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A great test score at what price?

12 maart 2014

The PISA tests – which measure test performance in 15 year olds in many countries in skills like reading and math – show that several school systems that are rigid, teacher-centred and unimaginative are producing better test outcomes than students in certain more ‘progressive’ education systems. Recently, after the most recent PISA tests showed Australian schools falling down the rankings, we had newspapers calling for us to learn from places like Shanghai, Hong Kong and South Korea.
I happen to have also taught in China and Hong Kong in public schools, so I can offer an inside perspective on the issue at hand. These countries tend to produce passive and dispirited human beings who nonetheless know well how to get the one correct answer when instructed to find it. These educational systems are obsessed with test outcomes – and so produce champion test takers. But these ‘super test takers’ then get into the most prestigious universities and earn more money than most of those with a more liberal education. Universities themselves are becoming increasingly rigid and uninspiring places, and academics are being boxed into soulless work structures where begging for grant money and producing papers that nobody reads have become prime indicators of job performance.

Despite this trend, many futurists agree that society and workplaces in the future will be less hierarchical, requiring greater autonomy and creativity from their worker citizens. Given this paradox, are current PISA test results leading governments and educators to ask the wrong questions about our future schools?

Confucius and the industrial age

It was 2003 in Leshan, Sichuan province, China. When I entered the classroom of seventy students, I didn’t notice anything unusual at first. It was 7.30 on a very cold winter’s morning, probably around zero. Even inside the drab, grey classroom the fourteen-year-old students were wearing thick coats, their breaths condensing in the morning air. There were heaters, but the administrators refused permission for them to be turned on because they said they wanted the students to grow up ‘strong’ (just as likely a reason was to save the power bill). Also perfectly normal was the foot-high stack of textbooks on the simple wooden desks. I knew from visiting other teachers’ classes that the students would often chant the books together, reading aloud in unison. In my third year in the country, I knew full well that China was not a place where rote learning is a dirty phrase; it is absolutely expected.  Also not surprising that morning was the fact that as I introduced my English many of the students were not bothering to listen at all. Some were doing math homework or solving chemistry problems. A dozen or so had their heads on the desks, exhausted, asleep. I knew that their school day would not finish till five in the afternoon. After dinner it would be review time from seven till nine, then back to the dingy little dorms for extra self-study.

Yet there was one most unusual thing I noted that day. Lulu, a delightful, normally bright-eyed, student in the front row (always a sign that she was either the teacher’s favourite or had well-connected parents) had her head on the desk, stirring just occasionally. After initiating the lesson, I walked over to her and tapped on her desk. She raised her head, and I saw the fatigue, the dark circles under her eyes. I asked her if she was OK.

‘I’m just tired’, she said sleepily. She then told me that she had been up till two o’clock that morning. Like other students, she lived on campus, and it was lights out at eleven. But she had snuck into the toilet with her books and a torch, and studied for three extra hours.

‘Why on earth did you do that?’ I asked, shocked.

‘Now we have the tests, so I must do it.’

The story of Lulu is just one of millions of similar cases involving young students in Asia. They grow up in Confucian societies where education is revered, and where success at school largely determines a person’s place in life. I have taught in all of Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and have spent time in countries like Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, so I am very familiar with the way things work there. These places have strongly hierarchical social structures. If one is left on the lower rungs of the social ladder, the result is typically a life of deprivation and social exclusion. The education systems typically retain ancient Confucian rote-learning methods. This is where the test is what counts, above all else.

My first teaching position in Asia was in Taiwan in 1999. Though a high school teacher by profession, I was handed a class of four year olds. Much to my surprise I found I was a natural with the kids, and they loved me. Not so the administrators. After a few weeks I was taken aside by the school director and asked, ‘We want to know what kind of tests you are giving the students?’

To be honest I was appalled. Never mind that some of these kids were still wetting their pants! Just keep testing them!

‘The parents want to know their scores’, the director said. I was then told to make sure that all students got more than ninety per cent in their tests, ‘… or the parents will not be happy.’ By the time I left my last school in Asia just over a year ago, I was all too familiar with the test-centred rote-learning obsession of Confucian education.

