The learning tower of Pisa

Let’s help our students to learn better and teachers to teach better.

AS the Government sets out yet again to reform the Malaysian education system, I hope the experts will pour over the vast amounts of resources and data already available on what makes for a successful education system.

For the first time ever, Malaysia has joined 73 other countries in the highly regarded Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) administered by the OECD which evaluates key competencies of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science. The results for Malaysia are due to be released this year.

Have students acquired the knowledge and skills essential to meet the challenges of the future? Can they analyse, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Have they found the kinds of interests they can pursue throughout their lives as productive members of the economy and society?

The Pisa triennial surveys seek to answer these questions. Participating governments wait with bated breath for the results and analysis of the voluminous data generated, to find out where they stand in comparison to others in this globalised world and what kinds of interventions are needed to help students to learn better, teachers to teach better, and school systems to become more effective.

As the man who directs PISA at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher said: “Today’s learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.”

In the latest 2009 PISA assessment, the Shanghai education system, which was evaluated for the first time, stunned the world by coming up tops in all three categories. It topped Singapore in maths, South Korea in reading and Finland in science out of the 65 countries surveyed.

More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%. “Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” said Schleicher, breaking the myth of a Chinese education system focused on rote-learning.

Significantly, too, of the top five performers, four are Asian countries or economies – Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. Finland is third. Other countries making up the top 10 are Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and Belgium.

What is hopeful about the Pisa assessment is that it provides evidence that change is possible. In his report, Schleicher concluded that the best school systems became great after undergoing a series of crucial changes. They made their teacher-training colleges much more rigorous; they prioritise developing high-quality principals and teachers above efforts like reducing class size or equipping sports teams; and they held teachers accountable for results while allowing creativity in their methods.

by Zainah Anwar.

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