Results that count
The results of the latest OECD Programme for International Student Assessment are out and Hong Kong is now a distant second to the newcomer Shanghai, while Finland - which was the champion in 2006 - is now number three. Judging from the urgent op-ed response in the Asian Wall Street Journal, only a day after the official release, some Westerners must have been so scared by Shanghai's coup that they immediately shifted onto a propaganda-war footing to contain the Chinese damage. Perhaps not so curiously, the Beijing educator, with a quick reflex, replied in the most readable English vernacular with a stereotypical response. While Chinese students might perform well in standardised tests, he averred, they generally lacked creativity. This is the same old, tired, chronic, subterranean complaint about Chinese schoolchildren that is aired frequently by dissidents here in Hong Kong.
Oddly, many 'educators' nowadays seem to believe that the free-for-all, glib classroom discussions favoured in Western schools are more important than reading comprehension, cleverness in maths and problem-solving in science. Yet, doesn't problem-solving require creativity?
Western pundits tried hard to assert that Shanghai is not representative of China; clearly, it never occurred to them that Shanghai has a population of 20 million.
Another excuse is that Chinese students do not engage in extracurricular activities, such as sports and music. However, there are probably more Chinese youngsters playing the oboe, violin, cello and piano than American and British children combined. Unlike learning a few chords on an electric guitar, playing classical music can be very time-consuming.
As for sports, anyone visiting Shanghai is likely to see many local schoolchildren playing ping-pong, badminton, soccer and basketball, though not baseball or American football.
It is also interesting to note that, except for countries with small populations like Finland, students raised in the Confucian Belt - that is, mainland China, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan - are all likely to perform much better academically than their counterparts in other countries. (Taipei and Macau are both on a par with OECD countries, excepting Korea and Japan, only because of relatively poor reading skills.)
In the Mathematical Olympiad, held every year among the high school creme de la creme global maths talent, China has been dominant, taking eight championships and two second places in the past decade. Likewise, in the annual ACM collegiate competition in computer programming, sponsored by IBM, China is also the No 1 country year after year in terms of the number of teams placed at the top, with Jiaotong University consistently beating MIT in the rankings. The much-touted incubators of India's information outsourcing industry, the Indian Institutes of Technology, usually muster no more than an honourable mention, and are way behind dozens of Chinese, Russian and other top finishers.
In relation to the money spent, the performance by America's 15-year-olds - 19th overall among 33 OECD countries - deserves a reality check. The result undermines claims of US exceptionalism by those on the political right. However, from an elitist point of view, what really matters is that the US world ranking in the higher part of the value-added chain has hardly budged.
Creativity in learning and problem-solving can be channelled and redirected in many ways. In the final analysis, we have to ask whether the system is producing desirable results that can be tracked and measured against a set of goals. Here, neither the West-is-best inferiority complex, nor the constant denigration of our children's strengths in maths and science as a lack of creativity should detract us from our ongoing search and experimentation to find the best education system.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development