PISA studies have been the single biggest source of mis-direction in education policy change in my opinion (I haven’t counted it. When I get the time, I might). When Finland was on top of the league tables, everyone wanted a Finnish-style education system. The various education tourists from countries all over the world visiting Finland were looking at what was happening at that particular point in time as the model for achieving the very impressive results that were being attained in 2000 and using their observations as the basis for forming education policy in their own countries. The problem is that results at any particular point in time are the cumulative effect of the many years of education preceding that snapshot.
Tim Oates has dissected the longitudinal factors involved in the success of the Finnish system in this paper on Finnish Fairy Stories. Far from the much touted successful snapshot of PISA 2000, he reveals a successful revolution of the Finnish system transitioning to comprehensive education starting in the 1970’s which enabled the Finns to achieve the results they did. However, he also suggests that what was happening in the late 1990’s in Finnish education, leading up to PISA 2000 lead to a gradual decline in standards. This is borne out by subsequent PISA studies where Finland has dropped in rankings.
Gabriel Sahlgren has published a fascinating, detailed study of the real success story of Finnish education and lessons other education systems could learn from its development: Real Finnish Lessons. In this paper, he talks about the ‘iron cage of history’: The fact that results are cumulatively built over time and that rather than look at what is happening now to explain successes or issues in an education system, we need to look at what has happened in the past to enable it to become the way it is.
This focus on contextual factors, and historical influences is at odds with political desire. Politicians are looking for fast, quick fix solutions to intractable educational issues. After all, it is the immediate successes that generate votes. However, focussing on low hanging fruit without dealing with the ageing older crop or the ripening new one, leaves problems on the tree for future generations to deal with: exactly the situation Finland is facing at the moment.
Now everyone wants to be like Shanghai. Well in an interesting experiment, the BBC catalogued five Chinese teachers taking over a British school. Here is what they found. Similarly, the conclusions the programme comes to is that the education system in China works because of the supporting context: societal demand for positive results, parental support (and pressure) of learners to achieve high standards, a strong work ethic, uncompromising control structures, strong sense of duty, respect for teachers and strict discipline common in the wider society. Many of these factors are alien in modern-day Britain.
There are lessons to be learned from other contexts.The problem with educational tourism is, that, like that beautiful multi-coloured wall-hanging you bought in Vietnam that really doesn’t fit with your Scandinavian living room at home, what appears to work in that context, may not when ported to a completely different one.