The 2012/13 OECD PISA results are out today. As far as we are concerned, there are no surprises. Shanghai/China and Singapore are at the top of this table which is exactly as we expected.
What concerns us is the continuing unfounded belief that these countries are highly successful as a result of a regime of teaching to tests, rote learning of key facts plus intensive used of prescribed text books. There’s also an unwarranted assumption that these countries are at the top of these league tables thanks to tiger mothers who push their children from dawn to dusk (and beyond) in order to “drive up” standards or attainment and success in high-stakes tests.
We’ve written about this in many posts on this site and we see a need to do so again. The region of Shanghai and other parts of China have changed. Singapore has also changed. In these places, people have seen the errors of their ways. The respective governments have worked with education professionals. They’ve seen the effects on wellbeing and creativity of having a stringent, imposed “standards” agenda whereby the young people were “done to” as far as teaching was concerned.
They’ve shifted the emphasis to learning rather than teaching alone. They’ve concentrated on what young people can do with what they know rather than merely testing them on what they know. Regurgitation of facts is NOT what their education systems are about. Giving children a measure of autonomy and choice in their learning IS what is happening in Shanghai and Singapore.
The recognition that raising scores in high-stakes tests and exams alone is NOT the real purpose of education – this is what is happening in Shanghai and Singapore. Co-production of a flexible and personalised curriculum IS happening in these countries. The development of social, spiritual and personal intelligence IS happening in these countries.
If we are concerned with economic wellbeing and preparing children and young people for the “workforce” and their future careers, then that too is happening in these countries. Through their education children and young people in Shanghai and Singapore are encouraged, directed and enabled to think for themselves, to be collaborative, imaginative, inspired to learn and to develop their written and verbal communication skills as well as their ability to pass a test.
For this change in direction, which has been happening in both countries since the beginning of the Millennium, the results are clear. They’ve not lost ground in the OECD PISA league tables as a result of reinventing their education systems. Rather, they’ve looked at the purposes and values that underpin their education and realised that what they were previously offering was insufficient and far too focused on the development of one intelligence to the detriment of the others and the development of the whole child.
For those who want evidence of this, then that is there too – in abundance, both in the results from the PISA tests and also on the websites about the two countries that are at the top of these league tables.
Naturally there are still parents, teachers and pupils in both countries who are reluctant to abandon the old regime of cramming, learning facts, regurgitating information and burying their heads in standardised texts. Change doesn’t happen overnight.
The changes that have already happened in Shanghai and Singapore are the outcome of lengthy reviews of education and a subsequent refocus and re-evaluation of the purposes of education.
So, what should we learn from this?
We need change too.
Our current government is intent on fact-based learning. Their latest education bill didn’t even have the word “learning” in it. The White Paper was called “The Importance of TEACHING” – which says it all, really.
But let’s not heap all the blame on the Coalition. The fifteen year olds tested had the large majority of their education under a Labour government, and we (as well as the Shadow Minister for Education – Tristram Hunt) must not shy away from this. Clearly, the drivers of our system of education in England over the last three decades have been the same, regardless of the government in power, which is why Mr Hunt is right to say that this shouldn’t be a party political “ding dong”. How can it be when both parties have been singing, and broadly continue to sing, from the same songsheet?
The Labour Party introduced its deeply flawed literacy strategy and a numeracy strategy (which was marginally better but evidently not good enough). It set the foundations for a polarised state education system by introducing academies and indirectly enabling free schools to be established by this government. Policy makers didn’t look up from their one-tracked strategy to identify what was happening in other countries – they merely borrowed piecemeal and selected elements of systems that have now been shown to be flawed – e.g. Sweden.
Education in this country is failing too many. In too many schools, it is boring children. It’s affecting their wellbeing. It’s not allowing them to live life as children. It’s not even preparing them for life in a global workforce.
Tristram Hunt is right to say that we need qualified teachers. He’s also right to say that countries which are more successful are investing heavily in training teachers and CPD, to ensure that they are committed to their own learning, and an in-depth understanding of pedagogy to the level of Masters degrees and PhDs.
Clearly, the drive to indoctrinate teachers into a 19th century methodology has not improved PISA test scores. How has it enabled children to develop the skills and the attitudes to learning that they sorely need and are evident in the “Teach Less Learn More” model of education as advocated in Singapore?
A fundamental shift needs to take place to ensure that our children and young people are given the rounded education to which they are entitled.
A small footnote. We acknowledge that like SATs tests and GCSE league tables, the PISA test results are not the “be all and end all” of education. They do not show the entire picture of schooling let alone education and they should be treated with a certain amount of caution. However, they show what can happen when countries reinvent their systems of education. Education should be about the development of all the intelligences and creativity, and it should be solidly and emphatically focused on the needs of the young people – engaging them in their own learning.
It seems very clear to us that the outstanding success of Shanghai and Singapore indicate that this should be where we look for inspiration and guidance, as well as to other enlightened countries such as Finland, which is still showing a performance level significantly above the OECD average.
We will write more about the OECD PISA results, together with our own analysis, in future posts.