Helping Students Learn Key to Better Results

Helping Students Learn Key to Better Results

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Media Type
The Australian

The key lesson from the rise of Asian schools is, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "the students, stupid". During the past 10 years, school systems in Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore have undergone reforms that have pushed their students to the top of international tests.

Shanghai, which joined the international testing movement in 2009 and ousted Finland from the top spot it had occupied for almost 10 years, says its success is not due to any major changes. It has always run schools this way.

According to a report by independent think tank the Grattan Institute, the common feature underlying the success of the systems -- which comprise four of the top five school systems in the world, based on OECD tests -- is a focus on students. Every education policy and strategy is assessed on the basis of whether it improves the way students learn. If a measure fails to lift student performance, it is discarded.

The report says improvements in students come from improving teaching: from the courses taught in university, to the training that new teachers receive in schools, to making in-school research an integral part of a teacher's job.

"Success in high-performing systems in East Asia has been driven by well-designed and implemented policies that target the areas we all know are important: learning and teaching," it says.

Australia was one of only four countries where students' scores fell between 2000 and 2009 in the OECD tests of 15-year-olds, the Program for International Student Assessment that assesses skills in reading, maths and science. Australian students fell by 15 points, while the top students in South Korea gained 15 points and the average score of the top Hong Kong students rose eight points.

In 2001 Hong Kong students were ranked 17th in international reading tests among Year 4 students and Singapore ranked 15th, but five years later, following changes to the way they taught reading, Hong Kong was ranked second and Singapore fourth.

The difference is not related to money. South Korea spends less per student than any other education system, about $US8000 ($7430) per high school student compared with $US9000 in Australia. During the time Australian students' scores fell, national spending on education rose 43.4 per cent in real terms, with non-government school fees rising 25 per cent.

It's easy to dismiss the rise of the Asian school systems as being due to cultural differences. But Grattan Institute school education program director Ben Jensen says while cultural values, "tiger mothers", rote learning and an emphasis on exams play a part, they are insufficient to explain the rapid improvement in recent years.

"Culture always plays a role but education strategies that maintain an unrelenting focus on learning and teaching have been far more important," he says.

Jensen says an emphasis on rote learning was not conducive to high scores in PISA tests, which assessed problem-solving abilities rather than subject knowledge.

"There is also a difference in the understanding of creative thinking between China and the West," he says. "Memorising facts and knowledge is often seen as part of the process of developing creative thinkers, whereas in Western countries we often jump straight to the end point of creative development."

Every teacher in every school in Australia says their focus is on the students. Australian governments and schools can point to policies to improve teacher quality, including mentoring new teachers, but the implementation is patchy.

The Grattan report proposes a blueprint for reforming Australian schools, taking the best of the reforms from Asia that change behaviour in the classroom, focusing on improving teaching to lift student performance.


"The most direct and effective way of raising teacher quality is to improve teacher education and recruitment in tandem with improving teachers' professional learning," the report says. "The first step is assessing and then choosing only those best suited to become effective classroom teachers."

In Singapore, all teacher training is provided by the National Institute of Education, which puts a cap on the number of students accepted each year and pays trainee teachers. The report says the strength of the Singapore system for training teachers is a continual emphasis on practical skills and student learning.

The course emphasises subject knowledge, with graduating teachers having the same level as a straight degree in the subject.

Schools provide feedback on the quality of teaching courses, which has resulted in some subjects deemed to have no impact in the classroom being dropped.

While Singapore is a small system, South Korea's is more on scale with Australia, with about 11,000 primary and secondary schools compared with Australia's 9500. In South Korea, teaching courses are evaluated from A to D, with the top courses receiving a hefty financial bonus. Courses with a C must cut their student numbers by one-quarter and courses scoring a D must cut their student intake by half, which would shut the faculty.

"The increased emphasis has caused a shake-up at many institutions. Substantial development programs have been initiated, additional funds have been invested . . . it has increased the profile and resources devoted to teacher education in some universities," the report says.

Many South Korean universities have three types of professors focusing on different areas of teaching: general teaching skills, subject specialists and specialists in teaching particular subjects. So student history teachers are taught by professors of history, not lecturers in history teaching.

Teaching graduates are required to sit an exam before working in schools, which sends a signal to universities with low-performing graduates of the need to lift standards and of the skills or knowledge schools want.


