Overworked teachers + high stakes tests ≠ Pisa success

Estonia's Pisa results are built on a system of teacher autonomy without inspectorate interference, says Mary Bousted

Pisa 2018: What England can learn from the Pisa global education rankings

Long expected and keenly awaited, the Pisa international education league tables are now out in the open. The results cause great excitement among the politicians whose education policies are endorsed – or devalued, depending on their countries’ ranking – in the education international league tables.

So, what to make of this year’s results?

The UK has improved in maths, which is very good news, but progress is largely static in reading and science.

The Pisa tests assess how well the over 600,000 students who sit them are able to use the knowledge they have learned to practical ends. This is a focus that Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the tests, repeatedly emphasises. Knowledge, he asserts, is not enough. In today’s world, and with growing automation and digitalisation, what is equally important is what we can do with what we know.

When it comes to reading, the capacity of East Asian students to deal with ambiguous, complex information, to think creatively about solutions and to navigate fake news, is actually a lot better than for students in the UK.

This is a finding which challenges the common perception that East Asian education systems are too pressurised and rely too much on rote learning.

Pisa and high-stakes testing

But Schleicher argues that the UK should look to itself when it comes to rote learning: ‘When it comes to cramming, I would think it’s more prevalent in the UK rather than in Singapore…’

The problem with a teaching approach based on memorisation is that it is fine for simple tasks but the more complex the problem to be solved, the less successful rote memorisation is as a strategy.  

Asked recently why teachers in England relied on rote memorisation, Schleicher cited the amount of timed written exams in our education system, arguing that rote learning was a perfectly understandable response to the volume of information to be recalled in high-stakes testing.

The pressure of high-stakes testing may also be one of the key reasons behind Pisa’s revelation that the UK’s children had some of the lowest scores of any country for "life satisfaction" and for feeling they had "meaning" in their lives.

In England, 66 per cent of young people said they were sometimes or always worried – compared with an OECD average of 50 per cent – a very worrying finding that Schleicher implied could be down to the very strong culture of individual competition rather than cooperation in UK schools.

On a much more positive note, UK children are believers in "growth mindset" – 70 per cent of them disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement: "Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much."

One of the problems with Pisa is that it is very hard to decipher how much of a country’s performance is the result of the strengths of its education system, and how much is due to other factors – the percentage of its children living in poverty, for example, or whether income inequality is growing or narrowing.

Another key issue in international comparisons is the influence of culture upon attitudes to, and performance in, different subjects.  

The cultural leap between the UK and China is wide. So where could we go to learn lessons about how we might do better educationally, from a society which might be closer to the UK’s cultural norms?

Estonia is perhaps one such country. It has done remarkably well in this year’s Pisa results.

Estonia’s children do not start formal schooling until they are 7. Before that, they learn through play in high-quality, low-cost preschool provision.

Very unlike the UK, Estonia’s children are taught in mixed-ability classes throughout their schooling. Mart Laidmets, the secretary-general of the ministry of education and research in Estonia, says: "In Estonia, we really think all children should be able to achieve."

Digital skills are a key component of the Estonian school curriculum – a finding which cannot be unrelated to the fact that twice as many Estonian students pursue careers in IT compared with the OECD average.

And, perhaps most important, Laidmets is clear about the role of teachers: "Teachers here (in Estonia) have autonomy.  They know the expectations of the national curriculum, but there is no schools’ inspectorate or external body which assesses how they approach this."

Which might be something Boris Johnson pauses to consider as he pledges to "beef up" Ofsted and to introduce "no notice" inspections.

Exhausted teachers, labouring in an intensely high-stakes education system, with schools working in competition rather than collaboration, does not appear to be a recipe for success. 

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU

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