`We trust our own instincts more than we trust Pisa'
Whenever international education rankings are published, policymakers head to the top-performing nations to see what they can learn, returning with action plans and targets. So it may surprise them to learn that at least some of those countries do not place much store in their league table positions or the process itself.
At last weekend's Oppi education festival in Helsinki, Finland, a leading educator from Singapore dismissed the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), despite his country's remarkable performance in the 2012 tests.
Singapore came third in science and second in maths and reading, and also topped a recent problem-solving exercise. But Pak Tee Ng, associate professor at Singapore's National Institute of Education, said: "So what if we are near the top of Pisa? What may be the ticket for success in the past may be a ticket to doom in the future. I think we trust our own instincts more than we trust the Pisa results."
He said that Pisa, which is run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was useful but was not Singapore's ultimate focus when it came to education. "It gives us an indication of how we are doing, but these results are not our aims at all," he continued. "We are more concerned with the education of our children."
Dr Pak Tee Ng told delegates that learning from other countries' education systems was a good idea, but warned them not to copy policies and initiatives wholesale.
"We learn from others but we must be mindful of the contextual differences," he said. "We cannot compare practices but can learn good principles and adapt appropriately in our context.
"We admire a lot of the things Finland is doing but we have got to do it the Singapore way."
The growing influence of Pisa has prompted some lower-ranked countries to attempt to replicate the success found in other nations and regions. After the 2012 Pisa results were released in December last year, England's education secretary Michael Gove said countries that had the "courage" to radically reform their education systems, such as Germany and Poland, had significantly improved their performance.
Mr Gove said he had been guided by the principles of some of the top-performing nations in making his reforms, such as greater freedom for school leaders (as practised in systems such as Shanghai and Hong Kong) and the new, more demanding national curriculum, which he said was "modelled on the approach of high-performing Asian nations such as Singapore".
But like Dr Pak Tee Ng, Finland's education minister Krista Kiuru told delegates that success in Pisa was not her country's primary goal. "We don't take part in Pisa to show others we are doing well, but to see if we are still on the right track," she said.
The 2012 Pisa tests actually found that Finland's performance had declined in all areas, prompting a bout of national soul-searching. But Ms Kiuru did not point the finger of blame at schools or teachers, nor advocate a major change of direction. In fact, she said, Finland had to return to the equality and equity that made its schools a success in the first place.
"Schools and teachers are as good as always," she explained. "The environment has changed. We don't need to do anything new. We have to go back on the tracks we decided to go on.
"So many people fail to see that the best heritage you can leave for the next generation is education. We need to show people we believe in school."
The role of teachers was also discussed by leading education academic Professor Sugata Mitra, who suggested that with the wealth of human knowledge available via the internet, it was time for teachers to stop being experts and just be children's friends instead.
Professor Mitra, who won the prestigious 2013 TED Prize, told delegates at Oppi that teachers needed to adapt to a new era.
When asked to describe what the role of a teacher should be, he said: "Not a guide, not an expert, just a friend. This is no longer the century where we can say `I know best what you should do, just listen to me'. That time has gone.
"Children with access to the internet can actually learn most things by themselves. But then somebody has to tell them what to learn and generate their interest in learning about a particular thing. That's where the teacher comes in."