The Leaning Tower of PISA Education Rankings

by Richard Watson

Every time a freshly caffeine infused official is put behind a desk there seem to be panicked cries to move forward (or sometimes backwards) to compete with countries towards the top the PISA global education rankings, namely: a) Singapore b) China, c) South Korea or d) Finland.

This is a little odd because a) while Singapore is good at memorisation it has an issue with creative problem solving, b) so does China c) ditto South Korea, which by the way has a mental health epidemic largely caused by the pressure of a somewhat binary examination system. d) Finland, was a late developer (and undoubtedly a lead innovator in some areas of education), so it’s fairly easy to dazzle from a distance and demonstrate high gains from a relatively low base.

Finland also unintentionally games the PISA system by doing well across a narrow band of conventionally academic subjects. If you measure student happiness in Finland, for instance, the country is at the bottom of the class. Youth suicide is high in Finland (as worryingly elsewhere) and economically the country is one of the weakest in Europe.

PISA, like its namesake tower, looks distinctly wobbly.

The OECD claims that PISA tests assess whether students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are “essential for full participation in modern societies.” They would say this because it’s the OECD, but the tests have little or no regard to cultural or regional context and, more importantly, do not assess how individuals perform or feel about themselves across the whole of their lives.

These tests are largely a snapshot of economic preparation, not a measure of lifetime happiness, mental wellbeing or physical health.

So my first suggestion to anyone involved in education is simply to stop. Stop with the endless proclamations, denigrations, exemplifications and modifications and allow the fine dust of any recent educational reforms to settle. And ignore PISA.

Then, when the air has cleared, pat yourselves on the back for doing a good job with limited resources and little in the way of thanks from students, parents or anyone else. Only then should you start to think about what education might look like in the future and how it might serve society in the broadest and most useful sense.

Think again

When I say think, I don’t mean cursory glances, snatched snippets or measly morsels. I mean huge heaving plates of contemplation capable of exciting or frightening anyone coming within a country mile of them. Think wide-open spaces of unpopulated possibility. Think curly whirly thoughts that would make Doctor Seuss and his Cat in the Hat grin from ear to ear.

Think about how you’d do things differently if you were building the education system from scratch – a new system with no legacies or liabilities whatsoever. One in which resources, the media, the unions, politicians, parents and the business environment weren’t a factor at all.

What would you do?

More importantly, perhaps, what would you stop doing? Spend about a year thinking about this.

This is serious. There are undoubtedly things that are more urgent, but I struggle to think of anything that’s more important than the education of the future.


This article is an abstract from the essay “On Education in the 21st Century” commissioned by the NSW Department of Education and published on Education Future Frontiers.


About the author

Richard Watson is a lecturer and futurist, author of Digital Vs. Human (Scribe, Melbourne, 2016). He was born in England, but has lived in Australia and has children brought up under both systems.

Further learning

Digital vs Human: how we’ll live, love, and think in the future by Richard Watson

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