Lessons in culture

Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty
Well done! Now go and overthrow the Qing dynasty

Stroll through most cities and you’ll see memorials to all sorts of human achievement – from victory in war to brilliance in the lab. But how about success in an exam? Yes, even that has been commemorated. Tucked away in obscure corners of China, you can still sometimes find archways and stone tablets celebrating the fact that a local man once, a long time ago, passed the fiercely competitive Imperial Examination.

The reward for success was an appointment to the civil service, bringing with it prestige and, for many, great power. In theory, the exam – which endured, on and off, for 1,300 years – was open to almost any man in China. In practice, most of those who sat it came from well-off families. Generally, they were the only ones who could afford to subsidise a son until he was ready to sit the exam, by which time he was usually in his 30s.

Flash forward in time to 2009, more than a century after the last Imperial Examination: students in Shanghai face another test – the OECD’s PISA international student assessment. Just as with their predecessors’, their results are closely watched and – when they show the city’s students ranked first in the world – widely celebrated (although we haven’t heard of any statues being erected).

Is there a link between these stories of ancient and modern achievement? A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit offers grounds for thinking that there might be. The Learning Curve draws on research from PISA, and other international student assessments, to try to take the lid off “the black box” of education. To explain, we know what goes into education – funding, class size, teacher salaries, and so on – and we also have a pretty good idea of what comes out, in terms of student performance. But we still struggle to explain what happens between these “inputs” and “outputs”.

This is not a minor issue. Take spending: You might assume that countries that spend proportionally more get better results, but that’s not the case. Finland devotes 6.4% of its GDP to education, and its students regularly come first among OECD countries in PISA; France spends pretty much the same (6.3%), yet its students only hover around the OECD average. And this is not a rare example: As the EIU report states, in education “inputs are turned into outputs in ways that are difficult to predict or quantify exactly.”

So, clearly, other factors are at work, but what? Research in recent years has given us a much better sense of the importance of factors like how well schools deal with students’ from different social backgrounds. But, as the EIU report points out, there are other factors that we understand less well, including teacher quality, the role of school choice and autonomy and the ability of educational systems to identify the skills of the future. And, it says, there’s something else we need to think about – culture.

Which brings us back to China. The Imperial Examination can be criticised on many grounds, not least that it ignored science and experimentation. But it can surely be said to have underpinned a key idea in the culture of China and much of East Asia – one that can be traced back even further to Confucius: namely, if you want to succeed, you need to study.

The EIU report argues that the influence of the surrounding culture can’t be underestimated in determining how well education systems perform, and suggests it may be even more important than national wealth. In particular, it identifies culture as being key to the success of two PISA frontrunners – Finland and Korea. These two take very different approaches to education, but their cultures have at least one thing in common: a profound respect for teachers.

Indeed, the role of teachers has come to be increasingly recognised in recent years and, as The Learning Curve notes, several governments have sought to shift or buttress cultural attitudes to the profession by raising its prestige. This has included concrete action, such as setting starting salaries at the same level as other professions, and symbolic steps, such as Singapore’s creation of a National Teachers Day.

The issue is also receiving growing recognition on the international stage. For example, this week sees Amsterdam hosting the third annual Teacher Summit, with the involvement of the OECD. The conference will look at ways of raising the quality of teaching and evaluating how well teachers are doing. You can find out more at the conference website and follow the discussion on Twitter at #ISTP2013

Useful links

2013 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, 13-14 March 2013

OECD educationtoday blog

OECD Insights: Human Capital

Brian Keeley

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