Exclusive: England held back by rote-learning, warns Pisa boss

England’s schools system is losing ground to the Far East because of an emphasis on rote-learning and a narrowing of the curriculum, says the official behind the Pisa international education rankings

Will Hazell

Will Hazell


Britain tops the international league table when it comes to the amount of low-value rote-learning in its schools, a senior education figure has warned.

Andreas Schleicher, the head of education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said the UK had “a lot to learn” from countries like China, which had embraced a skills-based approach to education. 

Mr Schleicher, who oversees the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), was speaking last week at the Best in Class summit in New York, organised by the Sutton Trust educational charity.

He said that “Britain comes out right on top” in terms of the amount of rote-learning in its schools.

He told the conference: “If I had asked you at the beginning which country comes out on top of rote learning, rehearsal, drill and so on, many of you may have picked China.

“If you look at ‘deep learning’, what everybody talks about, you can see in China they do some memorisation, but they put a much greater premium on creative skills, on the ability of students to connect up knowledge.

“Actually in the case of the UK and US, there’s a lot to learn, a lot to develop.”

Mr Schleicher said that focusing too much on rote-learning could damage student outcomes and put people at risk of losing their jobs to robots.

“Some people say, ‘Well, memorisation is a great way to learn.’

The memorisation approach 'can hinder learning'

“For easy tasks, memorisation is quite helpful – drill, rote learning and so on works quite well for basic things. But as tasks get more complex, actually memorisation is not just neutral, it’s actually hindering effective learning.

“The kind of things that are easy to teach, easy to test, are precisely the kind of things that are also easy to digitise.”

After his speech, Mr Schleicher was asked a question by an audience member about changes to the accountability system narrowing the curriculum in England.

He replied: “I must say I’ve observed the same trend in England in narrowing of the kind of things that are being valued in the education system.

“Twenty years ago, I would have said that’s great – you need to have strong foundations, you need to know the basics in maths and science.

“Today, actually, it’s those other kinds of qualities that are the big differentiator.

"This is the lesson, when I give those contrasts with China and Singapore, these countries have taken to heart many years ago, they have made that shift towards much more innovative pedagogy, much more project-based learning, team-based learning, all of those things where they build student agency.”

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