Reimagining our schools?

Recent PISA results raise the question: do all children have the opportunity to attain a good education in Estonia? If our academic results are already strong in international comparison, is there any need to change?

“We may have the best results in the world, but we need to keep improving quickly. China now has three times as many university graduates as it did ten years ago. The average salary in China, however, is still three times less than here in Singapore. How do we survive unless we keep improving our education faster than everyone else in the region?”

Views like this were quite common among headteachers and education policy makers when I visited Singapore a couple of years ago. The small country, despite achieving the best results in the world, keeps pushing forward. Very inspiring, I thought.

Students in my home country Estonia have now achieved amazingly good results in the latest round of the international PISA tests. When measuring science knowledge and skills, our 15-year-old students are doing really well. Only Singapore and Japan had better scores. How should these results be interpreted? Is it possible to identify the reasons for this performance? And what about the future: is our school system already good enough or should we change something?

First, a summary of the results

PISA tests get a lot of attention and some people believe this is the yardstick for measuring the effectiveness of school systems. The tests are indeed rigorous assessment of reading, mathematics and science skills. Other observers, however, seem to think there is nothing we can learn from PISA. They suggest PISA ignores too many important things: the ability for students to think independently, to communicate effectively with different people, to understand, express and manage emotions, etc.

These are, of course, two extreme positions. Between “representing the whole truth” and “being completely useless”, many other more nuanced explanations are possible.

First, let us look at our results. Eight out of ten 15-year-olds in Estonia have achieved basic literacy, numeracy and science skills, i.e. Level 2 or above in all three subjects. This means most young people in Estonia can read a simple newspaper article or job advert and understand key information. They can use their mathematical knowledge to interpret and solve simple problems. They can understand simple scientific information and draw conclusions. (Whether this benchmark – Level 2 in PISA tests – is actually too low for us, requires a separate conversation.)

Our students perform better than most rich OECD member countries, where on average seven out of ten students reach the same benchmark. If we zoom out and look at all countries around the world, then fewer than four out of ten children master very basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

Estonia’s school system is also more equitable than in most other countries. In most countries, whether you are born to a rich or a poor family, has a big effect on your life chances and educational outcomes. Across OECD, students from wealthier backgrounds are roughly 2 years ahead of their peers with disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, in terms of their knowledge and skills (40 points in PISA is roughly equal to one year of learning). In Estonia, this gap is about 1.5 years. Notably, the poorest students in Estonia perform better than the average student in rich OECD countries.

The achievement gap between rural and urban schools in Estonia is small. Girls read better than boys but the gap is narrowing. There is still a considerable gap between schools where students are taught in Estonian, compared to schools where they are taught in Russian. This gap is roughly equivalent to one year of learning.

We can also look at the share of top performers. One in seven students in Estonia is able to solve more complex scientific or mathematical problems (i.e. level 5 or above in science, level 5 or above in mathematics). One in nine is able to fully understand and critically evaluate somewhat complex texts (i.e. level 5 or above in reading). Students in Estonia are doing better than their peers across the OECD, where one in twelve is able to solve somewhat complex scientific problems.

Estonia’s overall ranking has improved over time, because our average performance has slightly increased, while the results of many other countries have declined. Between 2006 and 2015, our science and mathematics scores have improved slightly (science 531 to 534, mathematics 515 to 520), while reading scores have improved more from 501 to 519. The countries that outperformed Estonia in science in 2006 have all seen their performance decline ever since (Finland by 33 points, Hong Kong by 19 points, Canada by 7 points).

How to interpret these results?

PISA results don’t tell the entire story about the quality of the school system, but they provide us with useful information. Basic skills in literacy, numeracy and scientific thinking are needed for people to meaningfully participate in today’s societies. How can you be an active citizen without the ability to understand basic texts in newspapers or social media? How can you make good decisions about your family’s budget without basic mathematical skills? Students in Estonia perform better than most other 15-year-olds in rich countries (and far better than the average student around the world), and this is a good sign.

