Western schools envious of East Asian scores on global exam may change teaching methods

Western educators hope to emulate the success of Asian schools in a global performance ranking. But exam results only tell you so much

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 6:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 6:46am

It's inevitable: a school system comes top of international rankings in performance, and the limelight shines. Education experts and government policymakers descend from around the globe, hoping to glean the secret of success so that they can emulate the very best.

Crucially, however, many Western nations have so far been unable to translate effectively into their own systems the successes of places such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Dr John Jerrim, a researcher at University College London's Institute of Education (IoE), said "everyone has a different reason" why East Asian countries perform so well in the mathematics, science and reading literacy tests, but "we don't really know the answer."

Western policymakers who have begun to "look east with an envious glare" cannot expect an easy way to replicate these students' extraordinary success. While Pisa is effective in comparing students against a benchmark, it is unable to explain the reasons for their success, Jerrim told a seminar of education experts, members of Parliament and policymakers on March 25 in London.

Education experts at the seminar to examine how results of highly performing East Asian countries in the Pisa tests translate into policy, acknowledged that Pisa results have a powerful influence.

"Pisa is taken as a proxy measure on education quality," said Paul Morris, professor of comparative education at IoE.

And yet, Morris, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education from 2002 to 2007, said "the claims made about schooling in East Asia did not tally with my experience". His main concern "is not Pisa per se but the way Pisa is interpreted".

Western policymakers frequently misrepresent or cherry-pick the results of highly performing cities and countries, he said, and can distort the reasons for the performance of the 15-year-olds in those tests.

Borrowing from East Asia is often an "opportunistic enterprise" to legitimise preferred policies that may have little to do with the teaching in Asia, said Morris.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers Pisa, encourages countries to learn from success. Andreas Schleicher, director for Education and Skills, said last year: "Obviously, one can't copy and paste school systems wholesale. But Pisa has revealed a surprising number of features that the world's most successful school systems share and from which others can learn."

However, the educational systems in the countries that score the best vary considerably, according to Euan Auld, an IoE researcher.

For example, neither Finland nor Canada relentlessly tests students as the East Asian countries do, yet they still perform highly, experts note.

Everyone has a different reason why East Asian countries perform so well
Dr John Jerrim, researcher, IOE

Other possible reasons for outstanding performance could be the way teachers are trained, the amount of homework, out of school tuition, so-called Asian values and parental expectations including the "tiger mom" syndrome, and a competitive examination system that drives students to perform.

Some policymakers focus on the curriculum and the way mathematics, in particular, is taught. In some cases, they have suggested that the traditional chalk-and-talk methods used in Shanghai - the top performer in mathematics - might be better than interactive methods used in Britain, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

England, therefore, launched the Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme last year, bringing in teachers from Shanghai as part of a HK$127 million programme to try to improve maths scores.

"Over time, we intend to roll out the key elements of the Shanghai approach to maths more widely and truly transform the way maths is taught in this country, to ensure that the aims of the new [more traditional] curriculum are fully met," Nick Gibb, England's schools minister, said in November.

It is too early to assess the impact of the Shanghai exchange, but experimental lessons using "Singapore mathematics" have had only a small impact after a month.

Clearly, teaching traditional maths "is not going to change the world. We are not going to suddenly jump up the Pisa rankings", Jerrim told the seminar.

Jerrim has found that the grandchildren of immigrants from the Asian high-performing Pisa countries who went through the Australian educational system and weren't exposed to Asian teaching methods or curriculum performed as well in Pisa tests as children in Shanghai and much better than native Australians.

They outperformed every other school system, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea - ranked second to fifth respectively, according to Jerrim's research, published in October.

Test scores from the pupils, mostly with Chinese backgrounds, were 2½ years ahead of teenagers with two Australian parents, and more than two years ahead of children of immigrants from Britain.

Jerrim believes this has little to do with teaching methods. "They brought their cultural values with them," he said, warning policymakers not to be guided by Pisa scores alone, especially when some countries have been teaching to the Pisa test in the hope of rising in the rankings.

"Any subsequent policy action must be supported by a wider evidence base," Jerrim said. "For instance, one does not want to erroneously conclude that rote learning helps to improve children's maths skills simply because this technique is practised in East Asian schools."

Katherine Forestier, a senior research associate of HKIEd, told the seminar: "High performance at mathematics, science and reading literacy at age 15 is not regarded as enough to ensure the system is truly equitable or fully meets the needs and expectations of students, their parents or future employers."