The leaning edifice of PISA

The latest publication of international literacy and numeracy comparisons by the OECD has reignited the debate about educational effectiveness. In all comparisons of 16-24 years-olds, the U.K. came near the bottom of developed world countries. It was also the only one where older people do better than younger ones.

It is hard to know what really to make of such figures – and very easy to use them to point an accusing finger in almost any direction. The quality of teaching is a sitting target, of course, but it is also tempting to draw conclusions about the contrasting approaches being used in various countries. For example, Finland, the Netherlands and Japan all figure in the top few places in most of the tables – but then one realises that their educational practices are far from the same. It’s satisfying to know that two of those countries espouse more liberal policies such as I advocate, but one cannot deny that Japan uses the opposite to achieve similar results. On balance, there seem to be more liberal-approach countries in the top few than industrial-educators, but perhaps the only sustainable conclusion is that there is no one ‘better’ model. That in itself would be informative.

There are too many possible factors involved for it to be likely ever to find a clear answer – a point that those who instinctively criticise teachers might well bear in mind. It seems reasonable, for example, that the relative difficulty of native languages might play a role – though Finnish is hardly straightforward. It’s also possible that cultural homogeneity makes education more straightforward.  It’s less easy to deflect criticism of recent educational policies, whose rising exam pass-rates conflict sharply with the OECD findings – and my own chalk-face impressions. At very least, it seems current practices are not the silver bullet that their proponents claim, and they have been in place long enough for it to be difficult to blame the historic legacy.

The OECD’s Andreas Schliecher commented on the U.K. figures, saying that the better showing of the older generation may be linked to their higher engagement in lifelong learning. If so, what is causing younger generations not to pursue this? It seems that current approach is not instilling a lasting attachment to learning; though the distractions with which it competes are many, modern consumer-society distractions are hardly unique to Britain – so why is it not happening equally in all countries?.

I am resisting a temptation to conclude that this is more evidence that industrialised education kills the curiosity that fires long-term learning – it’s almost certainly not that simple –  but it’s not an unreasonable suspicion, especially as those countries near the top largely take a less industrial approach. Equally, the U.S.A. which has a somewhat similar outlook also fares badly; countries that commoditise education end up with people who see it as just another disposable product.

I leave the last word here to Pasi Sahlberg, one of the most respected educational commentators in highly-successful Finland, who has observed that it is precisely the kind of international statistical comparisons being undertaken by PISA that are responsible for driving factory-style education. Maybe PISA actually tells us very little; to paraphrase Sahlberg somewhat, “In Finland we know that educational outcomes are many and complex, and can’t easily be measured – so we don’t bother trying”.

Despite Mr. Gove’s enthusiasm for it, maybe PISA is part of the problem, not the solution.