On-the-job training best describes the preparation principals of Australian schools receive before taking the reins. Typically, new principals are sent to small country schools, often the most challenging with the most inexperienced teachers.

In Singapore, potential school leaders are nominated by the ministry in consultation with schools and principals and undergo a series of interviews and assessments to determine their leadership capabilities.

"When teachers enter the teaching force, their potential and performance are tracked -- through appraisal, feedback and development -- from the first day of their teaching," the report says.

Suitable candidates undertake a six-month full-time Leaders in Education Program, during which they receive their full salary and tuition fees. The course covers administrative skills, leadership and critical self-reflection, and includes a paid two-week visit to an international educational institution. Those who do well are matched to schools based on their skills and the school's needs, and still have mentoring, peer support and professional development.


Practical training in Australian schools for teaching students is a longstanding problem, with insufficient places in schools for the number of students at university, and arguments over who pays for it. Mentoring of teachers after the first few years is not even spoken about, with professional learning in Australia often comprising a one-day seminar every term.

A key feature of the Asian school systems is the collaboration between teachers, who review each other's work and provide feedback. Mentoring is a vital part of a teacher's education, so that teacher training does not end on graduation from university but continues throughout a career.

The report says successful mentoring and induction programs are intensive, in a collaborative school environment where knowledge and skills are shared with less experienced teachers, who are given constructive feedback.

"Teachers have time and space to meet regularly, observe, reflect on what works and what needs to be improved," it says.

The gold standard system for mentoring teachers and inducting new teachers into the profession is in Shanghai, where every teacher has a mentor, even the senior teachers. New teachers have two mentors, one in their subject and the other advising on classroom management. In Hong Kong, teacher induction is relatively new, starting only in 2003, and to ensure the policy was implemented at a classroom level a tool kit for schools was developed.

The tool kit is a voluntary guide that helps schools plan induction schemes, setting out the changes required and incorporating classroom observation and feedback as key implementation tools. It encourages all new teachers to evaluate their teaching, analyse their own and other teachers' lessons, and to analyse a case of student development.


One of the biggest differences between Australian and Asian schools is the emphasis placed on teachers doing research. As the principal of Shanghai Experimental School puts it: "From what I have seen in Western countries, teachers' place of work is the classroom, with students coming and going. In Shanghai, teachers' main place of work is their office. The emphasis is on their professional learning and research."

The Asian systems recognise teaching is a research-based profession. Teachers are expected to explore ways to improve learning, and it is part of a teacher's job description.

"This not only helps their own professional learning, and that of other teachers, but also helps raise the status of the profession. In Shanghai, research achievements are part of the requirements for promotion," the report says.

In Singapore, which does not share the same historical emphasis on research as in Shanghai, a program called Teach Less Learn More was developed to introduce research into classrooms. At least one teacher who is an expert in doing evidence-based research is placed in every school, and this teacher leads research and shares and develops the research skills of their colleagues.


Education research has shown that constructive feedback based on watching teachers in their classroom has the greatest impact on student learning of any school intervention.

"Teaching in these high-performing systems is an open profession," the report says. "Teachers regularly observe other teachers. Professional collaboration also plays a key role, with extensive team teaching and school-based research to improve learning in classrooms."

A rare occurrence in Australia, watching other teachers at work underpins the training of teachers in Shanghai, where teachers effectively work in teams, appraising each other and the students.

The Grattan report says the key to making classroom observations a useful professional tool is to focus on the students, not merely watch the teacher.

"Improving student learning is the core objective, and so observation should focus on the impact of teaching on student learning," it says. "Teachers can give each other immediate feedback on observed teaching to help meet each student's learning needs."

Classroom observation also acts as a quality assurance mechanism, as peers monitor teaching practices and ensure consistency in the quality of teaching.


Australia is noted for having a very flat career and pay structure, with teachers reaching the top of the pay scale in about eight years. Further pay rises come from promotion into leadership positions, which usually means a job out of the classroom.

A similar situation existed in Singapore, which reformed its career structure in 2000 to provide alternative career tracks and generous bonus payments linked to a performance review.

The reforms have had a substantial impact, cutting attrition rates, which had been rising, and developing specialist teaching and leadership skills.

