Gove uses discredited data again, but ignores what doesn't fit his ideology

Janet Downs's picture
I haven’t read the report “A world-class mathematics education for all our young people” yet. It ‘s 117 pages long, but Mr Gove has commented:

"As Carol and her team point out so powerfully, we are falling behind our competitors when it comes to mathematics education. British 15-year-olds' mathematics skills are now more than two whole academic years behind 15-year-olds in Shanghai and the last decade has seen us plummet down the international league tables in both maths and science.”

Regular readers will spot that Mr Gove has repeated the line “the last decade has seen us plummet…” which we know can only be upheld if the OECD 2000 figures are used, and regular readers know the OECD found these figures were flawed and could not be used for comparison purposes.

So what else is Mr Gove saying besides trotting out discredited data? He says the achievement of UK students in Science has fallen but forgets to mention that the score is still above the OECD average. And he’s comparing Maths achievement with that of Shanghai. What he didn’t say was that Shanghai’s results were so high that there was a 38 point gap between its score and the country in second place, Singapore. Even Korea, second in the reading league tables, scored 54 points less in Maths than Shanghai’s stratospheric 600. UK scored 54 points less than Korea, so if Mr Gove is correct about the relative gap in academic years, then high-flying Korea is one year behind Shanghai.

How did Shanghai do it? Mr Gove might be surprised to learn that Mr Schleicher of the OECD said the success was due to moving from a system based on knowledge acquisition to one which encourages students to analyse and apply information. And the Shanghai government trusted principals and teachers to turn round failing schools by offering more autonomy. Mr Gove might think his academy conversion programme follows this blueprint, except that schools in England already have a high degree of autonomy, and academies that join chains may find they have less freedom than when under local authority control. He might believe that Shanghai teachers’ high expectations match his “no excuses” formula, except that Shanghai teachers are expected to provide a high level of support when required, something that might not happen if English schools increasingly rely on streaming. But Mr Gove misses what Schleicher thinks is most impressive about Shanghai schools: they focus on collaborative and creative learning, and teachers motivate pupils to learn for themselves

OECD* has already warned that the excess emphasis on test results is having a negative effect on English education and risks neglecting non-cognitive skills such as collaborative learning. High results from Shanghai demonstrate that a shift from force-feeding knowledge and information to student-centred learning has a positive effect on pupils’ achievement, yet Mr Gove is again ignoring data which does not fit his pre-conceived ideas while at the same time continuing to misrepresent data to promote his own ideology.

* pp 100-102 “Reforming Education in England” in the OECD Economic Survey UK 2011 is not freely available on the internet but details of how to obtain the document are here:
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JimC's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 08:22


I read the article about Mr Schleicer with interest as well as your comments on another thread about streaming. I think there is some confusion here about what traditional and progressive teaching actually represents in this country.

The article describes creative learning as the ability to apply information to new situations. Surely the more students are taught about a topic the easier it is to solve new problems related to that knowledge - it is not clear to me that this isn't actually what is happening in Shanghai.

Examples of collaborative learning in the article are even more vague. The only one given appears to involve a teacher engaging their class in discussion - contrary to the strawman definition supplied by the article this is traditional teaching and certainly isn't the sort of activity that springs to mind when I think about 'collaborative' and 'student centred' learning in British schools - there is no mention of cross curricular project work? Where is the role play? Where are the teachers facilitating students to teach each other in groups?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 14:04

JimC's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 21:27

I see little resemblence between what Schleicher advocates in the oecd article and the teaching methods described in the article about Shanghai.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 12:38

These appear in both articles:

1Equipping students with the ability to interpret and extrapolate information from text and apply it to other situations (this could be described as cross-curricular).
2Problem-solving skills.
3Focus on collaborative and creative learning.
4Instead of force-feeding knowledge and information to students, teachers motivate them to learn for themselves.

The information about the Shanghai government allowing teachers more autonomy, and expecting high standards came from the reporter, not Mr Schleicher. I should have made that clear. However, it is the reporter's comments which Mr Gove would be more likely to cease upon, not the ideas of Mr Shleicher which I summarised.

JimC's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 13:58

1. "This could be described as cross curricular" - It could but you'd be making some massive assumptions if you were to say so. I think you are clutching at straws here Janet.

2. "Problem solving skills" - It is an utter misrepresentation to suggest that traditional teaching methods don't allow students the opportunity to solve problems.

3. "Focus on collaborative and creative learning" - The point I am trying to make is that what is described in that article as 'collaborative' learning in Shanghai is practically traditional compared to what is described by Shleicher and what happens in British schools today. Maybe they are doing everything Shleicher says but I don't see it based on that article - I mean having a group discussion with the teacher about solving Maths problems doesn't really seem like Shleicher's cup of tea does it?