There were two things I loved more than anything else about teaching in Asia: the students and the other teachers. Most of the students were very eager to learn. What is there not to admire about the Lulu’s of this world, with their polite demeanour and dogged determination to make a better life for themselves? And the teachers too, although overworked and often dispirited by years of sitting through uninspiring lessons (probably many of their own, it has to be said), I found them to be as respectful to me as the students, and eager to cooperate.

Several East Asian schools have done very well in PISA test scores in math, science and especially reading comprehension, as measured by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. Hong Kong did particularly well, finishing in the top three in several test categories, while Shanghai and South Korea also excelled. Australia however, had just returned poor scores in almost all of the domains. It might interest educators and those passionate about the future of our education system that Hong Kong has been remodelling its education system in recent years. Can you guess whom they have drawn inspiration from? The answer is a little surprising: The Victorian (Australian) state education system.

In fact Hong Kong residents have been greatly critical of their public schools for many years. In 2011 the Hong Kong Examination authority blasted the level of competence of the school graduates as evidenced by the HKCE (the equivalent of year 12 in Australia, and year 3 or 4 of secondary education in The Netherlands). They described many of the student responses as lacking in any capacity for intelligent or considered thought. A general lack of competence in basic skills was noted, including the ability to construct logical, coherent arguments.

How are we to make sense of this contradiction between what the PISA tests suggest about Hong Kong’s schools and the bitter criticism of their own education administrators?

A central issue that we have to face is that although it may produce greater test results, what I call ‘mechanical education’ is completely inadequate as means for engendering the skills, attitudes and cognitive capacities which are required to thrive in dynamic modern societies. Confucian education systems are a throw-back to industrial-age education, where schools were set up as virtual production lines to produce cogs to fit into an increasingly mechanized workforce.

But the world has changed. It is no longer enough to be able to remember information, follow instructions and obey authority. As I shall discuss below, there are many vital attitudes, qualities and skills that are not being adequately addressed in most modern education systems. In fact this is not a new insight I am presenting here. Critiques of the system have been around for many years, and western education systems have been grappling to expand curricula to bring in concepts like multiple perspectives, creativity and even emotional intelligence. But these things, by and large, cannot be tested. And herein lies the problem.

The danger I see is that an obsession with test results such as the PISA will see the abandonment of attempts to make education more progressive. In a worst-case scenario we will produce students who are too passive and rigid to adapt to a dynamic new world.

The lack of introspection

Yet there is one more thing that concerns me about mechanical education systems. This is something that lies beyond the typical discourse on education and society, but it is something that is now being discussed more and more. It is that in drilling for tests and narrowly-defined and measurable educational outcomes, many schools and education systems effectively retard subtle but vital cognitive capacities which may be more important than any single measurable outcome we can determine.

I am referring to the emotive and spiritual aspects of human experience. The secular society has seen the withdrawal of religious tuition from most public education (at least here in Australia), but it is yet to find a satisfactory way to allow the young to explore their inner worlds in profound and meaningful ways. Some may argue that this is not the role of public schools. But then, if not schools, then who? This is about the big questions of life, and it is deep questioning which must be allowed to flourish.

In public education at least, it is not for the teacher to insist on the definitive resolution to ultimate questions; nor can such introspection be assessed via the one correct answer being regurgitated by students at the end of the semester for a high grade. The heart of the matter must be for the teacher to share his or her wisdom – as well as uncertainties, doubts and fears – as an older person.

How will this be done? I have my own thoughts, but rather than tell you what I think, what is more important here is that educators and policy makers begin to address these concerns in practical ways; and as soon as possible.

The problem and a way forward

The empirical and quantitative are wonderful assets to human knowledge. The emphasis upon these in recent centuries has led to tremendous advances in knowledge. This has accelerated since the beginning the twentieth century with the dominance of ‘technoscience’, which has facilitated the integration of science with consumer/technological society. Yet this has come at a price. Human beings are losing touch with their inner worlds and the subtle awareness of the essential spiritual dimensions of life.

