The Learning Renaissance

Which Countries Have the Smartest Education Systems, and in Which Direction Are They Headed?

future of learning woodcut

Although the article by the World Economic Forum linked at the end of this piece is entitled ‘Which countries have the smartest kids?’ it shows nothing of the kind.

The OECD publish tri-annual  updates on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), and these figures purport to show effective learning and teaching systems globally by country. There are some reservations about how the data which informs the reports is generated and the propensity of individual countries to try and inflate their performance. There is also the Byzantine statistical techniques employed by the OECD to consider, as well as whether the tables reflect current teaching methods, or the future performance of pupils -the latter being the final arbiter of education effectiveness.

Those reservations apart,  the PISA figures represent the most complete and comprehensive set of figures for the basic building blocks of school-based education.

Clearly, the OECD are interested in economic cooperation and development, as it’s name implies, so the figures are attempting to link current educational performance to future economic fortunes. There is more to than an effective education than that, I hope we can all agree. We can also agree that to be cost-effective, education must add value to the productivity and entrepreneurship in the economy.

There is a tendency to explore the figures in groups or areas. There is the far eastern block which has traditionally used ‘hothouse’ methods to build numeracy, in particular, to a high level across the whole population. As important as numeracy undoubtedly is, it certainly extends beyond rote learning of the multiplication tables, as valuable as this knowledge is as a foundation of learning.

By contrast, nations like Finland and lately Estonia, continue to build effective systems with more child-centred approaches.

Traditionally, the view has been that there are two mutually exclusive routes to high educational performance: systemised intensity and child nurturing. I would suggest that this is rather superficial and a  ‘snapshot’ of the reality on the ground. It is precisely this concentration on difference which has led to government officials trying to cherry-pick the best of the effective methods from around the world, without reference to culture, or rationale, with a view to grafting them to the carbuncle which is British education.

I believe that a better perspective is to look for similarity rather than difference. What unifies the efforts of the Asian Tiger economies and those of wider Scandinavia, is that all the respective countries have embarked on a national debate on the purposes and priorities of education for this century. A broad outline for the education of the future has been agreed, and has then been handed over to the education professionals to finesse and deliver, without a bureaucratic micro-management system to hamper the process.

Furthermore countries like Singapore, once so tied in to ‘Chinese intensive methodologies’, has realised that it is no longer an appropriate methodology for the future economy, or the well-being of its children.


Like Finland, reviews of the role of homework, and the rise of ‘project-based learning’ have come about as a desire to ensure that children are not tied to an accretion of 200 years or redundant subject based knowledge. Instead, the subject knowledge is less important than the development of the children to learn and research independently, contribute effectively to teamwork, problem solve in a sophisticated way and present ideas logically and methodically, appropriate to the audience. In short, a skills and process-led approach as opposed to a knowledge-based curriculum.

What were once characterised, by that horrible term, ‘soft skills’ are now seen as the very bed-rock of learning. Subject knowledge is increasingly part of an exponentially growing information base which needs to be weighed and interpreted. Wise nations have realised that there is no revision of subject knowledge which can be appropriate as the basis of learning now and over the working life of an individual. They have rightly abandoned the attempt to define learning by knowledge and have instead adopted skills, attitudes, behaviours and key competencies.

Compare and contrast with the United Kingdom generally, and England specifically. Here the outlook is always to look to some halcyon past; to transmit yesterday’s knowledge more efficiently. The DfE determines the content, and OFSTED applies a quality control measure of inspections to ensure that schools are doing, by international comparisons, the wrong things as efficiently as possible.  Too often under the current government, even the structure of delivery is redundant, the fondness for the rationing of excellence to the ‘grammar school’ as if a solution designed for the start of the 20th century is in any way appropriate for the 21st.

Indeed, an aide of the government recently resigned having previously advocated the view that educational ability was genetically determined, and educational provision should reflect this, including the consideration of mass sterilisation as a social, economic and educational policy to eliminate an ‘under-class’. I mention this in context here both to reflect the paucity of strategic thinking at government level, and also to prevent such obscenities becoming normalised in national life.

There has been no fundamental national debate in the UK about how we equip young people for the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century because there can be no national consensus whilst the maintenance of privilege is the dominant driver of educational provision.

This background forms the basis of my new book, Re-Examining Success.

I wrote it with a view to stimulating more rational debate about education and learning in the UK before we reach a point of terminal decline.

Read the report here: Which countries have the smartest kids? | World Economic Forum


About educationalist04

I'm convinced we can, as a species, do much better than this if we set our minds to being much more positive and productive towards our fellow humans. The solution is learning - creating independent and autonomous learners who can problem solve, innovate and create a better more equitable and sustainable world. My books, Future Proof Your School and Re-Examining Success together with this blog, explore how better learning outcomes for all can be achieved.

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