What can the UK learn from the PISA results?

I am currently reading “Cleverlands” by Lucy Crehan.  She describes her journey to five high-perfoming countries that have ranked near the top of the OECD PISA tests. She spent a month in each country examining their education system to see if there are any common similarities.  She went to Finland, Japan, Singapore, China and Canada.  Although this book is new this year, the most recent results have put South Korea right at the top, one of the country’s she did not visit.  Last week, I was listening to a pod-cast that Lucy Crehan was giving and she is currently in South Korea looking at their education system.  One thing to be aware of before reading further is that the results of PISA do change and currently Finland is starting to fall quite fast down the rankings and be replaced by countries such as India.

PISA 2017

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PISA 2015

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However, the five countries in Lucy’s book are still doing very well and she has found some common similarities:

  1. Children in high performing countries start school later than the UK at about 6 or 7
  2. There is a culture of working hard and an importance given to education from parents
  3. There is little to no personalization of the curriculum and children don’t move on until everyone has learned the knowledge or skills (mastery)
  4. Children use textbooks way more than in the UK and the curriculum is more detailed, more structured and teaches less but in more depth
  5. There are far less data requirements and accountability for teachers to deal with.

This is very different to the UK.  Point 1 means that all children are ready to learn when they are formally schooled.  Much of this though could be down to point 2, where parents ensure that their children are ready to learn.  Point number 3 means that all children access a similar curriculum where the expectation is that all will achieve.  And point number 4 means that students, teachers and parents know what is being studied, what they have studied and what is coming next.  Point 5 is that teachers do not need to spend so much time gathering data, possibly because of points 3 and 4.

Why did the UK move away from this?  Most of these points were what used to happen in the UK before the education revolutions of the past 25 years.  I think it is because of a false understanding of inclusion.  In the 90’s when David Blunkett was Education Secretary he wanted children like himself who had a disability to be able to go to mainstream schools with support.  And he was right.  But what happened next was the idea that all children should be in mainstream education with support, including children who had serious learning difficulties.  And then it snowballed into all children who aren’t making as much progress should be taught at their own levels within mainstream schools with support.  But the support was barely given and no government was prepared to finance teaching children in very small groups to meet all of their needs.  Ofsted did not help matters by constantly harping on about how high or low level students were achieving.  This all resulted in schools creating differentiated worksheets for three levels of ability in each class and detailed lesson plans containing three lessons for each individual class.  Very few textbooks had these type of differentiated activities so they were binned.  I remember walking past a table in a school a few years ago, piled high with textbooks ready for the bin-man.  I queried why and was told by a young teacher that good teachers didn’t use textbooks.  Where has this attitude come from?  Resource sites like Tesresources, Sparklebox and Twinkl sky-rocketed in popularity and teachers ended up spending a lot of time cutting and sticking work into exercise books.  This work had to be marked and personalized with colour codes and a conversation between students and teachers (the “triple marking”).  All teachers who questioned this approach were told that “this is what Ofsted wants”.

The common denominator is personalized learning in the UK.  It has been a disaster.  We have fallen down international rankings and we see that the countries doing the best do not do personalized learning at all.  See this graph from Greg Ashman:

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The elephant in the room is that you cannot do personalized learning in a classroom with 20-30 children, unless you want all students to put on ear-phones and gaze at laptops and tablets all day.  Or maybe you have teachers that are either The Flash or you’re not too bothered about them burning-out with the workload.  It is not ethical, fair or practical to expect teachers to teach parallel lessons and it looks like it doesn’t even result in better learning.  In fact, it is the opposite – the more you personalize the curriculum, the worse your results.

We need much better quality textbooks and a reappraisal in the UK classroom that if you use textbooks it does not mean you aren’t a good teacher or a lazy teacher.  We need to move away from differentiated worksheets and have more time for intervention with children who are struggling.  This means shorter, simpler lessons with more playtime.  Lucy Crehan said that most the countries she saw all had a ten to fifteen minute break between lessons.  This is where intervention happens and it is short, targeted and immediate.  We need to cut most of the data requirements that teachers are being asked to do.  Perhaps an answer is to create summative assessments based on well designed textbooks that can be assessed by computer.  Anything that cannot be moderated this way should be done by comparative judgment.  Stop the crazy criteria-based marking that is subjective, time-consuming and relatively inaccurate.  Stop marking books and leaving a color-coded conversation, instead spend time going through homework with the whole class.

There will be savings on data, administration and photocopying.  There will be added costs in textbooks and playground supervisors.  But this would dramatically cut work-load and would be much more beneficial for children.

It does mean admitting we got it very wrong…