Lessons That Matter From East Asian Education

The success of East Asian countries in international tests has led to a flurry of interest in many other countries, including Australia, to analyse the reasons for this success and apply the lessons. However, a paper published last month by internationally renowned US educator, Yong Zhao, shows that East Asian countries are abandoning education practices and policies that many outside observers have praised. The targets for reform are the very education practices and policies that have been praised by outside observers – national curriculum, high-stakes testing, meritocracy, direct instruction, and long school hours.

Outside observers have largely neglected or misunderstood these reform efforts, either failing to address why and how East Asian education systems have engaged in continuous reform over the past three decades or mistakenly treating some of these reform efforts as reasons for outstanding performance on international assessments. As a result, many of the popularly promoted lessons drawn by outside observers relate at best to the recent past of education in East Asia, while these systems have been actively working to create an education of the future. [p.1]

Despite their success, there is considerable disquiet about the education systems of East Asian countries. There are high level concerns about the relative shortage of creative and entrepreneurial talents, high levels of student depression and anxiety, declining physical health amongst young people, and excessive academic burden.

There are also widespread concerns about increasing inequity in funding and student outcomes. For example, there are huge differences in government funding between school districts. The tradition of meritocracy makes schools unequal by design because of the longstanding practice of sorting students into different quality schools based on their exam performances. The long hours spent in tutoring classes outside school maintains and exacerbates social inequalities. More prosperous families are able to purchase greater quantities and better qualities of supplementary tutoring than can less prosperous families.

These concerns have led to efforts to reform education in many East Asian countries. The report says that these reform efforts have been misunderstood as the reasons behind the high performance of East Asian education systems today. As an example, it mentions a widely-cited paper by the Grattan Institute in Australia which claimed that education performance in East Asian had rapidly improved since the reforms. However, the Yong Zhao shows that the performance of East Asian countries has always been high and that their success pre-dated the education reforms.

High performance of East Asian systems predated many of the reforms observed.
Reforms need time to take effect, making it even more unlikely that they are responsible for the high test results of East Asian students. For instance, the cornerstone reform strategy in Hong Kong only began to be implemented in 2000, when Hong Kong was already performing strongly in international studies; it is quite a stretch to believe it resulted in the gains in PIRLS from 2001 to 2006. Another example is Singapore. Major reforms affecting teachers in Singapore began after 1997, when the country had already topped the world rankings in maths in TIMSS in 1995. [p.12]

Zhao attributes the success of East Asian countries to their cultural legacy of exam-taking.

All four Asian systems under investigation, namely Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, have a strong association with the Confucian culture that values passing exams as a primary means of achieving social mobility or meritocracy. As a result, these systems feature extremely dedicated parents, diligent students, and an education infrastructure built around helping students succeed in exams. [p.12]

He notes recent research showing that students of Chinese origin attending schools in New Zealand and Australia had similar achievement to students in Shanghai in the international PISA tests, and much higher performance than non-Chinese students in Australia and New Zealand. Since these students attend the same schools as their host country peers, the difference is more likely a result of their cultural legacy than schooling.

The paper outlines how these four Asian education systems have engaged in massive reform efforts over the past decade or more. The reforms involve major changes in education objectives, curriculum, assessment and teaching.

The most significant theme across the reform efforts in all four East Asian systems is broadening the definition of education outcomes beyond a narrow set of subjects and international test scores. They aim to develop twenty-first century skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration and higher-order thinking abilities. They are also interested in students’ social, emotional and physical health. Stressing moral education, the arts, physical education, and social skills is a common theme of reforms in these systems.

The Asian systems have restructured their curricula to introduce new learning experiences for students. These aim to expand students’ education beyond traditional academic subjects and give them more authentic life experiences that cultivate twenty-first century skills.

Another commonly shared theme is the movement toward ‘student-centredness’. The four East Asian systems share a long tradition of being authority-centred, exam-oriented and teacher-driven. Reform efforts in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore all recognise the importance of individual differences and have taken actions to build a student-centred education.

Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore had a long tradition of excessive use of testing in education, but these systems have all recognised the dangers of over-testing students. Since the mid-1990s, they have enacted policies and efforts to reduce the importance of academic testing in high-stakes decision-making for students, teachers and schools.

The Asian systems have been known for teacher-centred pedagogical practices that emphasise direct instruction, rote memorisation, and knowledge transmission. Having recognised the limitation and dangers of this approach, the Asian systems have engaged in massive efforts to transform pedagogy – to move away from their traditional approach of direct instruction toward a constructivist approach that is more student-centred and inquiry-based.

The East Asian systems included in this study have traditionally been centralised, but in recent years they have been gradually loosening central control. Governments are increasingly granting more autonomy in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

Education systems have also been taking action to reduce student academic burdens, reduce the amount of time devoted to school subjects outside school, and reduce the pressure of schoolwork on students.

Finally, the countries are also trying to ensure equity in education. All these systems have been working on major reforms to improve equity in resources and access to education. They are removing regulations and laws that had intentionally created inequity, challenging the tradition of meritocracy and creating new opportunities.

Zhao observes that Western countries, including Australia, are moving in the opposite direction to East Asian education systems.

In contrast, reform efforts in the West, such as in Australia, England and the United States, seem to be moving in the opposite direction – towards centralised control and prescriptive curricula, more emphasis on standardised testing, narrowing the definition of education outcomes, shifting to direct instruction, and reducing student choices. [p.25]

He says that there are many lessons to be learned from the reforms taking place in East Asian education systems. One is that education policy should not be driven by test results as they have limited usefulness.

Australia and other nations should take action to limit the impact of standardised testing, international or domestic, on educational policy and practice.
Instead of focusing on standardised testing, it would be much more beneficial to develop policies and practices that aim to cultivate a broad range of educational outcomes, which have been generally recognised as valuable but rarely promoted (beyond lip service) in policy and practice. These outcomes have been referenced in different terms. Some of the more commonly used terms include “twenty-first century skills”, creativity, non-cognitive skills and entrepreneurial thinking. Some of them are included in the Australian national curriculum but they are not supported in any substantive way that can drive actual practices in schools and classrooms. [p.27]

Zhao also suggests that Australia is taking school autonomy in the wrong direction. He notes that the national curriculum and NAPLAN are gradually and steadily reducing room for schools and teachers to exercise their professional judgment over what to offer and when to offer it to students, in contrast to the trend in East Asia to create more autonomy for schools and teachers in curriculum.

Asian systems have pursued broad and flexible curricula in order to cultivate the qualities they consider necessary for the globalised world that technology is altering drastically. Moreover, East Asian schools and teachers have been granted increasing autonomy with respect to curriculum and implementation. If Australia has the same expectations for a diversity of creative and entrepreneurial talent, it should work on expanding, rather than reducing, the curriculum autonomy of schools and teachers. [p.28]

Yong Zhao, Lessons that matter: What should we learn from Asia?, Mitchell Institute discussion and policy paper No. 04/2015. Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy, Melbourne.

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