Opinion: What Asian schools can teach the rest of us

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Story highlights

  • East Asian countries have convinced citizens to make choices that value education
  • Asian school systems prioritize the quality of teachers over the size of classes

Andreas Schleicher is the Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) focused on science, a discipline that plays an increasing role in our economic and social lives.

From taking a painkiller to determining what is a "balanced" meal, from drinking pasteurized milk to deciding whether or not to buy a hybrid car, science is pervasive.
And science is not just test tubes and the periodic table; it is the basis of nearly every tool we use -- from a simple can opener to the most advanced space explorer.
In 2012, Shanghai came out as the top performer among all 65 education systems that were compared in mathematics, reading and science.
Some wondered to what extent Shanghai's success was exceptional in China. In 2015, PISA provides data from Beijing, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Shanghai.
These regions combined again show strong science performance, outperformed only by Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan (which appears in the report as Chinese Taipei), Finland and Macau.
In fact, 13% of the top-performing students in the 68 countries and economies with comparable data in PISA 2015 come from these four provinces in mainland China alone.
So the world will continue to look to China as a global player in education.

Social mobility key

Similarly, while the American dream of social mobility seems nothing more than that -- a dream -- for this generation of American students, it is emerging as a new reality in much of East Asia.
Between 40% and 80% of the quarter of the most disadvantaged students in the four provinces of mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam perform as well as the 25% top-performing students around the world.
In the Western world, only Estonia and Finland match that level of student resilience against social disadvantage.
But there are also areas where China can look to other countries for inspiration.
Content knowledge in science, where China excels, is important. But it is equally important to be able to "think like a scientist," and here Chinese students perform less well on the PISA test than when tested on content.

Americans more science minded?

That is also reflected in student attitudes: American students seem more science-minded than their Chinese counterparts.
They report more frequently than Chinese students do that they value scientific approaches to enquiry, adopt a questioning approach, search for data and their meaning, demand verification, and respect logic and pay attention to premises.
This is important. Education used to be about teaching people facts and theorems; now, it's about helping students develop a reliable compass and the navigation skills to find their own way through an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world.
These days, we no longer know how things will unfold; often we are surprised and need to learn from the extraordinary; sometimes we make mistakes along the way.
But it will often be the mistakes and failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth.
An important part of education today is helping students develop positive attitudes towards learning that will endure throughout their lives.

Aspirations matter

Twice as many students in the United States as in the four provinces of China, and in most other East Asian countries, for example, aspire to work in a science-related career.
That said, many American students will not be able to realize these dreams because they perform poorly in science at school. But while East Asian students score higher in science, they need to develop more positive attitudes towards science.
Indeed, one of the factors that PISA shows can help to translate science performance into science-related career expectations is student enjoyment and positive attitudes towards science.
That may require giving these students more time to do other things besides study.
According to PISA 2015, students in the four Chinese provinces spend close to 57 hours per week studying in school or at home; for students in high-performer Finland it is 36 hours.

What successful schools do

Obviously, one can't copy and paste school systems wholesale. But PISA has revealed a surprising number of features shared by the world's most successful school systems.
For a start, leaders in East Asian education systems have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education.
Top 10 for reading

  • Singapore (535)
  • Canada/ Hong Kong (527)
  • Finland (526)
  • Ireland (521)
  • Estonia (519)
  • Korea (517)
  • Japan (516)
  • Norway (513)
  • New Zealand//Germany/Macau (509)

In China, parents will invest their last resources in educating their children for a brighter future. In much of the Western world, citizens have already mortgaged their children's future, as seen in huge mountains of public debt.
Then there is the belief, widespread throughout East Asia, that all children can succeed.
The fact that students in most East Asian countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education.

Teachers matter

And nowhere does the quality of a school system exceed the quality of its teachers.
The East Asian school systems all pay great attention to how they select and train their staff. And when deciding where to invest, they prioritize the quality of teachers over the size of classes.
Top 10 for maths

  • Singapore (564)
  • Hong Kong (548)
  • Macau (544)
  • Taiwan (542)
  • Japan (532)
  • China (531)
  • Korea (524)
  • Switzerland (521)
  • Estonia (520)
  • Canada (516)

They provide intelligent pathways for teachers to grow in their careers. High-performing countries have also moved on from bureaucratic control and accountability to professional forms of work organization.
They encourage their teachers to make innovations in pedagogy, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues, and to pursue professional development that leads to stronger education practice.
The goal of the past was standardization and compliance; but today's top-performing countries value inventiveness.
In the past, policy focused on providing education; today's top school systems focus on outcomes, shifting from looking upwards in the bureaucracy to looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school, to create networks of innovation. You can see that nowhere better than in Finland or Shanghai.

All students must benefit

Perhaps the most impressive outcome of world-class school systems is that they deliver high quality across the entire school system so that every student benefits from excellent teaching.
And they align policies and practices across all aspects of the system, make them coherent over sustained periods of time, and ensure that they are consistently implemented. You can see that nowhere better than in Singapore.
But the demands on modern education systems will not stop here. Schools now need to prepare students to live and work in a world in which most people need to collaborate with people of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people need to decide how to trust and collaborate across such differences.
Those are the reasons why we are putting global competency at the center of PISA in 2018.
We need to enable students to think for themselves and act for others, to educate the next generation who will create jobs, not just seek them, and to prepare our students to confront the unexpected with intelligence and compassion.