16 Desember 2010

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What does PISA say about global education

The finding reinforces the stereotype: Asian teens are the smartest in school. The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) puts 15-year-old students from East Asian countries on the top for Mathematics, Sciences and Reading in their national language.
The city of Shanghai, China, participated in the latest edition and pulled no punches — acing all categories against their contenders from Singapore, Finland and South Korea.
The big surprise of the report was where Indonesian youth stood — at the bottom, especially in sciences. This is a surprise considering that Indonesians dominate Math and Science Olympiads, and international schools here boast local students who achieve several “A*” and “A” marks at the University of Cambridge in those subjects (including reading in English and Chinese). As in many other international surveys on quality of life, the United States and the United Kingdom, home to world class universities, are in the 15-25 range.
As well as Shanghai, the Chinese city of Hong Kong is above Singapore in Sciences and Reading. The top 10 in all categories can be classified into two groups: The first is Asian societies with Confucian values, and the second is small-sized Western democracies. All of them are developed.
From the second group, however, only Finland can enter the top five in all subjects. Their success is attributed to the homogeneity of Finland relative to other Western countries, and the simpler structure of Finnish compared to other European languages.
Perhaps it is no coincidence too that Finnish business culture is more skeptical on entrepreneurship and prefers state and corporate alliance, thus putting more emphasis on science education where relativity is limited. Add those factors with their geographic link to the European Union and you have the best of both world.
For the Asian group, secondary education is only about math, sciences, English, and the national language. The rests are extras. Learning Chinese and Japanese involves a lot of memorizing and attention to detail, since you memorize words made out of strokes (and how to write them step-by-step) instead of making sense out of combined letters.
While smart students are not likely to be popular in the West (the fate of Lisa Simpson), in Asia being smart benefits a teenager's social life. Female students who are good in English and math tend to groom their appearance, while even athletic students see the virtue of taking the classroom seriously.
Cram school is the indispensable part of student's life in Asia as the way to upgrade school performance — whether to survive or to dominate in the classroom. In Hong Kong some English and sciences tutors can be so popular that they have their personal ads on billboards and have personal assistants.
East Asian education culture (including Singapore’s) takes a toll on the students’ mental health.
Competition is tight and students who find themselves good in Accounting and Sociology are less valued by their peers and principals. Parents place unrealistic expectations on their children without really emotionally connecting with them.
Frustrated teens vent their anger not only  through typical physical bullying, but also take it online on less aggressive classmates, less influential teachers, and even on celebrities. Teenage suicides in East Asia are world famous, with South Korea and China following Japan’s longtime trend.
The traditional view on education is to blame since Chinese and Korean culture for millennia has emphasized civil service examinations, which are mainly about memorizing the classics, as the only path of success and the main purpose of (a male’s) life.
A good son could be antisocial, physically unfit, and not care about the arts as long he obeyed his parents and was good at exam strategy.
Still, the end result of this scandalous culture is positive. East Asia and Singapore make the best electronics and heavy industries. Their youths are also capable in visual arts and music  —  two products related to the electronic industry, which in turn make money needed by the state and the corporation to develop sports science, facilities and winning athletes.
The US and the UK have the money and the technology, but lack a compact, academically inclined society like in New Zealand and Switzerland. It seems that studying is seen as a rewarding activity in London and Boston only after high school.
Finally, what does PISA reveal about Indonesia? Waking up in an apartment in Jakarta, I took a picture of a slum housing area below sandwiched between two apartment towers that had a swimming pool and a jogging track at their base. Like many other aspects of life in Indonesia,  this was an image of the wide gap in society.
Perhaps there are not many students who are proficient in sciences and math, especially if the test was in English. The Olympiads winners are 10 out of a million.
As for reading, one can be sure that if the text was in Indonesian, the students would do poorly.
Indonesia did worse overall than Malaysia and Thailand, but they were not far off. Like in many other things, Southeast Asia excluding Singapore is still one or two steps behind East Asia.
During the last decade, news on PISA findings have created uproars in Western Europe and the United States, as local media worried that their kids were “dumb” and the country’s future  bleak.
But critics to the assessment have a point in saying that kids’ welfare cannot be judged by three subjects (which are chosen because they are easy to examine and compare). East Asians who read the news may pat themselves on the back and sneer at lazy Westerners, before getting back to worrying that they are still not the best.
But between home and the classroom, the fact remains —  Finland is the worst sporting nation in Scandinavia yet Nokia is still everyone’s phone. East Asian kids balance straining pressure with cool gadgets.
Canadians and small-sized European states are fine at producing fine products and friendly people.
Americans and French still think it’s not cool to be studious. And lastly, starting school before seven to the joy of sunrise traffic jam is not helping Indonesian education.
The OECD just released an assessment on students' performance in math and language worldwide. The top positions belong to East Asia, smaller European states, and the likes of Canada and New Zealand. What can we learn from the table? And why does Indonesia still rank poorly?

Mario Rustan, The writer taught History at an international school.
Opini The Jakarta Post 15 Desember 2010