All that glitters isn’t gold

The release of the PISA results last year confirm Shanghai’s status as the world’s top ranked education system in Maths, Science and Reading.  All credit to Shanghai and its teachers but are the results the key drivers for quality learning and teaching which China seeks to pursue?  Probably not.

Ian Johnson in the New Yorker magazine reports on the rise of concerns regarding China’s approach to education and possible alternative models of education. Johnson follows the journey of China’s first Waldorf school in Chengdu.  He writes that while Shanghai is widely praised internationally, many Chinese intellectuals see ‘education as among the biggest problems facing the country.’   There is even growing discussion on how to reform China’s public schools as more and more parents look to the West for alternative models of schooling.

Among those quoted in the article, a university student whose recently published book articulates the growing discontent: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism.”

Those who are critical of China’s current education system are concerned that the country won’t be able to compete with an innovative West. Chinese-born academic Yong Zhao admits in his book World Class Learners, “the focus on academic achievement is the continuation of a long Chinese tradition that puts book knowledge above all others.”  Education in the age of globalisation needs to deliver much more than ‘book knowledge’.

After reading the article, I’ve concluded that China is no different to any other nation which views education as an investment in its future.  As in the West, the traditional model of schooling is being challenged albeit for different reasons and although Shanghai students may be ahead of their Western counterparts in international measures, the moral is that sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold.


6 thoughts on “All that glitters isn’t gold

  1. The PISA-based test have been around for some time and I am always amazed at the great focus on being in the top group. It is as though there is a fascination with scoring above other countries rather than looking at how we can all best use the results to achieve a unified approach to best practice. Andreas Scheicher, OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills talks of having high expectations and attracting the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms. A good question may be how did the countries that improved go about creating the change? Andreas Scheicher suggested a combined professional autonomy with a collaborative culture and investment in education reform. Imagine if we put all our energy into what works well as suggested by Professor John Hattie and added the positives of the PISA results with a touch of Lee Crockett’s 21st Century Fluencies to create the best strategies for learning and teaching? For me the gold is in the countries that made significant growth and that glitter is worth investigating.

    1. Good points Robert. Sir Michael Barber wrote last year that PISA and other international tests were a way of keeping the dialogue about school improvement front and centre. We need to keep school improvement front and centre but it also requires us to go beyond the results – to what drives sustainable change in systems.

  2. Absolutely right Greg — all that glitters is definitely not gold. I refer your readers to:
    Shanghai is only one, atypical province of China. The OECD isn’t disclosing if other provinces were involved, or what their results were. The Shanghai system is ruthless (students hooked up to intravenous amino acid drips while studying, teenagers killings themselves, a student not told that his mother had died in a car crash in case it distracted him, …) Thank god we don’t have that system here in Australia. Even so, we are consistently in the Top 10 countries.

  3. It certainly is food for thought Greg and it’s always a commendable effort to be number one but what does that really mean? Many would now say that PISA is but only one measure, maybe a little like NAPLAN? Especially during this Catholic Schools Week, we’re reminding parents that Catholic Education is more than just a great education. Shanghai may be number one but do they provide MORE than just a great education?

  4. After reading Amanda Ripley’s book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and how they got that they.” It clearly juxtaposes 3 different countries approaches to learning from a students perspective and what they had in common was a broader cultural belief that education is highly valued from all stakeholders as well as the importance given by the training of new teachers to ensure quality learning and teaching. A highly recommended easy read.

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