East Asian education: Less testing, more creativity and happiness

Henry Stewart's picture
In Britain the trend in schools is towards more testing, a focus on core academic subjects and traditional teaching. A new report shows that the high performing education systems of East Asia are moving in the opposite direction. Written by Yong Zhao of Victoria University, it is essential reading for anybody interested in learning from these countries.

Tests In China have been abolished in Years 1 to 3, written homework has been banned in primary schools and, under the new "green evaluation" system (piloted in Shanghai), schools are to be judged on how much they reduce the academic burden on students (from long school days and too much homework). Among the measures that schools will be judged on are student engagement, happiness and lack of boredom and anxiety.

Lessons from China, Singapore, Hong Kong & Korea

Yong's report covers China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea and finds a similar trend in all of them. The focus over the last two decades has been on improving equity, loosening central control, de-emphasising testing, transforming pedagogy from knowledge transmission to inquiry-based and constructivist, broadening the curriculum beyond traditional academic subjects, reducing academic  burden and reducing the pressure of school work

We in the West have focused on the East Asian high test scores in international comparisons like PISA. However educationalists in those countries have been concerned that alongside those high test scores are much lower scores for confidence and interest in Maths and Science. In PISA 2012 only 43% of Korean students and 53% of those in Shanghai stated they were confident in Maths, compared to 67% in the US and 68% in the UK. In TIMMS 2011 only 2% of Japanese students and 3% of Koreans agreed they were "very confident in Maths", compared to 16% in England and 24% in the US.

The report suggests "that their students’ high performance in tests was not sufficient for the new world." It quotes Jiang Xueqin (deputy principal of Peking University High School): "Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardised tests.”  But "they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”

Creativity and Experiential Learning

The response, for almost two decades, has been to focus on creating "21st century learning". China’s 1999 education reform framework put “the development of creative spirit and implementation abilities” as a key priority. Korea included “creative experiential learning activities” in its 7th Curriculum as a required component, which is given more than half the school time devoted to the Korean language and maths.

Singapore aimed at building a system that produces “creative thinkers who will be measured by the 21st century yardstick of team playing and multi-disciplinary perspectives” (Ministry of Education, 1998a). In 2006, they established the "Teach Less Learn More" movement - a phrase which would surely be anathema to Michael Gove or Nicky Morgan.

The Hong Kong Education Commission of 2000 stated that "Our priority should be to enable our students to enjoy learning, enhance their effectiveness in communication and develop their creativity and sense of commitment."

Shanghai: Inquiry-based Courses

In local educational reform started in 2004, Shanghai issued a curriculum framework which aimed to instill students with "national spirit, global perspective, sense of social responsibility, capacity for life-long learning, creative spirit, execution ability, literacy in science and humanities, healthy personality, and physical fitness".

"Shanghai restructured its curriculum into three elements: basic courses, expansion courses and research courses. The basic courses are similar to traditional core academic subjects that are required of all students. Expansion courses are optional courses for students to explore their interests, actualise their unique potential, and develop self-planning and managing abilities. Research courses are inquiry-based courses that help students develop the ability to identify and solve problems, creative ability and spirit, and collaborative skills. These courses can originate from student interest or from a subject" (From the Shanghai Education Commission of 2004).

On thing that all these systems share, and I may write more about, is a desire for "student-centred education". This contrasts heavily with the UK, where the term "child-centred education" has become almost a term of insult amongst government supporters (eg, Toby Young here).

Perhaps it is time to learn more from East Asia and return to a student-centred focus here in the UK.


Note: The information on Chinese schools banning primary homework and eliminating standardised tests were taken from an article about the report in The Australian. However it is subscriber only.
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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 11:23

Henry - your article shows how England is moving away from the rest of the world's education systems. Yet Gove argued his reforms would match the best systems in the world. But it was known as long ago as 2011 that the systems Gove admired were moving away from the type of education he and his acolytes were promoting.

These acolytes have been noisy. They have misrepresented 'child-centred' education as directionless anarchy; they have promoted their idea of so-called 'traditional' methods when teachers need a wide repertoire of strategies - whether labelled 'traditional' or 'progressive' - to use appropriately depending on circumstances.

In 2012, 147 countries had looked at the Cambridge Primary Review. This has been widely ignored here. And the Gov't boasted about 'evidence-based' policies.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 13:57

Very interesting account of what is wrong with the official view of education reform in this country. We all know we are in for more stupidity from the centre over the next five years, by which time, if the Tories have their way, education will be on a private enterprise trajectory and we will have good reason to look to the East for inspiration. Henry and Janet are right to point out how wayward our leaders are in blindly pressing ahead with their flawed agenda for change.

There is an opportunity to reverse this trend as I concluded in Friday's Cambridge Primary Review Trust Blog. CPRT is still highly valued across the world, in spite of the way it was dismissed by our own 'education visionaries'.


Guest's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 14:06

What this highlights to me is that while previous governments have effectively played catch-up by emulating what other countries have done and applying a an unfocused use of the PISA results and OECD reports. More to the point I believe that this can be characterised as copying or plagiarising the SE Asian systems.

What is needed is a radical rethink and reworking of the education policy, its implementation and operation. In that way rather hanging onto the coat tails of others and peering over their shoulders to copy them, the country could have a policy fit for the nations purposes and needs. Instead of being education market followers and emulators the country needs to recover its independence and stop the scramble to the smoke and mirrors illusion of the international educational tables.

A point of digression:
If you also add in the Swedish Free School model, one comes back to privatisation through the back door and as Janet has already commented in her previous thread, this leaves the door wide open for TTIP and its insidious ISDS centre piece to drive state education into privatised for profit hands BUT with the taxpayer still footing the bill.

Clio Whittaker's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 14:57

Many thanks for highlighting this fascinating report.

I would like to know how government and other education professionals are going about the work of informing and engaging parents and others of a fundamentally different perspective to education policy and practice. As the report says, rote learning and examination success as a means to social and financial mobility is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture.

PiqueABoo's picture
Sun, 31/05/2015 - 15:32

So they've been doing [stuff] for up to two decades, yet "In PISA 2012 only..." ?

Leah K Stewart's picture
Mon, 01/06/2015 - 10:54

The thing with creativity is that once a person has developed it, or re-discovered it and developed it, they'll protect the space for creativity in themselves and in others. What if the reason we're struggling on this front is that so many teachers, who would otherwise be highly creative and happier for that freedom, have forgotten those pleasures and gains from creative thinking because of their own schooling and years of working as teachers? If teachers were not numbed by this system, there'd be no way of suppressing of creativity in students. Creativity would thrive, and it would thrive quickly. Are some people afraid of this?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 02/06/2015 - 06:24

On the subject of testing in England, Tom Sherrington, aka headguruteacher. describes how Progress 8 'looks like data garbage'. He meticulously pulls Progress 8 apart and then asks if anyone will listen. He answers his own question:

'We’ll get league tables of Progress 8 measures ranking schools; Governors and prospective parents across the land will be fretting about the school next door having a higher score – all based on the most convoluted algorithm founded on the data validity equivalent of thin air; a number that says nothing of substance about how much learning has taken place over the course of five years. Nothing.'

Progress 8 is an example of fooling most of the people most of the time. But the future of schools, and the jobs of those who work in them, are at stake. Worse, much worse, is the negative effect it will have on the real education that children should receive.

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