© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber. 

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Book Review: Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan


The first thing to note about Lucy Crehan's Cleverlands is that it is a truly wonderful book. It is sympathetically written, exudes a deep understanding of international systems of education as well as the richness of cultural differences between the countries she studies. I could hardly put it down!

The premise of the book is simple, frustrated by national governments using PISA data to corroborate their preexisting beliefs about education, Crehan travelled to five of the top performing countries internationally - Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada - to find out more about the cultural undertones of each education system. She stayed with teachers and their families for three months in each country; observing lessons, interviewing parents, teachers, superintendents and students to build up a qualitative picture each of these high performing systems which is often obscured (sometimes deliberately) by the data.

In this blog post I am going to pick out two points that Crehan makes about each country which have encouraged me to reflect on my own teaching practice as well as the school system in the UK, and will hopefully be similarly thought-provoking for others.

1. Finland

Firstly, in Finland students do not start school until age seven, but spend time at high quality pre-schools learning through play. Crehan uses a Biblical proverb to explain the Finns' attitude:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

Luke 8:5-8.

The idea is that if pre-school is spent embedding pre-literary and pre-mathematical skills properly through play, when students get to school they are really ready to learn those concepts; they have fertile soil for learning. This provision of quality pre-schooling until the age of seven is known to improve equity in outcomes between students from different kinds of backgrounds as well as improve teenage mental health.

Secondly, in Finland teachers are empowered and trusted to do their jobs as experts. Firstly, teaching in Finland is a popular profession and the competitive teacher training courses are housed in the country's most prestigious universities. This means that only individuals with purpose are selected to train to be teachers, those with a genuine desire to help young people. There is no 'carrot and stick' extrinsic motivation for teachers in Finland; teachers are provided with an environment which encourages intrinsic motivation (they find their work inherently interesting and enjoyable): they are relatively autonomous, they are experts in their field with Masters level training, and they are given the opportunity to form positive relationships with each other.

2. Japan

In Japanese schools there is a culture of conformity and 'collective responsibility' for students. Schooling is fully comprehensive until the age of fifteen with mixed attainment classes - as the underlying idea is that all students are equally capable as long as they make sufficient effort - and students in each class are collectively responsible for the behaviour of the whole group. Fitting in and being able to work as a team is considered very important in Japanese culture. Although this has really positive effects on teamwork, Crehan does suggest that there are issues with bullying of 'outsider' students by the whole class, and also this approach to conformity can lead to students being unwilling to challenge the status quo and think critically about their learning.

Teachers in Japan have significantly less contact time with their students that teachers in the UK. However, they are expected to use this extra time effectively to plan exceptional lessons, and schools have a rigorous program of lesson study to facilitate peers learning from each other. In this practice a group of teachers discuss and plan a lesson together and then one of them teachers it while the rest observe the lesson. They are not critiquing the teacher, but watching the students to find out whether or not the planning was helping with their learning and engagement.

3. Singapore

The Singaporean education system was designed in keeping with the idea (false) that intelligence is fixed, so the earlier that students' talents are identified so that they can be placed on the correct educational track the better. This allows the Singaporean government to ensure that sufficient numbers of students take vocational courses as well as academic ones to ensure that the roles required by society are provided for. This policy has led to very low youth unemployment. However, it has also resulted in a highly competitive education system. Since there are only limited numbers of places at academic high schools (which are considered superior to technical colleges), parents with financial resources send their children to private tutors to prepare them for the exams they take at twelve years old to determine the type of high school they will be eligible to attend. This simultaneously puts enormous pressure on young children, and also reduces equity within society, ensuring different social groups have little understanding of how each other live.

Unlike other countries on this list, Singapore does have teacher shortages which it tries to deal with by providing scholarships to excellent students to study abroad for free by committing to teaching for a period of time after university. They also accept some individuals into teacher training without degrees. However, Singapore has an extremely well organised professional development structure which recognises that teacher are not produced fully formed and need to continue to study in order to progress in their careers. This means that Singapore uses extrinsic motivation in such a way that teachers do not become intrinsically demotivated (a side-effect of the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation) as their own personal goals either fully line us with the goals of the establishment (integration) or they consciously endorse establishment aims (identification).

