SCHOOLS by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Reality dawns as Asian myths torn apart
, October 25, 2014
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results related to creative problem solving put to rest the furphy that students in Singapore, Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong only excel because of rote learning, what the Americans call “drill and kill”.
According to this Western myth, one that reinforces stereotypes about Asian classrooms, the belief is that students in the United States, England, New Zealand and Australia are truly creative because we have an innovative and open approach to teaching and learning.
The facts prove the opposite. As well as topping the table in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests, that are academically oriented, Asian students also top the table in the PISA tests, tests that measure so-called lifelong, adaptable, 21st-century skills.
The reality, as good teachers know, is that to be creative and able to cope with higher-order knowledge, understanding and skills, students need to have a strong grounding in the basics.
Jean Renoir, the French film director and son of the impressionist painter, once asked his father how he was able to revolutionise art. Renoir answered that it was only time and practice that constituted the essential discipline of drawing and painting.
For young children this means learning times tables, doing mental arithmetic and memorising ballads, poetry and rhymes so that they become automatic. And forget the focus on computers in the early years of schooling; you have a very effective and adaptable computer sitting on your neck.
Research related to how the brain works proves that automaticity is an essential precondition to deep learning and higher order thinking.
What in many Catholic schools is known as “explicit” teaching and learning is a vital part of pedagogy. It is vital that teachers, especially during initial teacher education, are introduced to such a method.
Ethnographic studies of Asian classrooms and European classrooms in places like Finland also show that teachers need to structure a disciplined, focused classroom where there is a high incidence of what is termed “time on task”. In many Western, English-speaking classrooms, like here, such is not the case. Our classrooms suffer too much from disruptive students and other distractions.
There is much to learn from overseas to improve results but care must be taken to avoid thinking all we need do is import international best practice. If it were only that simple!
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He and Professor Ken Wiltshire AO recently presented their national school curriculum review final report to the Commonwealth Government. This article first appeared in The Australian (April 2, 2014).