Some people in Estonia question whether these results have come at a price. They think many students in our schools are unhappy and not engaged in learning. There is some truth to this. According to the most recent data that has been published, 7 out of 10 students in Estonia reported they feel happy at school. Only three countries (South Korea, Czech Republic and Slovak Republic) had a smaller proportion of students that said they feel happy at school. However, these results need to be interpreted with caution. The results in Estonia are almost indistinguishable from our nearest neighbours (Finland, Latvia and Poland). However, schools in Finland are considered (relatively) stress free. Students face little pressure to achieve well in exams. Teachers seem quite relaxed. This raises the possibility that cultural factors are the reason why students in Finland and Estonia feel less happy than in most other countries. Or perhaps it is because of our cold and dark winters?

Others would argue that a good education goes beyond basic literacy, numeracy and scientific thinking. A good education is also about supporting the cognitive, emotional, social, physical and moral development of the child or the young person. The challenge is this: most schools tend to focus on what is measured in exams. Headteachers, teachers and parents are interested in exam results because they want children to have good opportunities in life. But most exams mainly assess cognitive development. Other important things get deprioritised. Social and emotional skills are important in themselves; and furthermore, they enable better learning. Are students able to express their emotions, or manage their anger? What happens when they encounter difficulties – do persist or give up? Can they get along with other people, who may be similar or different compared to them? Are they physically fit? All these things are important, but they often get less attention because they are not directly measured in exams and tests.

There are obvious choices that can be made in schools – whether to focus more on reading, mathematics and science, or other things such as creativity, genuine problem solving, social and emotional development. (I think this is actually a false choice: both traditional academic skills are important, but so are these other important skills and qualities.) It is possible that over the past decade, students in Estonia got better at reading and science, whereas students in Finland developed their creativity and ability to solve genuine, real-life problems (at the expense of science and mathematics). We don’t know because there is no robust data on this, as far as I am aware.

(As a side note: these other qualities, sometimes called noncognitive or personal qualities, are difficult to measure. This is probably the main reason why they are not measured in PISA or in national tests. Questionnaires and performance tasks can be used to assess qualities like ‘resilience’, but most existing measurement tools have serious limitations. These limitations have been well summarised in a recent article by Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager. For example: the terms used in a questionnaire may be interpreted differently by teachers and students, when compared to how researchers interpret them; also people responding to questionnaires may be giving answers that they think are socially desirable.)

One final point needs to be made, when trying to figure out what PISA results really mean. Few students in Estonia and in other countries master complex problem solving and critical thinking. (As was noted above, one in seven students in Estonia can use mathematical and scientific skills to solve more complex problems.) This result is better than in most other countries, but it is far from good enough. This is an important point because societies and labour markets are changing. A growing number of jobs are being automated by technology. A recent study by Citibank and the University of Oxford concluded that 35% of all jobs in the UK are at risk of automation. In China, this figure is 77%. Just one example: in England, there are nearly 250,000 taxis and private hire vehicles. The probability that this job will be automated is 89%. The jobs that remain require much more complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. The prospect of more unemployment and greater poverty is a simple reason why we need to reimagine what happens in schools. We will come back to this in the final section of the article.

The reasons behind strong PISA results

Regardless of the limitations of PISA tests, they are valid and they do provide useful information about the knowledge and skills of students. So what are the reasons why Estonia’s students have done so well in these tests?

It is commonly held that the quality of the school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. We do have good teachers in Estonia. Compared to international averages, more of our teachers have completed a teacher education or training programme (94 in Estonia vs 91 percent elsewhere), they have slightly more teaching experience (22 vs 16 years), and in the past 12 months, more of them have participated in continuing professional development programmes (82 vs 71 percent). In average working hours, there is not much difference (36 vs 38 hours).

Given that all of these differences are fairly small, we need a deeper understanding of how our teachers have been trained, how they actually teach and how students learn. Let us look at a few different aspects of teaching and learning.

In Estonian classrooms, there is a better learning environment than in many other countries. 84 percent of time is spent on actual teaching and learning (vs 79 percent internationally). The proportion of time spent on keeping order in the classroom and doing administrative tasks is quite small. So even though teachers in Estonia might not feel this way, they are, in a way, more respected by students than in many other countries.

