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.


Finland “only country…students leave…innovation ready” a big call. Some thoughts from my own experiences

“…it is the only country where students leave high schools “innovation ready”

I have visited schools in Finland on numerous occasions now. I have found a hardworking nation – the community, its students and teachers – with a commitment to attaining high educational outcomes. Finland is definitely a nation the ‘punches above its weight’. But, with respect to my own relatives and professional friends, I have not found an education system that is particularly innovative, as I observed the day-to-day life of school.

So when I read the opinion piece by Thomas Friedman that is currently published in the newspapers in the world’s major cities, I am puzzled. I have incredible respect for Thomas Friedman and Tony Wagner. The premise of the piece is excellent:

More school leavers are going to have to invent a job rather than find one. Schools must equip them for the challenge.

Friedman picks Wagner’s brains on what needs to happen:

The goal of education today should not be to make every child “college ready” but “innovation ready” – ready to add value to whatever they do.

Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, of course, but they will need skills and motivation even more… Young people who are intrinsically motivated – curious, persistent and willing to take risks will learn new knowledge and skills continuously.

I couldn’t agree more. The myth of the university/college degree as a ticket to the future career is now dispelled, as many young people are highly qualified, yet under-employed. We need to do all we can to teach, equip and engage them in order to follow passions and dreams and find innovative solutions to world problems. The way we repackage learning is crucial to that end.

Then Friedman asks: Who is doing it right?

Finland is one of the most innovative economies in the world and it is the only country where students leave high schools “innovation ready”.

This big statement is based on the following information:

They learn concepts and creativity more than facts, and have choice of many electives – with a shorter school day, little homework and almost no testing.

That is the case, as well as teacher autonomy and community respect, local school decision-making, high level of competitiveness to enter the profession and high PISA results. But do these elements actually translate into students leaving high school “innovation ready”? I have not observed repackaged learning.

Do high results in PISA testing equate to “innovation ready” students?

In my visits to ordinary, everyday school I observed little that showed me innovative methods and practices. The wifi test on my iphone found no wireless networks in the schools. Teaching was textbook and teacher-talk dependent. Technology was predominantly desktop computers and the only school I saw with ipads was an automotive vocational college, with the most innovative educators of all that I saw.

Observing secondary classes, students were taught in traditional methods by teachers, those ways that present knowledge to pass tests. At the end of the senior years students spend a huge amount of time cramming for 6 hour exams.

I also went to an educators conference, run by the OECD and universities, enduring long lectures and very dull and indiscernable powerpoints. These people were responsible for educating the future teachers.

Sometimes I wonder, what will happen when Finland is no longer top of the PISA tree. I think the national education marketers, who have done an outstanding job in promoting the qualities of the Finnish education system will need to move to Shanghai or Singapore.


Are governments just polishing the chrome on the 1965 vehicle, when we need to design a new hybrid model?

Over the past few years ‘education’ in the media followed politicians announcing large-scale projects.

The Australian Government’s 2009 GFC stimulus package, ‘Building the Education Revolution’, was more of a building program and the 2007 ‘Digital Education Revolution’ (Year 9 1:1 laptop program) was an election promise that seemed to misunderstand the future technology needs for schools and students.

In my opinion, neither of these programs thought deeply about the future and preparing young people. This week in my state, due to funding announcements, schools, education and teachers are, once again, hot topics.

In the minds of politicians it seems that despite everything happening in the world around us, a veil of nostalgia covers the eyes of our policy-makers, they see school education as it was and this then reinforces how it should be.

As result, when it comes to the public debate, the discourse doesn’t seems to be generated by ideas around what do our kids really need to succeed into their future, but about to PISA rankings and funding models. It’s the cart before the horse.

PISA rankings – Much of what we read from the US about the testing regime and its inherent problems stemmed from a noble-sounding policy – No Child Left Behind. Sounds good, but how do you determine achievement of the goals? Teaching to the test, testing and more testing.

If Australia’s ability to compete in the markets in our region is dependent on our PISA ranking in reading, maths and sciences, we are destined to head down the same track.

There are a number of other essential skills that young people need. What is the measure for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial activity?

Funding models – At the core of equity in education is the provision of adequate funds to do the job. Unlike many other countries, non-government schools in Australia, representing faiths, ideologies and cultures, attract proportional government funds. These come from the both the state and federal coffers and are, at the time of writing, under significant review.

I am an advocate for equitable funding, but I believe we are coming at this from the wrong angle. It seems, whenever we talk about education reform in this country, the debate immediately moves to funding.

What if we identified the elements of a good education that a child today needs, determine what funding is required, and then carve up the pie.

