As expected, the performance of English pupils in the Third International Maths and Science Survey (TIMMS) is below that of pupils of the same age from the participating Pacific Rim countries, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong. This year Singapore came top of both the science and the maths tables while previous studies have suggested that either Korea or Japan was at the top of these league tables (TES, November 22).
So how do we make sense of the success of those countries where there are large classes dominated by traditional teaching and rote learning practices? And what does it mean for constructivist models of learning, which imply that learners have to make sense of the information that they are learning through interacting with it?
Through listening to educators from Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan talk about learning I am beginning to get a picture of how this paradox unravels. A new book, The Chinese Learner, edited by an Australian,John Biggs, who has spent much of his time working in Hong Kong with Chinese learners, acknowledges this very paradox. He examines the causes by looking at the cultural heritage, teaching and learning activities of Chinese (or Confucian heritage) learners.
There are two main areas to consider: first, our misunderstanding of what goes on in the Pacific Rim classroom and second, the contribution of the Confucian tradition to learning.
In the Confucian tradition the presumption is that everyone is educable. Although Confucius did not refuse to teach anybody on the basis of ability,he would, however, have refused to teach a person who was not eager to learn. The concept that all are educable sits oddly with traditional British notions of setting and streaming which send a different message. In last term's BBC Panorama programme about teaching in Taiwan, the primary teacher was asked whether the class was streamed. The teacher was confused by the question and eventually replied that streaming was against the law in their country. Yet we see setting and streaming re-emerging in England, even in primary schools, as a result of the national assessment programme and its pressures.
A second important element of the Confucian tradition is the approach to learning which involves memorisation and then constant repetition in order to develop meaning. This is referred to as "repetition as a route to understanding" which is important in learning the Chinese characters, their meaning and how to write them.
In its first stage this repetitious learning uses shape, sound, speaking aloud, writing and thinking about the meaning of each of the characters. The second phase is using the meaning and form of the characters to turn them into words and then words into sentences. Hence repetition develops meaning.
The Confucian scholar does not stop at the understanding which comes with memorisation and repetition, but moves on to incorporating what is taken from the reading into their own experience "the most important point is to digest thoroughly what one gets from books so that it becomes an integral part of one's own experience".
This view of memorisation and repetition in learning is rather different from the "rote learning" model that we in Britain, Australia and the US talk about. In traditional learning theory the assumption is that rote learning is not meaningful learning, while what is being described in the Confucian tradition is repetitive learning when one already has the meaning. Interestingly what is described as the Confucian approach to learning and making one's own interpretation of the material at a certain stage of its mastery has resonances with constructi vist learning theory. The key to both is meaning and understanding.
A third important element of the Confucian tradition is the importance of effort in relation to learning; willpower is the driving force of effort and as such is available to all members of the human community without reference to any background factors. In Confucian scholarship, there are no short cuts to deep understanding: such an outcome requires effort. The cultural assumption is, therefore, that it is effort rather than innate ability which yields rewards in learning and schooling. The notion that everyone can become a sage is at the root of the significance of education within the Confucian tradition: great respect is accorded to learning and to educational endeavour for both personal and societal improvement.
Japanese children, for example, are traditionally culturally socialised to become geared to diligent learning and effort as soon as they arrive in school: they have less need to be motivated to learn because they are already socialised to do the things that are required of them by their teachers. In British, American and Australian classrooms the concept of motivation is much more significant to pupils' performance: classroom activities need to be made attractive and elaborate systems of positive and negative reinforcement need to be employed while Japanese youngsters appear to be motivated because of cultural constraints.
The second area is the western misunderstanding of what is happening in eastern classrooms. We see an authoritarian expository approach while researchers who have investigated classrooms in China, Taiwan and Japan argue that these teachers see their role as anything but an authoritarian purveyor of information who expects students to listen and memorise. Rather, these teachers see themselves as posing provocative questions, allowing reflection time and varying techniques to suit individual students. Indeed American researchers used the term constructivist to describe much of the teaching which they saw.
The argument is that teachers and students in these large classes are interacting with the learning matter: reflecting, generalising and problem-solving. The short Panorama extract on the Taiwanese classroom showed high levels of interaction between the teacher and the pupils which required all children to be able to show that they had mastered the material, as well as high levels of interaction with (no doubt) repetitious activities. This is a very different model of teaching and learning from the one that we may have, of "dead" transmission teaching to the whole class with quiet and differentially receptive children.
What are the lessons of this paradox for us? The main one is that we should learn not to judge quite so quickly what is going on in other cultures. For these Confucian heritage students in the Pacific Rim countries a range of factors are at work: at the individual level, the importance of effort; at school level, the belief that all can learn and that learning requires effort in order to develop real understanding; at societal level, a deep respect for formal education and for teachers.
Of course I am conscious that there are many unwelcome aspects of education in these countries. One, for example, is the negative result on Japanese students of too much emphasis on performance at school. Another is the damaging personal consequences for students in Hong Kong who put in a lot of effort but cannot maintain high grades.
But for us to take from the results of the TIMMS study a simple lesson, that whole class teaching (in, as it happens, large classes) will result in high levels of mathematics and science performance in this country, would be a very grave mistake.
What matters for good quality learning - learning which is useful to the learner and can be applied in different contexts - is that the learner interacts with the material, develops understanding and reflects in order to generate deeper meanings. It is possible to achieve this in whole- class teaching but it needs to be of a particular type involving high levels of interaction and use of higher order skills.
Professor Caroline Gipps is Dean of Research at the University of London Institute of Education
The Chinese Learner: Cultural, Psychological and Contextual Influences edited by D A Watkins and J B Biggs is published by the Comparative Education Research Centre, Hong Kong and the Australian Council for Educational Research Ltd, 1996