Schools and teachers have more autonomy in Estonia, compared to most other countries. Teachers can make decisions on the curriculum and how to deliver it. School principals can hire and dismiss teaching staff. This feature is regarded as an important enabler of good teaching, and is mentioned in OECD’s recent analysis of Estonia’s education policy. However, it is difficult to judge how much this policy feature has a direct effect on learning outcomes.

On actual teaching and learning: although teachers in Estonia have progressive beliefs, then most teaching practice is fairly traditional. Progressive beliefs are characterised by the fact that 94 percent of teachers in Estonia say they role is to facilitate students’ own inquiry. 89 percent say thinking and reasoning are more important than specific curriculum content. (For comparison: international averages are 94 and 84 percent.) The actual teaching practice is quite traditional. Teachers explain ideas and discuss questions frequently, but rarely do they ask students to work on projects that require at least one week to complete (15 percent report doing it frequently, according to the TALIS survey in 2013).

The table below summarises how science is usually taught in lower secondary schools in Estonia, Finland, Singapore and the UK. (The figures are based on students’ surveys that were conducted as part of PISA 2015.)

teaching-practices2Teacher-directed instruction involves the teacher explaining and demonstrating ideas, discussing questions, providing feedback. Enquiry-based instruction involves doing experiments, interpreting these results and drawing conclusions. Data from all countries that participated in PISA tests suggest that more teacher-directed instruction is associated with better science performance; and more enquiry-based learning is associated with worse performance. However, as we can see from the results of Singapore – the highest performing school system – their teachers do more direct teaching, but they also facilitate more enquiry, at least when compared to what is happening in Estonian schools. So it depends on how student enquiry is facilitated and how teachers provide direct instruction. Both aspects of teaching and learning are important and need to be done well.

It is difficult to draw the conclusion that stronger performance in PISA tests is caused by specific teaching practices or education policies. As Deng and Gopinathan have argued, Singapore’s success should be understood in the broader context of its educational history, family context, parental involvement and private tuition. Similarly in Estonia, the fact that education has been highly valued in our culture for a long time, creates a positive context for schools and teachers. 90 percent of Estonia’s population were literate already by the beginning of the 20th century, whereas around the world literacy rates were estimated to be around 20 percent at the time. Families in Estonia have placed a high value on education, parents (especially mothers) are able to support their children better — all these factors contribute to our educational success.

The future

Eight out of ten students in Estonia have mastered good basic skills by the age of 15. This result is worse than Singapore, better than most other rich countries, and far better than most countries around the world. Does it mean that our school system is already good enough, or is there something that needs to be changed?

Even though we are doing better than most other countries, it is also obvious that very few students currently master the skills and personal qualities that are needed in tomorrow’s world.

What are these skills? Numerous studies by World Economic Forum, McKinsey and others have surveyed employers and different experts to identify the most important skills in 2020: complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, etc. The current reality is bleak. Across OECD, just 8 percent of all students can solve complex problems using their scientific knowledge and thinking (14 percent in Estonia, 24 percent in Singapore). Many of these skills and qualities listed are neither taught nor measured.

The answer to this challenge is not easy or obvious. It is not enough to list these skills (like complex problem solving) in education policy documents or national curricula, and expect that they will be taught. Teachers need high quality support in figuring out how to teach these skills through their subjects. Good training programmes and good teaching/learning materials are required. It is unrealistic to expect that teachers will create these materials in addition to also teaching 20 lessons per week, marking homework, etc. This requires a significant investment of time and money by the government and by schools.

Even if teachers had the skills, and even if they had the materials, they also need time. Right now, there is pressure to cover a lot of content in the national curricula. Teachers feel pressure to cover content because of exams, and because of parental expectations. Well-educated and motivated parents want their children to succeed. They care about exams and they may worry that spending time on other things (like creativity or emotional intelligence) may harm exam results.

This is why a broader conversation is needed on reimagining schools. Once we realise that most jobs across the OECD are at risk of automation (data here and here), we should ask: how are we learning complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence? This is an urgent question not just because jobs are changing. Solving many other local and global challenges is impossible without these skills.

So how are we learning these most important skills and personal qualities?