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Touring the clever countries

Confession: I’m jealous of Lucy Crehan. A few years ago, this teacher from the United Kingdom decided to study five of the world’s highest performing education systems – Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai, and Canada – as measured by the international PISA exam. But rather than solely review the data from afar, or conduct interviews over the phone, Crehan decided she could only truly understand these systems by embedding inside them. And so she spent a month in each country, teaching and interviewing practicing educators, parents, students and policymakers.

The product of her efforts is her newly published book, Cleverlands, and it’s the book I wish I’d written. She manages to skillfully weave personal observations, research citations, and understated British humor into a powerful story about the role education systems play in shaping – and reflecting – national culture and achievement.

Here are some of the things I learned about each of the education systems Crehan visited:

  • I knew that students in Finland do not start formal schooling until age seven. But I didn’t know that all students are expected to learn to read after just four months in school (and most do). Crehan hypothesizes that this may result in part from unique aspects of the Finnish language. It turns out Finnish has high “orthographic transparency,” which means the sounds of its letters correspond to their written form on a nearly 1:1 basis. This makes it easier for Finnish kids to learn to read because they can “decode” texts using sounds they already know. In contrast, English is riddled with inconsistencies: consider how we pronounce and spell heal and health, or peel and deal.
  • Teacher evaluation in Japan exists, but it’s a secret! To the teachers, anyway. School boards rate teachers on an A-to-E scale, but teachers are never told what their ratings are (though they do get feedback). Instead, school boards use the ratings to forcibly move teachers from school to school, so that no single school ends up with all the best teachers. An American teacher working in Japan argues that this also “forces teachers to care about their jobs and be active in their professional learning [because] when you move schools, there’s a whole new set of kids [and] they may have certain expectations you have to live up to.” On the downside, some Japanese teachers end up renting apartments away from their homes as a result of relocation.
  • Did you know the Singapore school system, the one widely lauded by some prominent education experts, was crafted on an expressly eugenicist platform? Turns out former President Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the modern Singapore state, believed that well-educated people should only breed with each other to ensure the country would, as he put it, have enough “bright people to support dumb people in the next generation.” In accordance with that questionable vision, the Singapore school system is essentially is one giant ode to tracking, with students placed in one of multiple available tracks based on intelligence testing that takes place from ages 10 to 12.
  • Do we need to personalize learning? Educators in Shanghai don’t seem to think so. According to Crehan, Shanghai teachers are taught to teach in a particular way, namely, “to consider the order in which they teach concepts, to think about how appropriate connections can be made between classroom activities and the content being taught, and to reflect on how that new content relates to things that students have already learned.” This, as it turns out, is exactly what existing research on cognitive science suggests teachers should be doing. As one Chinese teacher delightfully observed to Crehan, “It’s like KFC! Why does all their chicken taste so good? They don’t have amazing chefs in every store, but they have certain procedures in place. Once teachers have mastered these procedures and skills, they can be more experimental.” (By the way, KFC is huge in China.)
  • Que l’est didactique de mathématiques? Glad you asked – it’s the approach used to prepare math teachers in Quebec, Canada. Unlike in other provinces, future Québécois math teachers are required to complete multiple university-level math courses, including in “didactique de mathématiques,” which combines pedagogy and mathematics together. The result, Crehan maintains, is that these future math teachers have more opportunities than other teacher-candidates in Canada to “learn to analyze student mistakes and deconstruct each mathematical concept.” And although correlation is not causation, it’s worth noting that students in the Quebec province outscore students in all other provinces on PISA (and TIMSS, the other major international math exam).

Crehan concludes her book with five principles to develop high-performing, equitable education systems. These include supporting students to meet high standards (a common thread across all five countries) and treating teachers as professionals. On this latter point, she argues that there exists a “body of knowledge, derived from research, that teachers ought to know: child development, cognitive psychology and subject didactics (also known as pedagogical content knowledge). This isn’t always taught in initial teacher training courses, which explains why teacher training doesn’t have a unanimously positive impact….” We at Deans for Impact agree, Lucy, and we’re working on it!

Of course, there will be critics inclined to dismiss Crehan’s book with a single word: edutourism. I confess I’m never quite sure how to respond to this charge. Yes, there’s always a danger of seeing only what one wants to see when examining another culture or country, but it seems to me equally mistaken to dismiss potential insights drawn from this approach. After all, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Flexnor, Maria Montessori and Edward Deming were edutourists in their time, and their influence on our society continues to reverberate today. Or as one successful CEO once said to me, “It’s very easy to find reasons why one’s competition is doing better – as opposed to studying the competition and learning why they’re successful.”

Lucy Crehan has studied the “competition” closely, formed judgments about why they’re successful, and written a book rich with knowledge, insight, and humor. You will feel more clever for having read Cleverlands.


Benjamin Riley

Founder and Executive Director


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