To make progress, countries should ‘ignore Pisa entirely’

27th May 2016 at 00:00
The rankings don’t assess essential elements of success such as creativity, a leading academic argues

Countries should “ignore” one of the world’s most influential education rankings because it fails to measure what matters, an expert on the impact of technology and globalisation on education has claimed.

The idea of nations competing to reach the top of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables makes as much sense as university students competing to see who can drink the most beer, according to professor Yong Zhao (pictured, inset), from the University of Oregon in the US.

He told TESS: “You’re maybe the best drinker but you’ve got to think, ‘Is it good for you and does it matter?’ ”

According to Professor Zhao, Pisa – a snapshot comparison of how well 15-year-olds in different countries perform in reading, maths and science – homogenises education systems, which is why Asian countries do well.

But he insisted that a homogeneous workforce was not what was required for a successful future. Instead, countries needed “creative, entrepreneurial talents, able to create value for others”, he said.

Narrow skill set

Professor Zhao, who will deliver one of the keynote addresses at the Scottish Learning Festival in September, continued: “We should ignore Pisa entirely. I don’t think it is of any value. If you look at the so-called high-scoring countries, like Shanghai and all the East Asian countries, they are trying to get away from what has made them high on Pisa [rankings].”

The academic, who was educated in China, said that the country’s education system was an effective machine that could instil what the government wanted students to learn. But it didn’t also nurture creativity, he added, and the result was that China has a population with similar skills on a narrow spectrum.

Professor Zhao is not the first academic to criticise Pisa. TESS has reported on experts who have “serious problems” with the rankings (

Some criticise the statistical techniques used to compile the results while others dismiss the whole idea of being able to accurately rank such diverse education systems.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administers Pisa, has responded to the criticisms: the next round of rankings, the results of which will be published in December, will include a new “teamwork test” alongside scores in maths, reading and science.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD, said that the test, measuring “collaborative problem-solving”, could change the way that Pisa was viewed.

But Professor Zhao insisted that success depended not on good Pisa scores but instead on emphasising what made us human – the ability to design, to tell stories, to understand emotions, to entertain and to find meaning.

Young people all over the world were leaving university unable to find work, he said.

Many education systems had been designed to produce employees for jobs that were now being done by machines or outsourced to Asia. What was needed in schools now was an entrepreneurial mindset so that children had the ability to “invent their own jobs”, he argued.

Under such an education system, there would be no prescribed curriculum. Instead, the education would follow the child, tapping into what they were interested in or passionate about and encouraging them to identify problems that needed solving.

Focusing on the basics

The government’s recent overhaul of the Scottish education system would lead to “improvement, not transformation”, according to Professor Zhao.

“Every country – Scotland included – has been trying to improve its education system by better prescribing the curriculum and focusing on the basics like literacy and numeracy, guided by studies like Pisa.

“If you want to create something that will take you to the moon, you should stop tinkering with the horse and wagon; adding things to the traditional paradigm is no different to fattening a horse to go to the moon.”

However, Professor Zhao is a product of the kind of authoritarian education system that he is so critical of.

He did not leave China for the US until he was 27, yet he is the author of more than 100 articles and 20 books.

Clearly his creativity has not been stifled, but his response? “Imagine if I did not go through that [system]”.

Responding to Professor Zhao’s claims, a Scottish government spokesperson said that the Pisa tests enable a “comparison of Scotland with other developed economies and emerging competitors”.

The OECD was unavailable for comment.


Pisa to quiz pupils on their teachers’ attitudes to race

Pupils will be asked whether they think their teachers are racist under proposals for a new element of the influential Pisa education rankings.

The question, planned for the 2018 round of the tests, will form part of a survey designed to assess if pupils are properly prepared for a globalised world.

Under the plans, 15-year-olds will be asked whether their teachers say negative things about people from different cultural and ethnic groups or have lower expectations of them, and whether they talk about them in a respectful way.

Andreas Schleicher, who runs Pisa for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said that teachers’ attitudes in this area were “an important factor that shapes the students and their learning environment.”

But Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that a questionnaire was a “crude and potentially unreliable” way to explore the influence of teachers’ attitudes to students.

“I would be very cautious about young people making judgements about their teachers’ attitudes”, he said.

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