Cultural values, not teaching, are the key to learning, stupid

26th September 2008 at 01:00
One controversial academic argues results owe more to a society's culture than its pedagogy

It's not about the teaching, stupid. In fact, school results are not about teachers or pedagogy at all, according to one academic. The significant factor that affects success or failure in education is the value that pupils and parents put on learning.

Julian Elliott, professor of education at Durham University, said that well-regarded school systems such as in Japan and Russia owed their success more to cultural attitudes to education than anything teachers did in the classroom.

Last year, the Prime Minister said he believed all teachers should have a masters degree, after Sir Michael Barber, former head of the Government's school standards and effectiveness unit, claimed that the best performing education systems tended to have the best teachers.

But Professor Elliot said policy-makers seeking to raise education standards by concentrating on improving teaching were misguided.

At a conference on improving educational outcomes at Durham's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Professor Elliott said the Government had made mistakes in not recognising that culture was key to educational results. Instead, it had tried to import techniques used in the more successful Far East.

His comments were based on a recent paper he wrote with Nguyen Phuong-Mai, a colleague. They reviewed studies of the characteristics of education in the United States, the UK, eastern Europe and East Asia. It also included interview studies of Russian, British and American pupils in the late 1990s.

Their paper noted that young people in England and the United States tended to view education in "instrumental" terms: its main purpose was to help them to get a good job. But it was not clear this was productive, as there was little evidence that many were putting in the work required to do well.

"Unlike their peers in England and the United States, the Russian children in our studies prioritised the role of education as, first and foremost, a means of self-improvement: scholarship was widely seen as a means to become erudite and cultured," they wrote.

Russian pupils also tended to value literature from a young age, and the standards expected of them, particularly in maths and science, were often "extremely high".

In Japan and other Asian countries, they wrote, pupils tended to view education as important to their future economic prospects but also as having intrinsic value.

In East Asia, most pupils believed that effort, rather than intrinsic ability, was the key to high performance. In Britain and the United States, expectations of hard work appeared to be lower. Peer groups were also powerful in discouraging effort. In the United States, sporting and social success were more prized than doing well academically, they wrote.

Professor Elliott said: "The crucial thing that undermines the performance of kids in this country is social influence: peer influence working in the wrong direction. That's very hard to fight against." He said Labour had attempted to import whole-class interactive teaching from the Far East through the national literacy and numeracy strategies. "What they failed to realise was that it takes place in a very different social milieu, a completely different context.

"It's not the pedagogy, stupid. It's not the pedagogy at all. That's not why Asian countries, for example, do so well," said Professor Elliott.

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