Pisa: What the UK can learn from East Asia

For the past decade, East Asia has been home to the top performers in Pisa rankings. What's the secret of its success?

Pisa: East Asian countries top the Pisa global education rankings

East Asian countries have been Pisa scene-stealers for some time, and the 2018 results are no exception.

Students in the region have the highest average scores in maths, science and reading, the domains tested every three years in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).


Background: What are the Pisa international education rankings?

News: Pisa responds to critics with new computer tests

Read: Who is Pisa chief Andreas Schleicher?


The four Chinese provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (B-S-J-Z) collectively top all three rankings with impressive average scores: 555 in reading, 591 in maths and 590 in science.

Singapore, in second position, finished at 549 in reading, 569 in maths and 544 in science. B-S-J-Z and Singapore have no peers in the rankings – their performance is significantly different from that of other countries, according to the report.

Macao figures in third position in all three rankings, followed by Hong Kong in reading and maths – but not in science, where Hong Kong achieved 517 points and figures lower down the rankings.

Chinese Taipei is in fifth position in maths, while it ended in 17th position in reading and 10th in science.

Japan and Korea also positioned themselves high up in the rankings but less consistently so. In reading, Japan was 15th and Korea ninth; in maths they were sixth and seventh respectively; in science they were in fifth and seventh position, but Japan had a 10-point lead on Korea.

Pisa coordinator Andreas Schleicher said that there are several things that other education systems can learn from East Asia.

Pisa: East Asia sets the standard

He said: “The first is the capacity to attract talented teachers to challenging classrooms, to align resources with needs not just in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality.”

He added that teachers in East Asia spend significant amounts of time with students outside of classroom settings – while British teachers “have less time” to do that – and said that a focus on mastery learning and consistently high expectations were other positive features of the system.

He explained that as far as B-S-J-Z is concerned, the four provinces represent about 180 million people, but they should not be considered as typical for China.

Although East Asia is the best performing region in Pisa, its education systems don’t have a universally bright reputation elsewhere due to concerns about "cramming" and the perception that they place a low value on creativity.

However, Mr Schleicher warned against those stereotypes.

He said: “When it comes, for example, to cramming, I would think it’s more prevalent in the UK rather than in Singapore or the four provinces of China. I don’t think we should stereotype the systems.

“That might have been true 20 or 30 years ago. Those countries are now  developing very sophisticated skillsets among their young people that involve complex problem-solving skills, creative skills, critical-thinking skills.”

Areas where countries in the region need to work harder, he added, are students’ life satisfaction and their sense of belonging at school – but this also applied to the UK.

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