Reading Time: 4 minutesThe Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is conducted by the OECD and involves students in Year 9 undertaking a series of tests in mathematics, reading and science.
Every three years the PISA results from international testing come through. Up to 65 nations have students that take part in the tests. The results are posted in tables that rank the nations against averages.
The nations that have topped the lists in 2012 and 2015 include: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Vietnam and the Nordic countries. Relatively speaking, Australia’s standard has fallen as there has been a rise in the rank of nations such as Vietnam over time. India has not, to date, been part of the testing regime.
Questions arose recently about the nature of the educational systems in the Asian countries listed and the system of Australia. The comparison contrasted the performance of Australian children with that of their international counterparts. Self-discipline, valuing education and being able to focus on goals were typically lauded as being characteristic of children in other nations, but not a feature of classrooms in Australia. The focus was on students and not on teachers or the systems that support the teaching and learning.
What is lost in this comparison is that we are contrasting very different systems, the huge differences of which are never a part of the conversation. Focusing on children and the aspirations of families is important, but it actually does not say much about why nations may differ in how children perform on external exams. It provides one aspect to a complex set of parameters that shape outcomes on standardised tests.
In Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and many other countries in our region of Asia, there is a centralised Ministry of Education (MOE) that prescribes the content that children must learn, the order in which it must be learnt and the time it must be covered. In such systems, the supplementary books and resources must be approved by the centralised Ministry if used in schools. Moreover, there is a strong focus on examinations as the main mode of assessment. This has the effect of standardising the curriculum in all schools and of mandating what is learnt, how and when.
In my experience, there is an over reliance on the texts and very little preparation done by teachers prior to classes. Moreover, in the nations listed, teachers are held in high esteem, meaning that respect is expected and does not have to be earned. The title commands respect, regardless of the teacher’s actual intellect, drive, interest in the subject matter or love of teaching and learning.
By contrast, in Australia the government does not prescribe the texts, though it does often prescribe knowledge and understanding to be covered. Teachers do not generally expect respect, certainly in high schools, unless they earn it.
Indeed, in Australian schools there is a presumption and fundamental teaching principle largely absent in Asian nations: this is what I call “a presumption of discipline”. That is, prior to being able teach a class, teachers are required to command a space and to hold attention. This means having an understanding of students, being able to set limits, being able to notice when attention is wavering, and also being able to assess how the teacher is impacting the learning of their students.
Cognitive studies show us that commanding attention is the first step in helping students to become interested in subject matter, more likely to be engaged and remember. Setting limits helps students to know when to focus and respect the environment of the classroom as a teaching and learning space.
By contrast to Asian schools, where the centralised Ministry of Education prescribes content and decides the texts and order of learning, teachers in Australia have to overtly teach. Teaching requires more than simply presenting or translating texts and existing resources, although these skills can be useful and important.
Moreover, teachers non-reliant on texts will prepare resources drawing from a variety of sources and with consideration of a wide variety of learning styles: visual, kinaesthetic, linguistic, auditory, and the like. This takes effort and time. Catering for diversity is always harder than treating all as the same and relying on self-discipline and high expectations to do the learning.
In my university classes, I hear from students coming through the highly centralised schooling systems that they were not taught to question, not taught to critique and not taught to be creative. Classes were mostly silent, students knew their place and students worked towards the achievement of outcomes on exams.
These students tell me that they are confronted in Australia but also feel free. That they struggle because answers are not prescribed and it is hard to think when structures have taught you what is to be said.
The strengths we perceive arising from the rigours of quiet classrooms, high expectations and a focus on outcomes cannot be compared to diverse learning spaces, where teachers must earn respect and where accommodating variations in learning style are valued.