Sunday April 1, 2012
The learning tower of Pisa
Sharing The Nation
By Zainah Anwar
Let’s help our students to learn better and teachers to teach better.
AS the Government sets out yet again to reform the Malaysian education system, I hope the experts will pour over the vast amounts of resources and data already available on what makes for a successful education system.
For the first time ever, Malaysia has joined 73 other countries in the highly regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) administered by the OECD which evaluates key competencies of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science. The results for Malaysia are due to be released this year.
Have students acquired the knowledge and skills essential to meet the challenges of the future? Can they analyse, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Have they found the kinds of interests they can pursue throughout their lives as productive members of the economy and society?
The Pisa triennial surveys seek to answer these questions. Participating governments wait with bated breath for the results and analysis of the voluminous data generated, to find out where they stand in comparison to others in this globalised world and what kinds of interventions are needed to help students to learn better, teachers to teach better, and school systems to become more effective.
As the man who directs PISA at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher said: “Today’s learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.”
In the latest 2009 PISA assessment, the Shanghai education system, which was evaluated for the first time, stunned the world by coming up tops in all three categories. It topped Singapore in maths, South Korea in reading and Finland in science out of the 65 countries surveyed.
More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%. “Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” said Schleicher, breaking the myth of a Chinese education system focused on rote-learning.
Significantly, too, of the top five performers, four are Asian countries or economies – Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Finland is third. Other countries making up the top 10 are Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and Belgium.
What is hopeful about the Pisa assessment is that it provides evidence that change is possible. In his report, Schleicher concluded that the best school systems became great after undergoing a series of crucial changes. They made their teacher-training colleges much more rigorous; they prioritise developing high-quality principals and teachers above efforts like reducing class size or equipping sports teams; and they held teachers accountable for results while allowing creativity in their methods.
There are also gratifying findings about equity in education. The successful education systems are those that devoted equal or more resources to the schools with the poorest kids. There is little difference found in the performance of students from private schools and those from public schools, once socioeconomic differences have been factored out. It found that cooperation between schools and between teachers lead to better learning outcomes than aggressive competition. Trapping the most disadvantaged students in the least successful schools exacerbate social inequality and negatively impact a nation’s overall performance.
What is also interesting is that the top performing countries have contrasting approaches to education. While the Asian countries emphasise academic hot-housing and tests, Finland in contrast adopts a progressive approach. There are no standardised national tests, no streaming or ability grouping. Teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves.
The main driver of Finnish education policy that has brought it success today is the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location, says Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education expert. Education is regarded as an instrument to even out social inequality – an approach Malaysian policy makers should really be familiar with.
Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counselling, early access to special education, and individualised student guidance. What Finland has shown is that a shift from an elitist and socially divided education system into an equitable public education system has produced top rate performance from students across all backgrounds.
While Finland’s approach differ from the top Asian countries, what they have in common is this: priority on quality teachers and school leaders. They depend on expert, experienced teachers and on excellent teacher training. They pay their teachers well and teaching remains respected and prestigious. Finland recruits from the top 10% of its university graduates into teacher training. Every teacher has a Masters degree and teacher training programmes are among the most selective professional schools in the country.
Interestingly, too, the finding in Shanghai shows that its high performance is also due to a “sea change in pedagogy”. From an emphasis on rote learning, the new school slogan today is: “To every question there should be more than a single answer.” Something I am afraid that Malaysian officialdom remains unfamiliar with.
In the age of Google where facts can be found at the click of a mouse, Chinese students today learn how to learn, rather than how to memorise, thus developing minds that are more adept at learning how to solve complex problems, rather than regurgitate facts.
The Pisa study also finds that parents who are more focused on their children’s education can make a huge difference in a student’s achievement. The Pisa team interviewed 5,000 parents from 18 countries in 2009 about how they raised their children and compared that to the test results.
According to Schleicher: “The performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socio-economic background. Parents’ engagement with their 15-year-olds is strongly associated with better performance.”
Fifteen-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in Pisa 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently. Students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child “every day or almost every day” or “once or twice a week” during the first year of primary school have markedly higher scores in Pisa 2009 than students whose parents reported that they had read a book with their child “never or almost never” or only “once or twice a month”.
Schleicher explained that “just asking your child how was their school day and showing genuine interest in the learning that they are doing can have the same impact as hours of private tutoring. It is something every parent can do, no matter what their education level or social background.”
I hope the Education Ministry and its team of experts will pour over the Pisa findings on what makes a school successful. We want an education system that will help every Malaysian child realise his or her full potential. We want the highly effective teachers, the equitable education system that embraces diversity and is less competitive, that emphasises critical and creative thinking and problem-solving over rote learning.
We too need parents committed to their children’s studies and schooling experience. These all count for successful learning outcomes today that help define the success of the nation tomorrow.