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Our Asian schooling infatuation: the problem of PISA envy

Looking to Asian schools is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. Chalkboard image

It was fun while it lasted Finland, but we’re going cold on you. We thought your schools had the secret but our new infatuation is with Asian school systems.

The Prime Minister seems to agree. The government has set a new goal that would see Australia get into the top five schools systems in the world, currently dominated by East Asian “sites”. The recent OECD report Education at a Glance 2012 provides yet another international comparative leaderboard over which to agonise.

Aiming high and copying “what works” intuitively seems like a good idea, but we need to look closer at the reality underlying this arbitrary “top 5” target and question whether this is what we want for our education system in Australia.

What’s the issue?

In the PISA 2009 survey results the top places in reading, mathematics and science were dominated by a mix of Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Australia came 9th in reading, 15th in mathematics and 10th in science.

When we consider the emerging Asian “PISA stars” a number of things become apparent. The first is that most are not nations at all but cities or city states.

They are also predominantly authoritarian in their governance. Most have a tradition of rote learning, cramming and testing and all have placed a major premium on improving their PISA rankings.

In Australia’s case there is valid concern we’re slipping down the ladder and that we have an equity gap. But a more meaningful comparison would not be with these cities but with nations. For example a comparison with China as a whole would be more instructive than focusing on Shanghai, Hong Kong or Chinese Taipei.

When we consider our performance against similar countries such as the USA, the UK, New Zealand, Canada, France and Germany, a different picture emerges. In reading, maths and science, New Zealand and Canada are just ahead of us. But Germany, France, the USA and the UK are all behind us on each measure. Sometimes quite far behind; for example in maths we come 15th, while the USA comes in at 31st place. In reading, we place 9th, while the UK languishes at 25th.

The best at tests

Just what we have to “learn from the best” is moot. Despite their chart topping performance the Chinese have not made a fuss of their students’ attainments; quite the contrary.

As Research Professor of Education at New York University Diane Ravitch has pointed out, Chinese citizens who can afford to do so send their children to schools in the USA, or, if that is beyond the family means, they send them to American schools within China. The post below, from a Chinese mother explains both why Chinese cities are scoring well on PISA and why paradoxically those who can, have their children educated elsewhere:

“Since my daughter began 7th grade, she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation… After coming home after 10pm, she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5am. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?”

Students have also commented on the effects of the high pressure educational environment. As one student put it, “I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school”, while another pointed out that “You adults only work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day.”

The PISA stars’ success then is arguably bought at high cost. Research on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) reveals that there is a negative correlation between TIMSS scores and how much children enjoy mathematics and how confident they are in their abilities.

The push for high test scores harms both enjoyment and self-belief. It is doubtful that Australian parents would want this for their children.

A damaging focus

The narrow focus on success at a limited curriculum has real world consequences, beyond the harm to children’s well-being. PISA, TIMSS and and the like are not the only international testing programs, however.

Since 1999 the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) has been used to make an annual assessment of entrepreneurial activities, aspirations and attitudes in over 50 countries. The drive and capacity to be innovative are behind the sort of international competitiveness so beloved of governments everywhere. Yet somehow performance on PISA has been conceptualised as a proxy or predictor for economic development and achievement.

However, when we look at the economic performance of the Asian nations and cities now frequently cited as exemplars, it can be seen that their economy is often built upon emulation of ideas and products imported from elsewhere rather than home grown innovation.

The above leads to the important question of whether we are using the wrong measures to judge and compare national performance. In Asia, the focus on tests leads to cramming and extreme test preparation. Such intensive information absorption can actually work against motivation for learning and result in dispirited and disappointed learners.

This type of learning does not teach one how to learn, just what to learn. The question of the reasons for learning are not even considered, beyond the imperative of the test. This does not encourage creativity and innovation; just a narrow form of problem-solving to questions where we already know the answers.

Comparisons between the 23 countries which participate in both PISA and GEM reveal there is a strong negative correlation between the two measures: high on PISA predicts low on GEM. Copying from “the best” may thus also mean learning to lose an innovative spirit – a lesson no-one would wish to learn.

Creativity and tests

American researcher Dr. Kyung Hee Kim has documented the decline in creativity among American students, which, she maintains, has accompanied an increasing emphasis on doing well on standardised tests as the sole measure of educational excellence.

Using results on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Kim has demonstrated that levels of measured creativity in the US have been declining since 1990. This is the case for all age groups but particularly for young students.

Kim’s findings are highly significant. The Torrance test can help predict individuals’ lifetime creative achievement three times better than intelligence tests. A major decline in creativity predicts a decline in innovation and invention.

As US education scholar Dr. Yong Zhao notes:

“Standardised testing rewards the ability to find the "correct answer” and thus discourages creativity, which is about asking questions and challenging the status quo. A narrow and uniform curriculum deprives children of opportunities to explore and experiment… which is the foundation of entrepreneurship. Constantly testing children and telling them they are not good enough depletes their confidence, which is the fuel of innovation. So, by any account, what policymakers have put in place in American schools is precisely what is needed to cancel out their desire for creative and entrepreneurial talents.“

If this is where chasing "the best” leads, please give us something else. More importantly, let’s build on the strengths we already have, work on our weaknesses and get over our PISA envy.

We have convinced ourselves there is a crisis in Australian schooling and this has eroded our self-belief and confidence. As a result, we are madly looking around for quick, simple solutions. We need to remind ourselves we have much to be proud of in Australian education.

This piece was co-authored by Stephen Dinham and Catherine Lomas Scott.

Stephen Dinham is Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne. Catherine Lomas Scott is a freelance researcher and writer.

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