* * *


Teaching time: 10 to 12 hours a week
Average class size: 40
PISA ranking in reading 2009: 1
Months ahead of Australia
-- reading: 13
-- maths: 25
-- science: 15
Features of success: mentoring, research, classroom observation.

THE road to promotion for Australian teachers leads out of the classroom into the deputy principal and principal's office, the department or other senior positions that take teachers away from students.

In Shanghai, teachers are promoted into the classroom.

"Unlike other countries, great teachers are not promoted out of the classroom to leadership positions, they are promoted into more classrooms," the report says.

The mentoring scheme in Shanghai is described as the gold standard. Every teacher has a mentor, even the senior ones, and it is seen as part of a teacher's role, not an additional duty as it is frequently viewed in Australia.

"It is a key part of a teacher's job description and a requirement for promotion," the report says.

Beginning teachers have two mentors, one for the subject they are teaching and one for classroom management. The mentors focus on core teaching skills such as planning lessons, methods for teaching specific subjects, classroom management and research.

Junior teachers watch at least one class taught by their mentor every week and attend demonstration classes to improve their practical skills.

The mentors also watch the students, picking up those who are falling behind. Frequently a classroom will have two or more teachers, effectively giving students a team of teachers working for them and adjusting the teaching to ensure their learning keeps pace with the rest of their peers.

Master teachers have the highest status in Shanghai and only 0.2 per cent, about 200 teachers, qualify. Australia is talking about 10 per cent of its teachers reaching the level of highly accomplished.

Teaching is viewed as a research-oriented profession in Shanghai, and conducting and publishing research is required for promotion. Research is conducted in schools, not universities, and it is focused on ways to improve student learning. Methods that work are spread throughout the school.

Every teacher belongs to two groups in the school that meet regularly: a research group comprising teachers of the same subject; and a lesson group comprising teachers of the same subject and year level.

To allow time to reflect and research, Shanghai teachers spend fewer hours in front of students, about 10 or 12 hours a week in lower secondary, compared with 20 hours a week in Australia.

The trade-off is to have bigger classes, of about 40 students, compared with about 20 in Australia.

But teachers in Shanghai have hours, often with a team of teachers, to prepare their lessons, compared with the average 20 minutes Australian teachers have to prepare each lesson.

* * *


Average class size: 35
PISA rank in reading: 5
Months ahead of Australia:
-- reading: 3
-- maths: 14
-- science: 5
Features of success: teacher training, principal training, career structure

A FIRST-YEAR teaching student at an Australian university will spend much of their time studying courses such as the history of education and philosophy of education. Not in Singapore. After feedback from schools that teaching graduates were not prepared for the classroom, Singapore universities dropped these subjects in favour of teaching practical skills.

The focus of teacher training in Singapore is to improve teaching skills so teachers can improve students' learning. Anything else is jettisoned.

Singapore runs one of the world's best teacher training systems, under the auspices of the National Institute of Education.

About 18,000 people apply each year, but only 2300 are accepted into the program.The applicants come from the top 30 per cent of students but are assessed not only for their academic qualifications but also teaching ability and disposition to be a teacher.

For the first two years, the teaching students are public servants and their tuition and salary is paid by the Ministry of Education.

Primary school teachers must specialise in at least one academic area, and high school teachers must have two specialities. Teaching students graduate with the equivalent of a bachelor degree in their subject equal to a straight degree in the discipline, so some are lost to universities such as Harvard.

About one-fifth of the four-year course is devoted to practical training in schools and the program emphasises service to the profession and the community.

Singapore teachers are also researchers, which is seen as central to their role.

A research specialist is placed in every school to train other teachers in conducting evidence-based research.

The Grattan report says one of the key lessons from Singapore is developing feedback loops to enable continual assessment of teacher education; a strong relationship between the ministry responsible for education policy, schools and universities; and developing incentives for universities to meet the objectives of school education.

Singapore has revamped its salary structure for teachers to increase the status of the profession and provide alternative career paths that increase specialisation.

Teachers can now follow the senior specialist track, leadership track or teaching track, each with its own promotion levels.

Promotion is determined under a system for appraising teachers that also gives feedback, and provides mentoring and professional learning as part of the performance review.

Teachers are graded from A to E in an end-of-year review, which is considered by a school committee that awards bonuses of more than three months' salary for the top grading. 

Source: The Australian