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Saturday, 8 December, 2001, 00:31 GMT
Are our students really this bright?
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker
It is not every week that we have really good news on education so it was good to see plenty of media attention given to the findings of the international survey which put the UK right up in the premier league of educational performers.
There cannot have been much rejoicing in the USA either as its results were very average for a country which leads the world in economic, sporting and military terms.
Meanwhile Japan, Korea, Finland and Canada can all congratulate themselves on coming at the top of the international league table.
In case you missed it, the OECD-funded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed 15 year-olds in 32 countries.
They were tested on their ability to use their reading, mathematical and scientific skills to solve problems related to everyday life.
The UK (strictly speaking just England and Northern Ireland, as no Welsh or Scottish students were tested) did better than it has done in any previous international comparison: 4th in science, 7th in reading literacy, and 8th in mathematics.
Sadly, the reaction of some has been astonishment quickly followed by the question: Was this a fix?
Well, no, it wasn't. The study tested a huge sample of students: More than 10,000 in the UK and over a quarter of a million across the 32 countries.
What are we testing?
But of course success all depends on what you are measuring. The PISA study did not test 15 year olds on pure knowledge or their mastery of the school curriculum. No, its focus was emphatically on the application of skills to solving real-life challenges.
So, for example, the test of reading skills covered not just the ability to decipher words but went on to see how well students could analyse, reflect upon and evaluate what they were reading.
In a fascinating insight, the results are broken down into different categories of literacy skills. Thus we can see how each country's students did in each category.
In ascending order of sophistication, these are defined as: "retrieving" specific words from a text, "interpreting" a written passage, and "reflecting and evaluating" an overall piece of writing.
Students in the UK did well on all three measures but scored particularly well on the most demanding test, namely "reflecting and evaluation".
By contrast, Korea easily outscored the UK on the first two measures but was well behind British students on "reflecting and evaluation".
It is not surprising that schools systems around the world focus on different aspects of learning.
Traditionally, the countries of the Far East have a reputation for tough, rather formal, whole-class teaching methods designed to impart a set body of factual knowledge to a group of students, almost irrespective of their individual abilities.
By contrast (and inevitably over-simplifying), the English education system has, for the past 30 years, focused less on imparting knowledge and more on developing skills.
This has gone hand-in-hand with a shift from whole-class teaching to learning paced to each individual's needs.
The teaching of history is a good example of this.
Traditionally, English pupils learnt the names and dates of crucial battles and events from the past. There was a set body of information to be learnt and examinations were, to some extent, a test of memory.
So, perhaps it is this shift in our approach which helps explain why the UK does so well in the PISA study. PISA specifically set out to test the ability to apply knowledge and that has been the approach of our schools for the past two to three decades.
That might sound like an argument for complacent self-congratulation. However, we should not forget that - although we outscored all other European countries except Finland - we are still behind Japan and Korea in "mathematical literacy" and "scientific literacy".
So we cannot so simply dismiss traditional, whole-class teaching as it is achieving results in these countries.
Yet, ironically, both Japan and Korea have been re-thinking their approach to education and - surprise, surprise - they are moving towards a greater emphasis on individual and group working and towards problem-solving rather than the absorption of facts.
In short, there are no simple conclusions to be drawn from a study like this. But it does show which areas we can most profitably focus on when trying to learn from other countries' approaches to schooling.
Korea and Japan have other aspects of their schooling which may explain their success: There is a hunger for education in both societies, students are expected to work extremely hard and there is strong discipline. Yet their systems are also adaptable enough to incorporate new, more flexible approaches to education.
We must try to combine the best of all systems. I hope the government will now ask our school inspectors to pack their suitcases to visit all those countries which outperformed us and find out how they are doing it.
If we could teach reading as it is done in Finland, maths as the Japanese do, and science in the Korean way, we would win the next educational World Cup.
Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at email@example.com although cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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