The fact that Asian students outperformed their peers in the West in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) did not come as a surprise. Neither did the media frenzy over the results. Like university rankings, international league tables never fail to attract media attention.
Launched in 1997 with the first survey taking place in 2000, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publishes the assessment of 15-year-olds' proficiency in reading, maths and science every three years. At the end of last year the OECD administered the standardised tests in 65 countries and economies to about 510,000 15-year-olds.
Shanghai students stayed top in all three areas, while Hong Kong youngsters ranked second in science and reading, up from third and fourth in 2009 respectively, and held on to third place for maths. Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea made up the rest of the top five in maths.
Education officials and parents here have reason to be elated with the findings, but not everyone is necessarily impressed with the scores. An open critic is acclaimed British educator Anthony Seldon, an adviser to the British government and headmaster of Wellington College, Britain's top co-educational boarding and day independent school. During a recent visit to Hong Kong, he pulled no punches in his criticism of the education system in Hong Kong, Asia as a whole and many other parts of the world. He calls today's schools "20th century schools" where students are taught about knowledge but not understanding.
A strong advocate of holistic education and every child's right to a good education, he laments the common obsession with grades and test results to the extent that students are not treated as individuals but items on a production line. Making an analogy between schools and factories, he says: "They have quality control tests in a factory; those rejected are put on a discard pile and sold off cheaply; those who pass make it to the next phase of the production line. It's not human [or] compassionate, and it's not intelligent."
Despite the Pisa results, Seldon thinks Hong Kong is significantly underperforming because of the prevailing grade-obsessed system. "The education system in Hong Kong and throughout the world is failing young people because they are measured by one indicator only. Lots of young people cannot do very well at tests and they are rendered to feel failure. The tests are very dull [and] mechanical; sometimes highly intelligent people don't do very well in these tests."
His school pursues joyful, holistic education aimed at developing multiple intelligences.
As part of its cultivation of happiness and well-being, Wellington College has regular stillness sessions. "Life in Asia [and] the West is so frenetic, people need to learn to be more reflective," says Seldon.
Similarly, Frederick Leung Koon-shing from the University of Hong Kong, an expert on maths education, prefers to draw attention to the development of the whole person. He attributes the higher scores of Asian students to the Confucian culture that values hard work and perseverance.
The strong emphasis on academic achievements, however, has put immense pressure on students. "Schools drill students for the Territory-wide System Assessment (for primary pupils) and the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination," he says. "If an international study was carried out to measure students' involvement in sports, Hong Kong students would lag behind their counterparts in the United States."
Scores undoubtedly matter. But a well-rounded education demands more.
Seldon says: " Parents who love themselves want to boast that their child goes to this or that school, this or that university, [or has] this or that job that may not suit their child. Their child might be much happier being something else. A great parent is a parent who does not leave their own dream with their child but helps the child fulfil their own dreams."