4. This is an extremely annoying and insulting strawman aimed at the critics of progressive teaching methods.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 10/08/2011 - 17:45

Unfortunately, Ms Vorderman has used the same dodgy OECD PISA 2000 figures for the UK in the body of the report as has discovered:

The report’s authors also downplayed the 2007 TIMSS results for England. There is no recognition that England's TIMSS score had increased and that in grade 8 mathematics England’s score was high enough for only five countries to have significantly higher levels of performance (p 8 NFER).

The authors also referred to Plymouth University research about trainee maths teachers. The authors wrote that the “mean score for England was among the lowest” which demonstrated “the disparity in subject knowledge and delivery of mathematics education” and this added weight “to the effect that learning mathematics in England is something of a lottery”. Although the authors acknowledged the small number of countries in the Plymouth survey, it did not say that these countries were deliberately chosen for their expertise in teaching maths. Neither did the authors reveal that the research had found that England is one of the better performing countries in Maths. The Daily Mail made the same mistake when commenting on the research as explained:

It is a pity that Ms Vorderman’s report is underpinned by faulty statistics because it has much to recommend it, including the suggestion to scrap Maths SATs.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 14:19

JimC - I think you are over-reacting. I am merely summarising what Mr Schleicher said and don't think this precis can be described as "an extremely annoying and insulting strawman aimed at the critics of progressive teaching methods". There is a longer, much longer, report from the OECD about Shanghai's teaching reforms together with problems which I will post shortly. However, here is what the report said about the Chinese curriculum (not just in Shanghai):

"Concrete changes include dilution of the disciplined structure of 'subjects' so as to re-organise content according to life-relevance and progression in learning; the introduction of new integrated contents at the cross-over between natural sciences and humanities..." These changes, OECD said, challenge "basic assumptions about education and curriculum... it is curriculum reform in the genuine sense".

The report acknowledges that this reform has been strongly opposed.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 14:21

An OECD report on Shanghai confirms much of the above BUT also identifies problems. It describes Chinese cultural expectations that children must work hard, and highlights an ingrained belief that high test scores are more important than a relevant curriculum. National policy seeks to reduce the emphasis on exams. The Chinese Ministry of Education issued a policy document in 2001 calling for changes which include those described by Mr Schleicher plus:

1Changing the emphasis of assessment from “screening” to “formative and constructive”.
2Moving from centralisation to allow local regions to adapt to local needs.
Critics say pupils are still overwhelmed by learning activities. To counteract this hot-housing, a planning document calls for a reduction in pupil workload. Shanghai has introduced interventions to reduce this pressure while stressing the quality of pupil learning over quantity.

In 1994 Shanghai introduced a policy whereby children attending the local school. This neighbourhood attendance caused consternation among teachers who were not used to handling mixed ability classes. However, OECD says that teachers now seem to be proud of being able to teach such classes.

Nevertheless, the report found that none of those interviewed was satisfied with the quality of Shanghai’s education system because “pupils are still not given much autonomy in their study” and “examination pressure still prevails” which still leaves pupils unprepared for future life and work.

JimC's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 15:28


It is very common for Schleicher and other advocates of progressive teaching methods to accuse any teacher who disagrees with them of delivering boring lessons that involve little more than copying out and learning by rote. By using terms like 'Force feeding' Schleicher sticks the boot in even further by hinting that traditional educators are cruel as well.

People are being smeared on the basis of a lie. Why is it an over reaction to point call this process annoying and insulting?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 15:48

It was the reporter in the article who used the term "force-feeding", not Mr Schleicher. I have searched through the OECD document on Shanghai and found that the term "force-feeding" was not used. I scanned Mr Schleicher's article on skills needed for the future and could find no use of that term. Neither did I find the word "boring".

Mr Schleicher's opinions, and those of the OECD, are based on properly-conducted research which has been analysed. The OECD has identified qualities which tend to be shown by successful education systems. These have been much discussed on this site. Governments hold OECD research in such high regard that they consider its findings when making policies. And they like to give their policies the OECD seal of approval. Mr Gove tries to do this but fails because he ignores OECD warnings about faulty data, and only picks from the research that which fits his idealogy.

JimC's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 16:35

I take the point about Schleicher not using the term 'force feeding' although I am not convinced he would object to the term.


"It's as though schools needed to be boring and dominated by rote learning before deeper, more invigorating learning could flourish"

This is from the OECD article you linked to, Schleicher implies that traditional teaching methods were boring (at least to begin with) and dominated by learning by rote - this is both misrepresenting and insulting.

Parts of your second paragraph are verging on a strawman. I haven't read the OECD research that supports Schleicher's opinions so am in no position to question it nor have I done so. My position is that from what was described in the Shanghai article Schleicher's methods are not being used in Shanghai to anywhere near the extent they are in the UK. I also argue that advocates of progressive teaching methods often provide misleading representations of traditional education.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 08:42

You're correct about Mr Schleicher's use of "boring". My scanning the article for "boring" missed the word. The construction of the sentence is interesting - he uses the phrase "It's as though..." which seems more nuanced than saying "Schools were boring". Yes, I know it's a pedantic quibble, but I think it's rather an over-reaction to say he is "misrepresenting and insulting".

