What's really behind Australia's declining international education results
Australian students’ slide in the international benchmarks for reading and numeracy may not be the fault of the students, the teachers, or even the school system, says Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg.
He argues there is a key factor being overlooked, a shift so profound and complete we’ve almost forgotten life without it: the rise of the smartphone.
And Professor Sahlberg predicts a tobacco and big sugar-style marketing war between tech-company-backed research and independent research in the next five years, over whether more technology in the classroom is beneficial or harmful to kids.
“We are not paying attention to the very rapidly increased use of screen technology,” he said. “The first three PISAs were in 2000, 2003 and 2006, this thing didn’t exist. There were no iPads or smartphones.
“So if you look at kids in Australia, they used a fraction of the time they use today with different types of smartphones and iPads and computer screens compared to the first three.”
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests are run every three years by the OECD, comparing a sample of 15-year-olds in different countries on reading, maths and science.
As Australia’s results have slipped against other countries, policy-makers and school systems have scrambled to figure out what’s going wrong.
But Professor Sahlberg, who has recently returned with his family to Helsinki after three years working at Harvard in the US, said the decline in PISA performance is happening in all western countries.
“Reading performance has been drastically declining in Finland because of this. Our pedagogy and teaching has not changed, the curriculum has not changed. So how else can you explain this dramatic change?”
The second key factor, he said, is that the East Asian countries, which are rising strongly in the PISA rankings, drill their student populations and teach to the test.
“I go to Singapore, I do a lot of work in South Korea, it’s all over the place. They have practice halls for the PISA. They practice using the PISA test items so the kids are familiar with that type of thing.”
East Asian countries enrol the majority of students in “cram schools” or private tuition, where gadgets are banned while they study, he said.
“It doesn’t really tell you how good the overall system is. It tells you how good the system is at taking these particular tests. It’s a different thing.”
Professor Sahlberg has been a teacher, educator and policy adviser in Finland, and wrote the book Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland.
While research on the intrusion of digital technology was in its infancy, studies such as Growing Up Digital were reporting disturbing preliminary results, he said.
“We’re going to see with in the future, a next five years, a war between these kind of research studies, trying to show that doing more screen time [in the classroom] at the time when it’s already controlling the lives of young people doesn’t make any sense; and then the tech companies will say if you build your teaching and learning around the technology you will decrease the dropout rate and increase the graduation rates – we’ re going to see a lot of that in the future.”
A frequent visitor to Australia, he is not here to sell the popular line that Finland is the perfect education system, and in fact argues that NSW could teach Finland a thing or two.
“I don’t think that Finland has the magic answer to education or anything – no country whatsoever has that. In a way that’s a myth.”
What Finland does get right, he says, is its child-focused approach, with an emphasis on play, a later school starting age (7), and letting each child develop at their own pace.
“This conversation of having an extended childhood where children can play and be themselves, learn to be with other people – was recognised an important thing [in Finland].
“One thing that distinguishes Australia and Finland is we have much less concern about academic performance in the early years than you have here.”
But he said Finland’s student population was changing significantly due to increased migration, from almost zero immigrants 20 years ago to around 7 per cent and rising today.
“I think Finland can learn a great deal from Australia, NSW in particular. About what the system should do to be good for everybody, good for Aboriginal and minority children. This is something we are learning in my country right now.”
A frequent visitor to Australia, Professor Sahlberg is in Sydney following a tour of regional and remote schools with Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, to give a speech on Thursday about the results of a study of the NSW school system that he supervised at Harvard. He said Australia has a far better system than the US.
An article by a US academic William Doyle who lived for six months in Finland published by Fairfax Media – Why Finland has the best schools – remains among the best read articles on the SMH website. Professor Sahlberg chuckled when I told him this.
“That was my friend,” he said. “He’s writing from the position of an American.”
The story What’s really behind Australia’s declining international education results first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.