Start with the child and design a new future.

Design-thinking doesn’t just tinker with the current model, provide add-ons or paint it a new colour. It looks at the problem from a fresh perspective, frames and reframe the burning question, arranged and rearranges the elements, develops models and then refines them.

At the moment the politicians and regulatory authorities are painting and polishing the old model. Our state minister for education asked in a news article over the weekend, ‘Why are kids listening to their iPod and not their teacher’ – the reality in 2012 is that maybe they are doing both.

Wholesale change is unsettling, but necessary. Many of us feel that we are actually designing a new hybrid vehicle for education, while our politicians are polishing the 1965 Kingswood/Edsel/Vauxhall. For example: Why are we still measuring the delivery of a high school courses by calculating the hours taught? This focusses on the teacher/teaching, rather than the learner/learning.

The only way to re-invent, rethink and renew is to come at the problem from a new perspective. We must envision what doesn’t yet exist and reframe the problem. If we keep polishing the chrome on the old vehicle we will increasingly alienate and disengage young people from that wonderful world of learning.


Australia’s educational reform: Becoming the Creative Country and the Clever Country #my5pointplan

When you are climbing the ladder of success, make sure it is leaning against the right wall.

Education is on the political agenda this week in Australia. In the media our PM, Julia Gillard has been quoted as championing:

A national crusade, a chance for change, education transforming the life of every child.

This can be achieved, it seems,  by improving our position in the PISA (see below for a summary of the process) rankings, which assesses reading, maths and science from 70 countries and economies. According to PISA, in the overall comparison Australia is already ranked 9th and considered “statistically above the OECD average.”

I want Australia to be back in the top five countries educationally..to be world’s best by 2025.

A vision for education is welcomed, and measurable and timely goals for progress are essential, but my questions are:

Of the top performing countries and economies, are the post-school and post-tertiary employment rates equally impressive?

How do we measure student achievement and engagement that takes into consideration attributes for the future, such as creativity, entrepreneurial thinking and multiple intelligences? (Given that Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk: Schools Kill Creativity became a rallying call for many)

According to Howard Gardner in an interview with Huff Post journalist Matthew Lynch earlier this year:  I’m not confident that these international comparisons are beneficent…What distinguishes Singapore and Finland are the Professionalization of Teachers, and the Egalitarian nature of the system.

The PM has set a time frame on achieving this vision: 2025, when 2013’s five-year-olds start school, they will be the ones we watch for the next 13 years of school. In my opinion, to achieve success there needs to be:

1. A realistic time-frame. Finland’s journey of reform started 40 years ago and Singapore’s 30 years ago. We need a vision of reform spanning greater than 13 years to:

  • change the culture on the status of teachers
  • implement pay reforms
  • transform teacher undergraduate education.

Which leads me to…

2. Bi-partisan agreement for long-term educational reform. The blueprint that guides the education system in Finland has been agreed to and maintained through the changes of government. The education of young people is considered too important to be politicised.

3. Assess and address the risk that standardised tests become the goal of education. Ten years ago, George W Bush signed the “No child left behind” law. A lofty and admirable vision for raising student achievement, which has not been without controversy. Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post wrote (emphasis mine) …because of its misguided reliance on one-size-fits-all testing, labeling and sanctioning schools, it has undermined many education reform efforts. Many schools, particularly those serving low-income students, have become little more than test-preparation programs.

4. Become future-focused. A deliberate strategy that recognises the skills and attributes required to embrace the challenges and opportunities that lay before us, such as those articulated by Howard Gardner in 5 Minds for the Future:

  1. the disciplined mind
  2. the synthesising mind
  3. the creating mind
  4. the respectful mind
  5. the ethical mind

These cannot be assessed on standardised tests.

5. The filter is ‘learning’. According to the Grattan Institute report: Catching up: Learning from the best school systems in Asia – “These four systems* all focus on the things that are known to matter in the classroom, including a relentless practical focus on learning.” (*Shanghai, Korea, Singapore Hong Kong). When ‘learning’ is the filter it guides a range of decisions such as school design, timetabling, staffing, technology, leadership structure and curriculum delivery. It constantly challenges the existing paradigms.

Of course we must look at the top performing countries and learn from them, but we must also be future-focused, looking at the skills, knowledge and attributes our Australian young people will need into the future. This doesn’t mean trying to retro-fit the existing system, but strategically reinventing education in such a way that the reforms take us where our nation wants and needs to go.

My preference is that we are also known as the ‘creative country’ than just the ‘clever country’.

Our ladder needs to be leaning up against the right wall.