4. China

In China, as in Singapore, the legacy of Confucius lives on. A thread which underlies Confucian thought on intelligence can be identified in the following examples:

"A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier."

"The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential... these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence."

"Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous."

"The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools."

"When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps."

According to Confucius, hard work and learning are required to acquire intelligence. There is no such thing as innate ability, and relying on such a thing is "perilous". This mindset could not be more sharply contrasted with the Western attitude which embodies a fixed model of intelligence - so and so is extremely bright, but such and such is not very clever. In China, when a student is struggling it means they are either not working hard enough, or not working smart enough and need to adjust their action steps: there is no compromise in their goals. Most importantly, unlike Western students, Chinese students really believe that hard work is more likely to lead to success than innate talent, which means that when they fail at something they are likely to try even harder, rather than giving up. All students must achieve; where each student differs is in the amount of support they receive in order to reach the lofty goals of education.

In China, famously, a lot of emphasis is placed on repetition and practice of a concept both in the classroom and for lengthy homework tasks. This means that students have an almost intuitive grasp of concepts in mathematics as the ideas have been thoroughly embedded in their long-term memory, such that they do not need to follow rigid procedures in order to solve complex problems. Consequently, Chinese students tend to find writing out the steps in their working unnecessary, where Western students need this problem-solving framework (as a crutch) to move through a puzzle. This may go some way towards explaining Shanghai's impressive scores on PISA which tests problem-solving ability.

5. Canada

Canada has a highly individualistic approach to schooling which marks a stark difference with the Asian countries in the book. The school system also promotes the bipartite understanding of intelligence promoted by modern cognitive science:

  1. Intelligence in not fixed; it develops.

  2. Intelligence develops at different rates in different students, and is not a linear progression for any particular student.

The Canadian system of 'Universal Standards' means that for each Grade there is a standard of work that students are expected to meet. If they are not making this level, students are given the support they need in order to attain it in future. Expectations are not lowered for these students; they are not unable to achieve these things, they are just not ready yet.

School accountability for students' achievements is a stark contrast with the understanding of accountability in the UK. Accountability can be divided into four key areas which increase in the level of blame the establishment places on school leadership for poor attainment:

  • responsibility

  • answerability

  • liability

  • culpability

In Canada, school leaders are responsible for the running of the school and must be able to give good answers as to why they have made particular decisions about their management. In the UK, however, school leaders are generally seen to be liable for the failings of the school, meaning they are blamed for any mistakes. This cultural difference means that the underlying causes of underachievement in Canadian schools are investigated and the leadership is supported, for example by being partnered with another school who have come through similar struggles in order to learn from them. Whereas in the UK the Head will often simply be fired (or even fined in the US) meaning that the masked problems remain behind a veil of ignorance.

At the end of the book, Crehan outlines "five principles for high performing, equitable education systems" which are based on ideas which underlie many of the successes in the educational systems she analyses. I was pleased to read that many of the ideas that I had been reflecting on as I read were reflected in the principles given. However, I will not spoil the book by telling you what they are: read it yourself and make up your own mind.

Crehan both gives exceptional evidence to support Cleverlands, and makes it clear that simply utilising one educational principle or the other will not have significant changes in isolation. Furthermore, the way in which these principles should be enacted is highly culture specific and reproducing these ideas without reflecting on changes which need to be made to take into account the preexisting cultural attitudes will only produce token shifts in performance. In this way Crehan avoids falling into the trap that policy makers in the UK have fallen into repeatedly over the years.

Cleverlands is an outstanding achievement: it has added so much colour to my understanding of international educations systems. I have been thoroughly persuaded that I should care about international systems and refer to their practices, but certainly should not reduce them to their policies alone when I think about curricula and educational values within my school. Crehan has demonstrated that using PISA data in the abstract to support one educational policy or another is absurd: nothing makes sense outside of its cultural construct.

The challenge now is for us to think about how the principles of high performing education systems fit into the modern paradigm of British education. And how a culturally sensitive interpretation of these principles can be used to provide high, equitable educational outcomes for all.

Readability: 5/5

Interest: 5/5

Usefulness for classroom practice: 3/5

#bookreview #education #mixedattainment #growthmindset #professionaldevelopment

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