My experience is that students are crying out for something, anything, which will help them address the deep questions within. American educator John Moffett (1994) argued this for the best part of half a century. In more recent times Australian academic David Tacey (2007) has discovered exactly this. He has enjoyed great success in introducing a spirituality course into literature programs at la Trobe University in Melbourne. The enthusiastic responses of his students has led him to conclude that students are hungry for the spiritual, but they are hampered in their expression due to the delimited nature of curricula.

Nonetheless many teachers and administrators often seem unable, or unwilling, to address the issue of deep meaning. Devoid of meaning, schooling can become a drudgery of cynicism and confusion (see also Gatto, 2009). I believe a genuine education has to honour the full range of human cognitive potentials. This includes the utilization of a more complete range of ways of knowing.

The decline of the West? What it can do about it

There is yet another aspect to consider here. Things are shifting, and fast. There is a real danger that the Western world, including the United States, is in decline. In relative economic terms, this is indisputable. After World War Two, the US economy represented about 50 per cent of the total world economy. Now it is approximately 25 per cent. The Chinese economy has been growing at around ten per cent for some thirty years, and will likely become the biggest world economy well before the middle of this century. China, Russia, Brazil and India together now hold over forty per cent of international reserve assets, excluding gold.

Friedman (2007) points out that the new world is one where Western economies must compete with new, emerging and developing societies. Rekindling lost parts of the Western psyche that were eliminated in the industrial revolution – what Sohail Inayatullah calls ‘the disowned Future’ – may help. As an educator who has worked in Taiwan, Mainland China and Hong Kong, and has taught in Australia, New Zealand, and visited American schools, I can report that there are strengths and weaknesses to each civilization’s approach to knowledge. Most East Asian systems have also ditched deep meaning, but to speak generally, they have not embraced individual freedom of thought, intellectual autonomy, creativity, nor allowed the inner worlds of the psyche to flourish. The advantage they have is that they value education in a way that the West has forgotten. This is a precarious situation for the Western world. Its education systems are sowing the seeds of a rapid civilizational decline. The kinds of attitudes that are dominating are those that may breed mediocrity and failure.

Western education needs to get smart; intelligent in a fuller sense of the word. The West should not try to beat Asia at its own game, and attempt to mass-produce graduates via Amy Chua’s (2011) ‘Tiger Mother’ approach (submission, obedience and rote learning). That is a battle the West has already lost. It is outnumbered and ‘outsmarted’. However, the good news is that if it expands the notion of intelligence, the picture improves.

It is not necessary for Western nations to turn their societies into effective beehives of production and ‘busy-ness’. This is not the West’s traditional strength. Instead they have to capitalize upon the strong points of Western civilization and education. It is somewhat ironic that at the time when some are arguing that the Western world is in decline, there is now, more than ever, a need for some of the things the West has long excelled at.

What the West has to offer

Despite the problems that the West is experiencing at present, Western civilization does have something to offer the world. Democracy might be one of them. Turning again to the case of China, as Will Hutton states in China and the West: The Writing on the Wall, the Western ideals of freedom of expression, justice, and democracy could potentially benefit China, especially as China moves away from being a manufacturing economy to become a service or knowledge economy. Even Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani, a sometimes harsh critic of the West, believes that democracy and features of Western political systems are necessary for developing nations and economies.

Part of this equation is the open thinking that western culture typically features. Daniel Pink (2005) has stated the case well in his book A Whole New Mind. Pink has pointed out that left-brained cognitive processes have generally dominated over right-brained ways of knowing in modern Western culture. However, Pink argues that the world is changing. What he calls ‘L-directed Thinking’ (left-brained) and the jobs requiring such cognitive skills are increasingly being taken up by emerging economies like India and China. Fortunately the West also has a strong tradition of ‘R-directed thinking’. These right-brained processes involve six ‘high-concept, high touch’ senses, namely: design, story (ability to synthesize information into a narrative), symphony (finding integration, the big picture), empathy, play, and meaning.

I agree with Pink on this. I like to use the term ‘Deep Futures’ to describe a more profound vision of tomorrow, and preferred futures as I envisage them are permissive of such ways of knowing, alongside traditional ‘rational’ cognition.