A quick summary of PISA – Program for International Student Assessment

  • The international study was launched in 1997 by the OECD
  • 70 countries and economies participate
  • Each cycle assesses 15 year old students in reading, maths and science
  • Every three years a randomly selected group of 15 year olds take tests, focussing on one subject in each year of assessmentTests are not directly linked to school curriculum, but are designed to assess application of knowledge to real-life situations
    • 2000 – reading
    • 2003 – maths and problem solving
    • 2006 – science
    • 2009 – reading
    • 2012 – maths
  • The difference between the top-performing economy in reading, Hong Kong and the lowest performing, Mexico, is considered to be the equivalent of 2 years of schooling

Australia’s positioning out of 70 participating countries and economies
In the overall comparison Australia is ranked 9th and considered “statistically above the OECD average.”

Maths: 13th (retesting 2012)

Reading: 7th

Science: 7th

Educational equity (countries): 6th/34

Top performing countries and economies:

  • Korea and Finland are the highest performing OECD countries
  • Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and, famously, Finland.
  • The prominent performers are within our region.

Reflection on the Finnish education system: More questions than answers #SCIL

Having spent a little time in Finland I have gained an impression of the educational culture and the system’s achievements. Educators from all over the world are travelling to Finland to learn from their PISA success. Some to try and improve their own country’s outcomes, while some nations are keen to topple them from the top of the PISA perch.

I first went in October 2011, visiting a primary and secondary school, and in February 2012 I went there again with a group of curious Australian educators. We heard from the Finnish National Board of Education, met with forward thinking school leaders and researchers, and attended a conference with school-based educators, policy-makers and academics.

The Finnish system is characterised by key elements

– Education in Finland is focused on quality and equality.

– Schools produce very small variation between the most successful and least successful students.

– The government has a clearly articulated an educational pathway from school to work, with vocational and tertiary education options for young people.

– There is a very competitive entry into teacher education, with high entry scores

– There is no national formal assessment

– Schools are not inspected

– A school’s curriculum is framed around minimal curriculum guidelines

– There is local autonomy for decision-making

– Content taught in subjects/disciplines

– There is equality of education delivery for all students

My own passion is to help schools, educators and leaders develop learning environments that fully engage the 21stC learner and help young people be inspired to pursue their interests and aspirations. In Finland I have observed schools and talked to academics, school leaders and policy makers, but remain perplexed.

More questions than answers
I believe we need to reinvent schools for this generation, understanding that our society has changed so significantly, that schools need to think differently in order to inspire and engage students.

My experiences in Finland left me asking questions, and my observations are at odds with my understanding of 21stC learning. So while PISA is only one measure, it is highly regarded and internationally recognised. Herein lies the tension.

1. Do educators recognise that outside school young people live in a dynamic connected world and how are schools responding to this challenge?

2. Do traditional classroom environments better suit the culture of learning in Finland?

3. How are schools in Finland addressing the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology?

4. Does the work/study culture of Finland mean that young people and their parents expect teaching to be formal?

5. Does the six hour exam regime at the conclusion of the final year of school mean that despite the minimalist curriculum requirements and lack of national assessments, a wide range of content must be covered through didactic approaches?

6. Are there opportunities for multi-disciplinary project-based learning?

7. Do students have the opportunities to pursue self-directed projects?

8. How are talented students encouraged and challenged?

9. How are teachers prepared for the changing nature of learning in this globally connected world?

10. Does the school experience vary sufficiently to be able to meet the diversity of interests that students possess?

11. Does the learning culture of schools in Finland actively encourage collaborative and team-based approaches to learning, or is individual achievement more commonly supported?

12. Are students typically passionate about learning, are they self-motivated and curious?

Finland’s position on the PISA rankings seems to be at risk as Singapore, Shanghai and South Korea rise up the ranks. These nations are actively seeking to claim the top spot. In a nation such as Finland, where there is significantly less emphasis on formal assessment, the ranking on PISA is an important benchmark. One academic remarked to me at the conference that he will be happy when Finland is no longer at the top, so they can focus afresh on what is important in education.

Joining the dots
Perhaps the success of this small nation, now on the international stage, is a result of a combination elements:

– Finland has a culture of hard work and knowledge acquisition is necessary for academic progression

– Each young person must decide for themselves that education is important

– Attracting high calibre candidates to the teaching profession

– The high esteem in which teachers are held

I seem to think that there is no formula for success in the PISA rankings and for the past 10 years, Finland has been able to effectively connect the dots and are enjoying the accompanying status.

Of course, these thoughts are an amalgam of listening to presentations, having conversations and making observations, so if debate and discussion ensue, I am happy to engage and hear the thoughts of others.