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Our Future Schooling?

Monday 4 June 2012
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Nowadays the willingness and ability of a country to educate all its children is taken as a key marker of its development.  Education is one of the rights included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the introduction of compulsory education by many States was not simply due to benevolence; it often reflected a concern about the nation's industrial and indeed military competitiveness.   From the very beginning of modern schooling there was profound disagreement between those who maintained education should be primarily about developing the person and those who thought its key function was to impart knowledge in order to prepare the next generation of workers (and soldiers). So the conflict between what are now thought of as progressive and traditional views of schooling is no hang-over from the 1960s.

Photographer Michal Zacharzewski. www.rgbstock.com

Some proponents of traditional education characterize it thus:



Education should be reasonably authoritarian and hierarchical Education must be egalitarian
The curriculum should be subject-centred It must be child-centred and relevant
Emphasis should be on content Emphasis must be on skills
(Book) knowledge and accuracy are essential Experience, experiment and understanding are more important
Rationality and the consideration of factual evidence should predominate Creativity and feelings are more important than facts
Recognition of right and wrong Right and wrong depend on one’s point of view
There should be a product It is the process that matters
The product, or knowledge of content, should be objectively tested or measured Criteria provide a framework for subjective assessment or tasks based on skills
Competition is welcomed Co-operation must take precedence
Choice between different curricula and/or different types of school is essential to maximise individual strengths Entitlement for all replaces choice and differentiation; equal opportunities can be used to construct equality of result

The italics are those of the compilers of the table at the Campaign for Real Education.[1]  It might be thought to be less than entirely fair.  Note, for example, the use of 'should' versus 'must' in the first comparison, or the characterisation of the views on right and wrong.

Here, by contrast is an extract from how a progressive educator compares his model of education with the traditional





rows of seats clusters

seats facing front/dead space tables

teacher-center motion

elevated teacher active/loud


stern/strict facilitative

in-charge allow student discussion

authoritative project oriented

hierarchy collaborative/teams

alone cooperative


obedient freedom to choose

empty vessels/receiver independent of teacher

attentive self-motivated

respectful to teacher collaborate

grade-motivated already full of experience

standard evaluation evaluation through multiple rubrics


textbooks student-created

rote learning multi-source

teach/test raw materials

objective inter/multi disciplinary


sit and listen performance evaluation

discuss (teacher-led) open-ended

prescriptive multiple intelligences

Again, few if any traditional educators would fully accept this characterisation which has its own bias, hardly more subtle [2].

In reality, of course, the actual practice of schooling is almost certain to fit into a continuum; more progressive in some respects, more traditional in others.  Nevertheless, it is telling that both progressives and traditionalists accept that there is a real difference between approaches and both are happy to accept the terms applied to them.

'Tiger' education: South Korea

Traditionalists often claim that schooling in the West is now dominated by progressive models of education and the allied claim is sometimes made that this is a reason for the relative economic decline of the West compared to Asian 'Tiger' economies in particular.   It is certainly true that international educational statistics have given high rankings to certain Asian countries that have had marked economic growth and followed a traditional model of schooling: a highly disciplined school environment with education dominated by examinations based on the ability to recall facts.

However, it is worth examining two of these cases in more detail.  In the 2009 international survey of school performance of 15 year-olds, conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), South Korean pupils came second in Reading, fourth in mathematics and sixth in science (2006: first in reading, third in mathematics and tenth in science).  South Korea boasts the highest high school graduation rate in the world, 97%.  These results are impressive. But they were achieved at a price: long school attendance (220 days a year) and intensive additional tuition at private academies called hagwons. Achievement is obtained by schools neglecting physical exercise, art or social activities and through strict discipline in the form of corporal punishment.  The emotional cost is heavy.  A suicide rate of 17 out of 100,000 students has been quoted, sometimes after a poor exam performance or because of the fear of parental disappointment, and many more contemplating it [3].

These facts alone would make South Korean schooling a dubious model.  But in fact it isn't very effective at anything apart from coaching students to pass exams.  When PISA calculated study effectiveness, each nation's achievement based on the number of hours spent studying, South Korea came 24th out of 30 developed nations.  Another indicator is the remarkably poor performance of South Korean students when exposed to the creative and self-motivated learning needed in university education abroad.  A study reported in the Korea Times showed that 44% of South Korean students at top US universities drop out, compared with drop-out rates of 34% for US students, 25% for Chinese students and 21% for Indian students [4].

It is significant that the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has recognized the weakness of its traditional model of schooling.  School testing and university admissions policies are being changed to reduce student stress and reward qualities like creativity.  At the end of 1997 it introduced the Seventh Curriculum, expanded to cover all students by 2004.

The rationale was, as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said at his inauguration in 2008, a 'One-size-fits-all, government-led uniform curriculum and an education system that is locked only onto the college-entrance examination are not acceptable'.

Traditional educational expectations and practices are extremely hard to change.  Reform will be slow.  The system is supported, sometimes vehemently, by many parents, teachers and educationalists who are used to the status quo.  However, the seriousness with which the South Korean government takes its change of policy is indicated by police patrols to shut down those private academies which operate too late into the evening.

