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What makes countries stand out in Education?

One of the decisive factors for a good education system is giving teachers ownership of the teaching process. According to Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at OECD, this aspect is particularly prominent in the systems of Finland and Singapore. Not coincidentally, both countries score high in PISA – the Programme for International Student Assessment that was developed by Schleicher. What really sets Finland apart from the other top 10 countries, however, is that the differences between schools and the impact of family background are smallest in Finland. As explained by the Centre for Public Impact, after WWII Finland had twenty years of conversation before deciding to drastically change its education system in 1968. With the gradual transfer of authority to municipalities and schools themselves, Finland’s performance in education surveys improved.

The backdrop to the PISA assessment is clear: since contemporary society rewards students for what they can do with what they know rather than rewarding the knowledge itself, the PISA test hardly focuses on measuring knowledge reproduction. Schleicher explains how this is also related to the rise of AI: advances in technology render the question what makes us human ever more urgent, and education should find a way to reflect this in the curriculum. The downside of PISA, according some critics, is that the tendency of increased testing – often starting at a very early age. Within PISA we can thus witness a tension between school results and certainty, on the one hand, and the labour market’s need for creative thinking, risk taking and experimenting, on the other.

It is often said that Finland and Singapore have less government interference in education compared to a country like Britain, where politics has the tendency to put ideas into schools and where social background plays a large role in the school results. The autonomous role of teachers in most of the top scoring countries makes teaching more intellectually attractive, and almost automatically takes the politics out of teaching. This element stands out prominently in Singapore, with the OECD referring to a number of innovations that have been introduced since 2000. These include teachers asking students on a regular basis to design or plan experiments and to apply the cognitive skills they acquired in a practical way – for example in science class.

Not only schools but also civil society and the labour market should have a role in deciding on the curriculum. We need to have a good understanding of what the future will require, anticipating jobs and technologies that have not yet been invented. As educators but also parents tend to be conservative in matters of teaching, it has proved to be easy to add to the curriculum but more difficult to cut. While many of the additions to the curriculum made sense during the time they were introduced, programmes have often become overloaded, putting pressure on both teachers and students. Research from neuroscience shows that it is better to focus in depth on solving one problem instead of dividing your time to address multiple problems. Many educators argue that a more focused and simplified curriculum is required for the 21st century labour market, which requires critical and conceptual thinking more than pure knowledge and its reproduction. On another occasion we will look at this from a different perspective, discussing the effects of automation on the labour market based on Carl Frey’s book The Technology Trap: Capital, Labour and Power in the Age of Automation.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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