You say that advocates of progressive teaching methods provide misleading representations of "traditional" education. The opposite is also true with "progressive" methods being parodied as "playing" or child-centred (although why the latter should be a criticism is unclear - who else should be at the centre of education if not children? Society? Parents? Teachers?). However, learning doesn't happen in one particular way. It is important that teachers are given autonomy to teach in the best way to suit particular groups of children (which ties in with the use of assessment to decide what to teach next and how to teach it).

You keep saying that my argument is a straw man. In which case, knock it down, build it up with better evidence and data, and reach a solid conclusion.

JimC's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 09:30

Firstly I don't think you can buy into Schleichers vision without buying into his descriptions of 20th century schooling. If you've bought into it then why would you think it is an over reaction for me to say he is misleading.

Secondly I agree with you about the parodies of 'progressive' methods which highlight the worst manifestations of progressive ideas. Do you not think it is both misleading and insulting to successful practitioners of progressive ideas to have their work described this way?

Finally a strawman is an attempt to misrepresent someones position and argue against that misrepresentation. I didn't make any comments about the quality of evidence that informs the OECD's findings - why should I have to provide evidence for claims I haven't made? My issue was with the observations of teaching strategies in the Shanghai article.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 10:45

Jim C: The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.

1.Person A has position X.
2.Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3.Person B attacks position Y.
4.Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.

Say that Person A is Mr Schleicher. I (presumably Person B) have presented his position but I have not distorted it. Neither have I attacked his position – I have merely presented it. I should be grateful if you could explain how I have presented a Straw Man argument.

Accusing someone of using the Straw Man fallacy is often used with dismissive overtones. However, I prefer the idea that Straw Man can help thrash out ideas as described below.

JimC's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 11:13

I believe I said that you were verging on a strawman argument.

My issue was with the conclusions drawn by Schleicher based on the evidence in one particular news article. Based on the evidence I don't agree that what happened in that classroom is a manifestation of Schleichers vision - the only way one could would be to argue that the only form of teaching that isn't progressive is learning by rote (ironically this is something progressives often seem to do anyway).

The strawman is that Schliecher was right on the article because his opinions are formed using strong research from the OECD.

JimC's picture
Thu, 11/08/2011 - 17:29


With reference to this article;

I liked some of the things that are happening in Shanghai but I don't see any great similarities between what is happening there and Schleicher's vision for 21st century education.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 08:32

JimC - see pages 89/90 of the report which describes changes which the Chinese Ministry of Education called for in 2001. I'll summarise these and put Mr Schleicher's comments in brackets so the similarities are clear:

1 Moving away from pure knowledge transmission towards fostering learning attitudes (How do we foster motivated, dedicated learners...?).
2 Moving away from discipline-based knowledge, towards more comprehensive learning experiences (Educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge to novel situations).
3 Moving away from "bookish" knowledge to improve relevance and interest (see point 2).
4 Moving away from rote-learning to increased pupil participation, real-life experience, capacity in communications and teamwork, and ability to acquire new knowledge and to analyse and solve problems (see point 1).
5 Moving away from assessment designed for screening and selection to formative functions (this is not dealt with in Mr Schleicher's article).
6 Moving away from centralisation and leaving room for adaptation to local needs (this is not mentioned in Mr Schleicher's article but is mentioned frequently in OECD documents - the importance of autonomy).

JimC's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 09:39

I'm not interested in what the Chinese Ministry of Education called for I'm interested in what actually happened in the classrooms of Shanghai and what makes them so apparantly successful now.

JimC's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 10:48

I'll elaborate on what I said above here is an extract from the article describing the curriculum structure in Shanghai.

"The new curriculum has three components: the basic curriculum, to be experienced by all students, mainly implemented through compulsory courses; the enriched curriculum, which aims to develop students’ potential and is realised mainly through elective courses, and inquiry-based curriculum, which is mainly implemented through extra-curricular activities. The inquiry-based curriculum asks students, backed up by support and guidance from
teachers, to identify research topics based on their experiences. It is hoped that through independent learning and exploration, students can learn to learn, to think creatively and critically, to participate in social life and to promote social welfare. Since 2008, the new curriculum has been implemented throughout the city."

The sorts of things advocated by Schleicher (Independent learning, critical and creative thinking) are mainly confined to extra curricular activties. I remember doing similar things during my youth without interference from my school - it was called having a hobby.

Here is some more this time describing what is happening in a Maths classroom.

