Interest in learning from Asia’s high-performing education systems has grown rapidly in recent years. But the lessons from Asian education systems do not relate to what helped them achieve their high scores on international comparative tests, but to the efforts they have engaged in over the past few decades to transform their educational practices. These efforts are often mistaken for policies and practices designed to produce the high academic performances indicated by international tests. In reality, they are intended to create a different kind of education, an education deemed necessary for cultivating citizens in the twenty-first century. In other words, what Asia’s high-performing systems have to offer the world is not their past, but the future they intend to create. It is their vision of a new education and the courage to make changes to long-held traditions and cultural practices.
Over the past few decades, the four Asian education systems (Korea, China, Singapore, Hong Kong) have engaged in massive reform efforts. Although these efforts have had varying degrees of success, and some have resulted in consequences opposite to their intentions, they represent a strong desire to create education systems that are more fitting for the future. The reform efforts are characterized by the following:
- Teachers as nation-builders.
- Mastery focus with pathways for growth.
- Networked learning communities by subject, role and professional interest.
- Focus on values and social emotional learning.
- Mother tongue education.
- Principals are the key.
- Rethinking resources regarding class size.
- Experimentation and assessment leading to broader adoption.
- Continuous improvement.
Studying East Asian education system reforms since the mid-1990s reveals three important facts. First, these reforms were not aimed at or responsible for improving the traditional policies, practices and cultural values that resulted in a superb performance in international assessments. Instead, these reforms were driven by the desire to transform their systems to meet the challenges of the future. Second, these reforms demonstrate the vision, courage and commitment that exists in East Asian education systems. While they are proud of their past accomplishments and cultural heritage, they are not afraid of making drastic and difficult changes. Third, while specific strategies vary across the four jurisdictions in response to their local contexts, all reform efforts share common themes. These themes reveal the important lessons other nations need to learn.
Singapore has invested heavily in its human resource to develop a skilled labor force. It has some of the world’s top ranked universities and its education system is one of the best in the world. Since achieving independence in August 1965, Singapore’s government has placed a strong emphasis on mathematics, technology and science education in order to prepare a skilled workforce for its industrialization efforts. Over the years, Singapore also developed a unique model and framework for the teaching of mathematics in schools, which played a significant role in its success in the TIMSS and PISA rankings.
The stellar economic performance of Singapore, together with that of Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong from the 1960s to the 1990s, is a testament to the role of education, especially in mathematics and sciences, in supporting economic development. In a way, Singapore’s success in TIMSS and PISA reflects the role that mathematics and sciences education played in Singapore’s economic development. While it’s current prowess in these global education rankings correlates to past economic success, it could not be construed as Singapore’s future economic development.
Word of caution
There is no ‘Singapore model’ that is fully replicable, as each cultural and historical context is unique. Nonetheless, developing countries could possibly learn from Singapore’s experience by placing more emphasis on the teaching of mathematics and sciences in order to foster social and economic development.
While education is deeply integrated with local society, it must adopt a global perspective. Learning from other countries is necessary and helpful. But being able to translate foreign lessons into local policies and practices is not easy. Every education system has its own history and highlights.
Thus, it is very important for Pakistan to look hard at its educational tradition and history; the shining examples of success within the system may be the foundation for building a better future. It is also important to understand Pakistan’s unique context. As a nation situated in Asia, Pakistan needs to understand East Asia and East Asian education. But Pakistani education should not and cannot be the same as education in East Asia. If it were so, it is unlikely to produce talents to compete with East Asian students. Reform efforts in Pakistan should be directed to create such a system where we do not throw the baby out with bathwater.