Can we learn anything from abroad?

Paul Bullen-Smith, Head of Global Perspectives at Cambridge International Examinations shares his views on “Can we learn anything from abroad?” – a Think Global event, with Lucy Crehan.

Last week I attended a lecture on an oft discussed policy question, what can we learn from education systems abroad, given by Lucy Crehan and hosted by Think Global.

Lucy was someone who went into teaching thinking that the main difficulties would revolve around the students; instead she found that the main difficulties were around education management and education policy directives coming from ‘on high’.

Despite researching deeper into different education systems and what could be learnt from them she could not fully understand how they could look in practice, and so with her explorer hat on she decided to see for herself.

And that was the premise of the lecture, her findings from working and talking on the ground in schools that would take her as a teacher/helper for 3-4 weeks. Lucy focused on the top PISA ranked countries, Canada, Finland, Japan, Shanghai, and Singapore; and structured her lecture on the key areas where there could be lessons for the UK.

Her practical anecdotal approach was refreshing as so often debate in this area becomes data heavy and tinged with varying biased political agendas.

Lucy summed up pithily the generic lessons that could be learned by stressing that ‘human brains learn in similar ways’, we are all humans no matter where we are educated.

Her knowledge of the debate was thorough though and rooted in some in depth analysis and use of recent academic research. What I found particularly interesting, and I will be looking up the research, was the correlation graph between performance and equity between different countries, and the research evidence for setting and streaming.  Fascinating stuff.

The differing cultural, political and geographical contexts were reflected and taken into account. For example the geography of Canada versus Singapore, the differing % of immigrants in Canada and Finland, and the impact of the migrant registration policy (hukou) in Shanghai on their PISA results. All made interesting and thought provoking backgrounds to her analysis.

Her summary of her lessons learnt were personal and anecdotal but thoughtful and in many cases backed up by wider research. For example she felt textbooks were a valued educational aid in many countries while no longer so used in the UK; teaching accountability could be refocused on helping teachers and principals to improve rather than frightening them into improving. Teacher pay was also an interesting contrast with wide variations despite all countries having high PISA rankings. In Finland pay was average, teachers were respected and workload was manageable; in Japan teaching was hard to get into and regarded as a safe civil service type career, an  ‘iron rice bowl’; and in Singapore teaching was not a degree only career, had a high workload but teachers were paid while they trained. All food for thought as my daughter completes her PGCE training this year.

Paul Bullen-Smith






By Paul Bullen-Smith, Head of Global Perspectives, Cambridge International Examinations

This blog is written in my personal capacity and does not reflect the views of Cambridge International Examinations.

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