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Is Shanghai’s Education Best?

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China Power

Is Shanghai’s Education Best?

An OECD assessment last year suggested Shanghai’s schools are the best in the world. Are they?

When Shanghai placed first in the world in the OECD’s PISA student assessments last December, there was lots of talk about how the city now had ‘the world’s best schools.’ Nice headline, but it’s not the full story, as I learned from Andreas Schleicher, PISA’s architect, when he visited Beijing this past week.

After a breakfast meeting with our students, Schleicher shared some of his thoughts on Chinese education with Chinese reporters. He had just finished a week-long China trip, in which he spent most of his time in discussion with Shanghai’s education authorities.

During the press conference, a Chinese reporter asked Schleicher if Shanghai placing first on the PISA meant that Shanghai has the world’s best education system. 

In response, Schleicher implied that Shanghai’s education system, while on the right track, needs more reforms.

Schleicher explained that, twenty years ago, the knowledge that students learned in schools would find them a good job and be applicable for the rest of his or her life but today, technology and the Internet have made knowledge readily available and thus cheap. What’s important then is the ability to sift through available knowledge, analyse it, and apply it to new situations. In this regard, Shanghai schools are doing well: according to Schleicher, 26 percent of Shanghai students demonstrated complex problem solving skills on the PISA, whereas the OECD average is 3 percent.

But to succeed in the constantly changing global economy today, Schleicher argued, students need to understand that learning is a life-long process, and thus they must possess a passion for learning as well as the ability to learn for themselves. And that’s where Shanghai falls down: 15 year-olds in OECD countries show more curiosity and initiative than Shanghai 15 year-olds, who from the first day of school have been made passive and stressed by too much homework and tests. 

Chinese educators and parents may argue that childhood is a time to develop a strong foundation of knowledge. But Schleicher warned that OECD data suggest that if students haven’t yet developed self-learning skills and a passion for learning by age 15, then it’s unlikely they ever will. 

A question here then is: Do Chinese schools make learning so unpleasant for students that they don’t want to learn anymore after they leave school? Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s the case: After they finish the national examination, Chinese students burn their textbooks, spend four years in college playing video games, and enter the workforce unprepared for the re-learning that their job requires.   

What’s most important in today’s global economy is how innovation is transforming from an individual into a collaborative process.  Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, urban theorist Richard Florida explains that innovation now occurs when individuals with different skills and knowledge come together to share them in a way that produces new ideas and products:

‘Highly developed social skills…include persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations, and launch new firms…social skills seem to grow ever more essential as local economies grow larger and more complex.’

Unfortunately, because of China’s test-oriented education system’s focus on individual merit and achievement, it’s not producing the individuals with strong social skills that China’s economy needs to transform from a manufacturing-based economy into an innovation-based one.   

The good news is that Schleicher’s understanding of the limitations of China’s education system seems to be coming directly from Chinese education officials. The Chinese government’s growing concern with its school is why, overall, Schleicher is optimistic about the prospects for education reform in China.