Following the announcement that Finnish students had under-performed in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – with scores dropping by 2.8, 1.7, and 3 per cent in mathematics, reading, and science respectively – the press release from the Ministry of Education and Culture read “PISA 2012: Proficiency of Finnish youth declining”. Minister Krista Kiuru has explained that a broad-based forum will be set up, for the “general downturn in learning outcomes shows that we must take strong action to develop Finnish education”.
In other words: not good enough, can do better.
On the other hand, Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) proudly proclaimed that “International OECD Study Shows That Singapore Students Are Ready to Thrive in the 21st Century”. Indeed, the participating students have done well vis-à-vis their seniors and international counterparts, but it is debatable whether they can truly “solve problems in a variety of real-life situations”.
It should come as no coincidence that Singapore has consistently come up tops in these ranking exercises. The country’s education system has been premised upon rigid rote memorisation and regurgitation, and its students have been trained to ace tests and examinations. As much as bureaucrats justify that the assessment methodology has been tweaked, one cannot help but express scepticism over claims that PISA scores reflect an individual’s ability to apply knowledge and skills in unfamiliar real-life situations.
PISA’s paper-based (even computer-based) mode of assessment, for example, ignores a student’s ability to communicate or work in groups. Few would disagree that these are crucial real-world skills “for full participation in modern societies”, and while Singapore has moved to diversify testing methods, to reduce pedantic emphasis upon high-stakes testing, PISA will not capture these changes.
Against this background, the eagerness of some to criticise the Finnish education system because of these recent findings per se seems myopic. “See la, the ‘best education system in the world’ – the one commonly seen to be the perfect alternative to Singapore’s pressure-cooker academic environment – isn’t that great after all!”
Yet, one has to be cognisant that PISA is but one indicator of complex education systems. The quality of an education system – and the preparedness of a student for an uncertain future – is also contingent upon student happiness, campus vibrancy, status and professionalism of educators, and future productivity.
Late last year, for instance, a Global Teacher Status Index found that Singaporeans rated their education system very highly, that teaching was a sought-after profession, and that there were high levels of pupil respect for teachers. A holistic comprehension of Singapore’s education system will only be derived if these assorted indices are complemented by qualitative, on-the-ground feedback from students, teachers, parents, and even employers.
PISA claims to develop “tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum”, but the tests are ultimately a combination of open-ended and multiple-choice questions. The important assumption is that the PISA knows what is generally best for a country and its education system, and is therefore capable of crafting the right questions. Nonetheless, it simply determines fundamental proficiency in mathematics, reading, and science (within the setting of an examination). And we should acknowledge it as such, without drawing convenient extrapolations.
At the same time, critics have been too quick to pounce upon perceived biases, or nit-pick flawed frameworks: the supposed lack of statistical transparency, the inconsistency of results across dissimilar surveys, and PISA’s ability to reflect and compare a student’s scholastic abilities.
In this vein, Finland’s move to gather its stakeholders in discourse is encouraging. Despite PISA’s shortcomings, it has acknowledged that it will review its pedagogies, and make adjustments wherever necessary. As a solitary indicator, PISA can provide an impetus for consistent improvements. No assessment methodology is perfect, but this commitment to continuous renewal must be heartening.
From the perspective of a Singaporean, this honesty is refreshing. And a good cue for Singapore to never rest on her laurels.
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.