'To prepare students for the 21st century, the era of globalization and knowledge-based society, the Seventh Curriculum attempts to break away from the spoon-fed and short-sighted approach to education of the past towards a new approach in the classroom to produce human resources capable of facing new challenges. Study loads for each subject have been reduced to an appropriate level, while curricula that accommodate different needs of individual students were also introduced. Independent learning activities to enhance self-directed learning required in the knowledge-based society have either been introduced or expanded'.

It continues,

'the Seventh Curriculum is a student-oriented curriculum emphasizing individual talent, aptitude, and creativity, unlike the curriculum of the past. The Seventh Curriculum defines the desired image of an educated person as follows:

1. A person who seeks individuality as the basis for the growth of the whole personality

2. A person who exhibits a capacity for fundamental creativity

3. A person who pioneers a career path within the wide spectrum of culture

4. A person who creates new value on the basis of understanding the national culture

5. A person who contributes to the development of the community on the basis of democratic civil consciousness.' [5]

'Tiger' education: Singapore

Another Asian country associated with traditional, teacher-centred, rote-based schooling is Singapore.  In 2009 its PISA rankings were fifth in Reading, second in Mathematics and fourth in Science.  Yet here too the education authorities have recognized the limitations of this model in the twenty-first century.  The Singapore Department of Education states,

'We have been moving in recent years towards an education system that is more flexible and diverse. The aim is to provide students with greater choice to meet their different interests and ways of learning.  Being able to choose what and how they learn will encourage them to take greater ownership of their learning. We are also giving our students a more broad-based education to ensure their all-round or holistic development, in and out of the classroom.

These approaches in education will allow us to nurture our young with the different skills that they need for the future. We seek to help every child find his own talents, and grow and emerge from school confident of his abilities. We will encourage them to follow their passions, and promote a diversity of talents among them - in academic fields, and in sports and the arts.

We want to nurture young Singaporeans who ask questions and look for answers, and who are willing to think in new ways, solve new problems and create new opportunities for the future. And, equally important, we want to help our young to build up a set of sound values so that they have the strength of character and resilience to deal with life’s inevitable setbacks without being unduly discouraged, and so that they have the willingness to work hard to achieve their dreams'. [6]

The result should be,

'a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgement, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;

a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;

an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and,

a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him'. [7]

Failings of traditional schooling

So educational authorities in countries that once appeared to thrive on traditional models of education are now beginning to turn their backs in it.  In part, of course, this is a reflection of broader social change in those societies.  However, there is also a pragmatic realisation that the traditional model is not good for meeting the needs of advanced societies in the twenty-first century.  When simple factual information is easily available online and devices for accessing it can be carried in the pocket, the value of cramming facts diminishes.  The problem is not that South Korean or Singaporean schoolchildren have not been working hard enough;  it is that they have not been learning effectively.  What is of more value in a schooling system is to prepare young people who can think creatively and assess information for themselves, and who can work cooperatively with their peers to achieve results rather than be in perpetual competition with them.

The problem with the traditional model is highlighted by a comparison with Finland, the Western country with educational results comparable with South Korea (according to PISA, in 2009 second in science, third in reading and sixth in maths) [8].  In Finland, combined public and private spending on schooling is less per pupil than in South Korea (and markedly less than the USA). Only 13% of Finnish students take (remedial) after-school lessons.[9]  Furthermore, they only attend school  for 190 days per year, and have less than half-hour of homework a day.

Finland is a traditional educationalist's nightmare.  Compulsory schooling does not begin until the age of 7.  There are no compulsory standard tests, apart from one examination at the end of senior year in high school.  There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students or schools.  Schools are publicly funded and run by educators.  Equality is key, for every school has the same national goal - to mainstream all children and consequently the differences between weakest and strongest pupils are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the OECD, while teachers are highly educated, well-qualified and motivated.[10]

The transformation of the Finnish education system began in the 1960s.[11]  It was not the result of some socialist ideal to impose equality but was an integral part of a national strategy to improve the efficiency of Finland's economy.  The Finns realized that to achieve this they would have to commit to high quality, public, comprehensive education.  Since then Finnish education has become progressively more progressive: the national curriculum has been replaced with guidelines, streaming by ability has been ended and the school inspectorate abolished.

The Finnish model, with its stress on creativity and autonomy, is very different to that favoured by traditionalists.[12]  It lies right at the end of the progressive spectrum.  It is comprehensive, egalitarian and non-selective.  However, not only does it result in well-rounded, adaptable and creative graduates, it produces excellent academic results too.[13]

(c) Esko Kurvinen

Obviously one size does not fit all, and Finnish society is sufficiently advanced that a progressive approach does not have to face the sort of populist reaction that is encountered in the UK and USA, which seemingly cannot accept that happy children can be educated children.   Nevertheless, the key principles are universally applicable; studies show that progressive education contributes more to the overall health of society.[14]


This article was written by Tim Powell and published by Our Future Planet.

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