Try as we might to find the silver bullet to improve our education systems I fear our efforts will be in vain unless we confront the real issues.

Currently the world looks to Finland, Singapore and Shanghai for the answer. In ten years time it will be another three countries but for now we blindly believe that these jurisdictions have the solution. Each proudly accepts visitors and enjoys the world’s attention, but the solution is beyond simplistic answers such as a back-to-basics approach, funding, visible learning, or better teacher education.

My hypothesis: A country’s educational performance is not a reflection of the quality of its education system but a reflection of its values and culture.

I have had the opportunity to visit the big three in educational standings: Finland, Shanghai and Singapore. I have listened to their students, their teachers and parents; visited schools and observed their societies (albeit briefly). My hypothesis is a deeply reflective hunch and would need considerable research to prove but I suspect I could be right. All three countries have vastly different cultures to our own here in Australia.

Shanghai and Singapore are not too dissimilar. Shanghai classrooms are packed, with students sitting in rows, reciting in unison instructions from the teacher. There is little sign of creativity, differentiation or individualisation. Classrooms are sparse; resources are limited.


So how is it Shanghai performs so well: a culture of sheer hard work. As a country China demands a work ethic second to none. Students and their families know that the only way to a better life, the only way to lift themselves out of poverty is to work as hard as they can.

Singapore is not that different. The classrooms are less sparse and less densely populated but they still achieve the results they do through hard work.

One Year 6 student in Singapore told me that she starts school at 8am and finishes at 3:30pm. She then goes to tutoring for another three to four hours (everyday). She has homework from school and her tutor. Study doesn’t finish until late at night. The children know that if their grades aren’t good enough they will be taken out of the academic stream and put into a vocational program.

Finland’s culture is very different, but again vastly different to our own in Australia (and at this point you could insert the UK or the USA). Their schools are surprisingly poorly resourced by our standards. Students actually receive far less instructional time and have less homework. So how is it that they have an educational system that has been outperforming most other developed nations? The country has a culture that respects teachers and values children and learning, and more importantly, a culture of trust.

The teaching profession in Finland has a high status, and it’s not because of the money, but because of the value the Finnish people put on raising their children. Teacher preparation is good but even Pasi Sahlberg states that the quality of an education system can exceed the quality of teachers.

Finland is a country with high levels of trust in its people. For example, to the unaccustomed visitor it appears that the public transport runs on an honesty system. You need to buy a ticket to travel but there are no electronic gates you put your ticket into before going on the subway, no one on the trains checking if you have paid, and no security as you disembark.

From my fifth floor hotel room I spent time watching a busker. A man who had built an intriguing instrument out of bottles. When he wanted a break he left his tin money out in the open and went to buy lunch. No one stole from him.


The same level of trust is afforded to schools and teachers in Finland. There are no inspections of schools, no evaluation of teachers and no standardised tests with publicised results. Finland knows that people perform better when they are trusted, for as a result they feel empowered, valued and in control of their own life choices and consequences.

Contrast these three countries cultures with our own. In 2003 when PISA was first administered Australia performed near the top of the OECD countries. However, since then our standing has taken a remarkable turn. We speak of our education system as though somehow it’s the schools’ or teachers’ fault that standards have taken a turn. But since 2003 not a lot has changed in our schools but in contrast, our society has.

9/11 and the Bali bombings in 2002 were turning points. Since those tragic events we have become less trusting and more suspicious and fearful. The war on terror hasn’t seen victory.

Technology has become ubiquitous, transforming every facet of our lives.

Our concept of respect has been eroded, influenced by the media who cruelly attack our leaders and public figures at every turn under the guise of freedom of speech. No sooner we vote in governments then we want them ousted.

I would also argue that the ‘golden’ economic years in Australia (2001-2007) created a spoilt generation who have a materialistic and entitlement belief rather than a hard worth ethic and an inner peace and happiness for what they do have. I have seen this attitude pervade our students as they carry around the latest iPhone and want to be spoon feed the information they need to pass the assessment rather than expressing a sheer joy and privilege for learning.

We value economic growth above all else, even above our children. Education is no longer about enriching our humanity, but about ensuring our long-term economic viability as a nation.

Policy has commodified the heart of education (the relationships that make schools work) by increasing the accountability and scrutiny of schools (MySchool) and as a result, has undermined trust and done damage to the key relationships between teachers and students.

It is our culture that has caused the demise of our academic standards. Does this mean that we shouldn’t bother with working to lift the quality of teaching and our schools: of course not. But as Peter Drucker’sĀ adage goes, we need to recognise that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Society’s problems, issues, norms, and values (i.e. culture) are our responsibility. We are all responsible for what society is like, and for raising and educating the next generation.

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