"One of the most essential influences of China’s cultural heritage is the intensity of students’ engagement in learning. Typically in a Shanghai classroom, students are fully occupied and fully engaged. Non-attentive students are not tolerated. In one mathematics lesson observed for this research, a lesson which was by no means unique, students
at Junior Secondary II were learning about parabolas. Students covered 15 problems at their desks, plus selected students gave blackboard demonstrations. This is rather different from classrooms in other cultures, where students may not be required to be fully engaged or attentive throughout the entire lesson. Such intense concentration is considered a student’s responsibility in Chinese culture."

I'm sorry but this may be revolutionary in China but by UK standards I would consider this sort of lesson as something that has been delivered by good teachers in good schools for decades. Is this sort of learning environment part of Schleicher's vision for 21st century learning? Good on him if it is but I'm not sure - the students don't seem to be using the internet to begin with, they are communicating with each other via a blackboard - why are they not blogging or writing a rap song about parabolas? Why are they even bothering with parabola's - they don't seem that relevent to their lives and surely what they learn in that lesson will be irrelevent in two weeks anyway.

Here is some more;

"Students also engage in all kinds of extracurricular activities in sports and the arts, where they are expected to learn organisation and leadership. Students take turns at “daily duties” in cleaning the classrooms and nearby corridors, for example. Students are also assigned teamwork in keeping the campus tidy. They are also organised to visit rural villages or deprived social groups as a matter of social or service learning. All these activities are co-ordinated by the municipal education authority."

You would think Schleicher would approve of these activities but do they match his vision for 21st century education? I would say no mainly because they are not actually taking place in lessons at the expense of academic subjects.

Here is some more;

"Apart from the “remedial system”, there is also the “supplementary system”19 of institutions or programmes outside schools, where young people can learn music, fine arts, sports, martial arts (gungfu) and all kinds of subjects not offered by schools. The most popular are piano, flute, ballet, Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting. Parents are very prepared to invest in these expensive learning activities."

This doesn't sound like something Schleicher would like. Surely children should be making links between subjects by learning about Chinese calligraphy and The Haber process simultaneously?

That said the Chinese don't completely eschew all forms of cross curricular education.

"In 1985, Shanghai was given the privilege of organising the higher education entrance examination for universities under its jurisdictions. Since then, a lot of effort has gone into reforming assessments and examinations. Generally, exam changes match reform expectations in curriculum and pedagogy. As an example, integrated papers are required that cross disciplinary boundaries and test students’ capacity to apply their knowledge to real-life problems. As another example, examination questions provide students with information not covered in the syllabuses and so test their abilities in applying what they know to new problems. Multiple-choice questions have disappeared from the city’s public examinations."

I rather like what I've read about the Shanghai education system here and admire their culture and work ethic If this is how Schliecher imagines how his vision for 21st century education will manifest itself then great.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 10:32

Shanghai is in the forefront of curriculum reform, although it is still within the Chinese national framework of reform described above. One cannot separate Shanghai from China. I suggest you download the OECD report and read pages 93 and 94 which deal with curriculum reform which is aimed "to change classroom reality to better facilitate student learning". This will save me typing out summaries in which you then say you are not interested.

JimC's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 11:28

Making vague statements about improving student experience doesn't mean that Shanghai has actually replicated Schleicher's particular vision for learning - what actually happened?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 12/08/2011 - 13:13

I think that Mr Schleicher's vision was informed by what was happening in Shanghai, and in other top-performing Pacific-rim countries such as Hong Kong, rather than these countries replicating Mr Schleicher's vision. His opinions are informed by the vast amount of data number-crunched by OECD. I think his opinions develop from the data - I don't think he's looking at the data to confirm pre-conceived ideas.

JimC - I liked your final paragraph in the long post - I think Mr Schleicher's vision (informed by OECD data) will manifest itself in the way Shanghai’s and China’s education systems seem to be moving. However, there was a health warning from Shanghai educators about the still intense pressure on pupils to perform well. And maybe it was this pressure to excel that partly explained the high scores of Shanghai pupil in the PISA tests? I don't know the answer to that one but the Washington Post quoted a university professor as saying that all the Chinese did was teach to the test and subject their children to punishing regimes. However, the Washington Post report says nothing about the widespread reforms in China described in the OECD document and I’m surprised that a supposed expert on Chinese education would be unfamiliar with it. There seem to be two opposing forces at work in Shanghai and China as a whole: intense pressure to perform well fighting a recognition that education is more than teaching to the test.

JimC's picture
Sat, 13/08/2011 - 07:05


If Schleicher's vision is informed by education in China then I don't think he expressed that particularly well in the learning for the 21st century document. If there are two opposing forces in China then Schleicher's vision seems to be a call for wiping out the traditional academic study that helps make Shanghai so good - 'teaching to the test' is probably the worst manifestation of academic study and I'm loathe to use the term as a catch all for a type of education that I value.

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