It would be pretty silly, would it not, to point at a society very different to Australian society and say, “These guys do well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) so let’s copy what they do.” Unfortunately, that’s about as sophisticated as much of the discussion about Finland has been. We simply cannot know whether anything we identify about Finnish education, or anything that Finnish educators highlight as a cause of their success, is the reason for the relative difference in performance of Finland and Australia.
And while the example of Singapore aligns far better with my own particular biases about what good education looks like, I would fault any similar approach that swapped out Finland as our object of affection and replaced it with Singapore (like that would even happen, but, you know).
Instead, the better comparison is to examine trends and variations within systems (and PISA have worked hard to make such data available, as I have written about before). This is what is so interesting about the graph in Part I of these two posts. Yes, I can see there is a trend and that’s what makes those schools that are bucking that trend so interesting. Perhaps we can learn something from them.
However, in order to learn from outlying schools, there needs to be some variation. If every single school in a state requires teachers to issues learning styles assessments and differentiate according to learning styles, we can draw precisely no inferences about the utility of this approach from a comparison of the performance of these schools. Fortunately, we have other evidence to draw upon in this case. The problem arises when we wish to draw inferences about the kinds of complex real-world approaches that schools tend to adopt – those large, messy policies that bridge research, experience, local conditions and inspiration.
That’s when introducing controlled variation to a system can help. No, it will never prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but it can enable us to make a few more tentative inferences. This is aided when performance information is made publicly available. In Australia we have the MySchool website that is set-up for the very specific purpose of informing parents about local schools. The UK government makes data analysis more easy. For instance, at the ‘compare school performance’ website, you can download spreadsheets full of progress data. This has not yet been updated for 2019.
However, you still need the variation. You need schools to be pursuing different approaches so that you have a chance of learning something about those approaches. In the UK this seems to have been aided by greater school autonomy and the Free Schools movement. In his recent post for the campaigning group Parents and Teachers for Excellence, Mark Lehain notes that a pattern is starting to emerge where those schools that combine a ‘warm-strict’ approach to behaviour with a knowledge-rich curriculum are appearing as outliers in the data. Once the 2019 data is available, we can assess this more systematically.
I would like Australian State and Federal politicians to reflect on how we may introduce more planned variation into our own state education systems and how we might learn from the natural experiment being conducted in England. After all, England and Australia have far more in common with each other than either does with Finland or Singapore, so there is a good chance that promising approaches identified by variation within England will also be promising here.