PISA-badge-of-honour or lifelong-learner-skills: Which do we value more?

IMG_0118There was such a flurry of edu-activity this week, headlines like these shouted from the pages of newspapers, or the modern-day media news equivalent:

“China’s poorest students outperform <insert modern developed nation>’s wealthiest in international maths test”

For example…

UK: TES and The Independent

Canada’s: The Globe and Mail

As I was driving home one afternoon this week, the news radio host was discussing how the children of Shanghai’s waste removal managers (garbos) apparently achieved higher score than our own dear Australian children. Now that Finland has slipped off the edu-radar, now the edu-bureaucrats are beating a path to Shanghai.

The (UK) Independent: Education Minister to travel to Shanghai to find out secrets behind maths scores

Well, actually Shanghai have been doing so for the past few years. When Finland was on top of the PISA tree I attended a briefing session from the Finnish Board of Education in Helsinki. It was noted in the presentation that South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai had spent considerable time and resources sending teams to do the same. The PISA-engine spawns an entire industry.

There are the high stakes in this high stakes testing. International test comparisons create an unhealthy competition to be at the top of the rankings. As a result, learning becomes disconnected from a meaningful reality. The testing regime fuels the fear of parents and grows the coaching industry. Recently a colleague was telling me about a senior high school student who had accepted a place at a selective high school. Once enrolled, the student was required to reassure them that she would attend classes. Apparently, many students in selective high schools don’t regularly attend school,  their main focus is after school coaching, school is irrelevant.

To provide a reality check on the situation in Shanghai, The Guardian/The Observer painted a different picture: Nine hour tests and lots of pressure: Welcome to the Chinese school system – From the article:

Chinese parents and educators see their own system as corrupt, dehumanising, pressurised and unfair.

Many parents consider the gruelling nine-hour test [college admission exam] a sorting mechanism that will determine the trajectory of their children’s lives.

As long as China’s education system remains vast but resource-constrained its schools will default to testing as a reliable indicator of competence.

Nearly half of Shanghai’s school-age children belong to migrant families and were effectively barred from taking the test

Although students from 12 provinces took the test in 2009, the government only shared Shanghai’s scores.

One recently retired teacher at a Beijing middle school said she earns extra money by teaching an after-school cramming course called maths olympiad

If we look only to scores in international tests, we are ignoring the breadth of learning and the reason for education and the important contribution that schools play in raising and equipping the next generation. As Lao Kaisheng, a professor in the education department of Beijing Normal University stated:

“The education system here puts a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation, which is great for students’ test-taking ability but not for their problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills,” he said. “Chinese schools just ignore these things.”

The previous Australian Prime Minister wanted to link reform of the school funding system to student performance in international tests, setting the goal for Australia of being among the top five nations in reading, maths and science by 2025.

I believe this aspiration is at the cost of developing problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills, the skills our young people need for success in a changing world, those skills that are essential for bringing solutions to big problems our world faces.

In this one area, I take an either/or position, I’m fairly certain that we either build a generation of innovative, creative leaders, or help them pass tests, so that we can wear the PISA-badge-of-honour.


One thought on “PISA-badge-of-honour or lifelong-learner-skills: Which do we value more?

  1. I agree with your either/or perspective, and certainly know which side of the fence I stand on. The problem is, do we have the independence to choose which goal we want to strive for in our schools or better yet, how can we ensure that we do?


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