in an interconnected world?”–or to assess student levels of global competence–gives much food for thought to anyone leading global education efforts at schools.


The assessment aimed to address three questions:

  1. Can students combine knowledge about the world with critical reasoning?
  2. Do students understand and appreciate the worldviews of others?
  3. Can students adapt their communication and behavior to interact with people from different cultures?

Indicative of the many challenges in assessing global competence or intercultural development, the assessment included three different parts: knowledge of the world and cognitive skills were directly tested through questions requiring students to examine and analyze issues of global significance; social skills and dispositions were self-reported by students through surveys; and background information on school context, curriculum, programs, and learning environment were reported by school leaders through surveys.

If we aim to more intentionally support student development of global competence and growth as engaged global citizens, what matters most, and where should we focus our priorities?


It comes as no surprise to educators that schools who report more global issues in the curriculum have students with higher levels of awareness of global issues. But there was a discrepancy between what school leaders reported and what students reported about whether or not curriculum included issues such as global public health, human migration, and climate change – meaning that unless the school is intentionally embedding contemporary global issues into their curriculum in a meaningful way, it may not be registering with students as there at all and may not lead to greater awareness of global issues. Additionally, since the assessment results show a positive association between awareness of global issues and specific student dispositions, a curriculum that includes global issues in a meaningful way can lead not just to better understanding of the world but also to increased respect for people from different cultures, perhaps a valuable tool as many schools look to build more inclusive communities.

We also need to find better ways through the curriculum to empower students as citizens and help them grasp the impact of their actions–while 70-80% percent of students (across countries and contexts) reported they agree or strongly agree with the statements “looking after the global environment is important to me” and “I think of myself as a citizen of the world,” only 50-60% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “I think my behavior can impact people in other countries” and “I can do something about the problems of the world.”


Students who reported having contact with people or individuals from a culture different than their own, including at or through school, performed higher in numerous aspects of global competence. These students reported having higher levels of interest in learning about and respect for other cultures, and perhaps more importantly performed higher on skills assessment of cognitive adaptability (the ability to adapt their thinking and behavior to new and challenging situations) and perspective-taking. If a school’s global programs seek to develop global competence, these results suggest that global off-campus programs (whether local, national, and international) should include contact and connection across cultures and that virtual exchange should continue to make intercultural connection more accessible and more frequent.


Students that reported speaking two or more languages (including learning a second or new language at school) were more likely to report having respect for people from cultures other than their own. Again this self-reported respect was positively associated with the essential skills of perspective taking and adaptability. As schools might be looking to streamline or adjust schedules or even teaching positions, these results indicate that perhaps language learning should remain a priority as it is not only about learning to be proficient in a new language – it can also lead to higher levels of student respect across difference and understanding of multiple perspectives.


The PISA results show that teachers’ dispositions impact student global competence development – for example, in schools where students perceived that their teachers discriminated against people from different cultures, students exhibited similar attitudes. Less than 40% of teachers reported participating in professional development on intercultural communication or teaching in a multicultural or multilingual environment. When teacher attitudes impact student dispositions on things like interest in learning about the world and respect for people from different cultures, schools should consider prioritizing, or even designing their own, professional learning for teacher intercultural development. Similarly, parents were shown to have an impact on student dispositions, and while many schools engage in some parent education, global educators should consider ways to further engage parents in intercultural groups and adult learning.


One noticeable aspect of the results is the difference between results by gender (only two genders were reported in the results). Girls reported to have higher levels of respect for people of different cultures and a stronger ability to understand the perspective of others. While boys have lower levels of many of the dispositions associated with global competence, they reported more opportunity for class discussion, for sharing their opinions, and had higher levels of cognitive adaptability. Being aware of this potential gender discrepancy could support the intentional design of learning that provides equitable opportunity for growth across all aspects of global competence for students of all genders. In addition, while this assessment did not report results broken down by demographics such as racial, ethnic, or national identity, the report does breakdown results for students who self-identified as immigrants. Students who identified as immigrants report higher levels of interest in learning about and of respect for people from other cultures, which was positively associated with adaptability and perspective taking. Given these strengths, students who identify as immigrants, or international students as maybe the case in some of our schools, are assets to any school community and can support global competence development for all students when educators and school leaders intentionally include and empower them in the classroom and beyond.

While the extensive research and large-scale assessment conducted over the past few years by OECD are the focus of this article, the challenge of defining and assessing the specific knowledge, skills, dispositions, and values that make up the concept of global competence dictates that any one assessment will be imperfect. How do we measure a young person’s or a teacher’s ability to adapt in a changing world? The fact that significant resources and years of work was dedicated to researching, defining, and measuring global competence is perhaps the most important take-away – real validation that global education matters now more than ever. We also see that what remains at the forefront of research and model practices is the need to identify specific learning outcomes and design education with them at the center – perhaps especially when they are increasingly essential to master but hard to measure.