Just before Christmas I was able to enjoy a few days holiday in Noosa, Australia. While there I came across an article in one of the Sunday newspapers expressing concern about the current plight of the Australian education system.
It was based on the results of the most recent PISA testing. The PISA tests are one of the few international standardised testing systems that allows for comparisons to be made between the educational systems of various countries in Science, Maths and Literacy.
Most educationalists treat these results with some scepticism as they are a one off series of tests that look at a fairly narrow range of learning outcomes. They are however, a very useful temperature gauge of where a nation’s education system is positioned and trending. Politicians and the media on the other hand get very excited about the results as they are presented in a comparative league table format that encourages some fairly sweeping generalisations to be made.
Such was the case in this article which bemoaned the fact that the Australian results have continued to slide over the years in comparison with other ‘similar’ countries and their Asian neighbours. It was interesting to read that amongst the reasons given for this continuing downward trend was the fact that almost 50% of Australian teenagers are educated in private schools and this sets up a real divide between the schools thought of as offering a ‘better’ standard of education and the state schools that are commonly thought to be somehow inferior. This sense of division it would seem has done little to enhance the overall quality of education across the nation. Other reasons given in the article, from various spokespeople, included the belief that the modern approaches to learning are to blame and pleaded for a return to basics, this was followed by the completely opposite viewpoint that bemoaned the fact that the education offered to too many young people was too traditional and irrelevant. I guess the best thing that could be said was that at least the discussion was taking place.
New Zealand has traditionally featured well in these results but over the last decade or so has tended to slip. This trend has also occurred in countries like USA, Australia, UK and Canada. What is interesting to note though is that recently New Zealand and Canada have arrested that decline and are starting to climb the ‘ranks’ again whereas other countries that we are often compared to have continued to slip. It is interesting that recently there has also been much discussion and development in New Zealand relating to how we are delivering education here.
As a result of these tests much has been made of the advances that seem to have been made in countries like Finland and their education system has been placed under the microscope to see if their success can be replicated elsewhere. The short answer is that this would be dangerous as we have to develop our own solutions to our own contexts but it is important to be advised and informed by what is happening internationally and adapt what is relevant for our own context.
The real winners, if there is such a thing, over recent PISA results have been the Asian countries and, in particular, Singapore and the province of Shanghai.
Again the temptation to try to transpose what they are doing there into our own system is tempting but ultimately short-sighted. As Yong Zhou the American educationalist has said, if it was as simple as that then maybe we should all learn to ‘eat with chopsticks.’
There is much to admire about Asian education but all too often it is seen as proof that we need to return to a very traditional approach towards education. In the same way, all too often, the Finnish story is seized upon as a justification for a radical move away from any semblance of traditional schooling.
There are huge differences between Asian culture and our own and these differences exist within the education systems as well. For example in Singapore they pay teachers extremely well and their teachers have far less contact time than our own and so are able to develop professionally far more successfully. In Singapore children receive almost as much tuition outside of the school day as they do within it and the provision of tutors is a huge business there. Contrast this with the also successful Finnish system where children start school later than they do here and where homework is discouraged and we can see how context is so important. In many parts of Asia maths is seen as important and possible unlike here where we almost seem to have convinced ourselves that maths is a hard subject and therefore our children are quite nervous about their mathematical abilities.
Also interesting is how many Asian educators acknowledge that the PISA results only tell part of the story. They believe that they are very good at training students to do well in tests but not so good at preparing them for life and learning beyond school and they are now searching internationally to seek advice on how they can transition their education to a more competencies based approach that would better suit the needs of their learners and not just produce a fine set of test results.
In summary what PISA tells us as a nation is that there is much to be learnt from other education systems but that we can’t transpose another countries solutions and hope that they will work in our context. We can learn but we must adapt. The results also seem to indicate that we are on the right track to restoring New Zealand system to a world leader from where it currently is as one of the most successful and effective systems. We do after all want to be the best not just one of the best.
In these most recent PISA test results the shining star of Finland has dimmed somewhat and this has caused a degree of internal reflection there.What was most interesting about this article though was what Pasi Sahlberg claimed were one of the reasons for the slight decline in the Finnish results. He made some interesting comments that were repeated in the article. He suspects this dip is linked to the proliferation of digital devices in Finland’s schools which he believes is suffocating the capacity for critical and creative thinking.
“Digital immersion has changed the way children think and process information. That has made conceptual learning difficult, or in some cases, impossible.”
This I find fascinating and something we need to heed. We must ensure that technology and devices aid, supplement and implement learning and thinking but not replace either. The amount of screen time inside and outside of school needs to be monitored otherwise we run the risk of denying our youth the opportunity to develop critical thinking and collaboration skills. Technology, as I have said before, is a marvellous tool it can often be the accelerator or catalyst to learning. It opens up huge and exciting new worlds but it is just a tool, it is how we use it that defines its benefits to us an individuals and as a collective.