What will be increasingly required in the future, argues Pink, are skills which more fully balance both sides of the brain: concepts like artistry, empathy, taking the long view, and pursuing the transcendent (Pink, 2005: 27). In short, Pink argues that there has been a shift from the information age to the ‘conceptual age’. The driving forces are affluence, technology and globalization. Those in most demand and most able to prosper in this age will be creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers (Pink 2005: 50). What we are talking about here is a spiritual shift; an incorporation of those necessary and intrinsic aspects of human cognition and experience, which have been leached from our lives and education systems in recent centuries.

There is now a growing body of theorists calling for a greater degree of spirituality in business, and in the workplace. One of the first was Peter Senge (1994), who sees personal mastery and the integration of the intuitive, transcendent and rational faculties as being intricately interrelated in the modern workplace. These cognitive processes enhance perception of the connectedness of the world, compassion, and commitment to the whole (Senge 1994: 167). Senge calls for a movement away from selfishness and towards a commitment to something greater than ourselves, including a greater desire to be of service to the world. This incorporates the experience of the awakening of ‘a spiritual power’ (ibid.: 167-172). Senge argues that this shift is an important part of the learning organisation.

There are parallels here with futurist Sohail Inayatullah’s (2004) call for spirituality to be ‘the fourth bottom line’ of business. Inayatullah believes there is already a strong shift towards a more responsible society and corporate world. This involves moving from the controlling, ego-driven organisations to the learning organisation and then to a ‘learning and healing organisation’. This process shifts an organisation from mechanistic to organic and spiritual (Inayatullah, 2004). There are three requirements: a ‘relationship with the transcendent’; meditation and/or prayer; and honouring the social (ibid.).

Elsewhere (Anthony, 2008) I have argued for the necessity for an expanded definition and appreciation of human intelligence, to incorporate the most essential aspects of human spiritual traditions – Integrated Intelligence. There is a growing body of evidence that human consciousness is not confined to the head of the individual, and that human beings are connected via a collective consciousness (Braud 2003; Grof 2000; Laszlo et al. 2003). Integrated Intelligence is a human being’s awareness of this, and the ability to use that intelligence to create a more meaningful life. It is about being successful in a way that transcends mere consumerism and materialism.

The focus for both Pink and Senge (and to a lesser degree, Inayatullah) is often centred on the benefits of ‘R-Directed Thinking’ for workers in Western knowledge economies. Yet, I would like to assert the greatest benefit of Integrated Intelligence. Let me here quote Peter Russell:

We are all part of the same groundswell. The most important question we need to ask is, how can I put my own life in greater alignment with that groundswell? (Laszlo et al., 2003: ix)

There is a tendency for lay people and politicians both East and West to see ‘the other’ as a threat. It is time to begin to work with the inner dimensions of mind, both in our own lives, and within education systems. David Loye (2004) has pointed out that we can no longer afford to think in terms of a survival of the fittest, hyper-materialistic world. Integrated Intelligence is ultimately an affirmation of the extant reality that we are all part of a united humanity. At the very least, humanity is potentially united. It is time for a re-alignment of thinking, both East and West, and a genuine deepening of our ways of knowing.

Practically speaking

I am not advocating bringing a personal agenda for inculcating a particular religious or philosophical perspective through the classroom door. The process needs to be more considered, more subtle and more respectful than that.
The key is bringing in inner worlds and other ways of knowing into curriculum, and into the classroom. Introducing other ways of knowing into the classroom requires no religious or spiritual jargon. Nor does it necessarily require that students share everything that they experience while exploring the intuitive or being reflective.
I for instance use visualization and quiet time for my students. Journal writing can also be a great way to get students to honour the intuitive, without necessarily having the need to bear their soul with the class. Using journals immediately after quiet time is a great way to develop the link between the left and right brains, the conscious and subconscious minds.
Sharing meaningful anecdotes from personal life is another way of touching a more profound psycho-spiritual level within the students. Ideally, the themes should be something related to the kinds of profound philosophical and spiritual issues I have mentioned earlier. Whenever the teacher touches upon the profound or something that connects us with the greater thread of human history, life itself or our dreams and aspirations, opportunities to be meaningful open up. Such themes can include the environment, nature, justice, space exploration, the death penalty, free-market economics, personal success, failure, suicide, illness, triumph, defeat, disability, serious challenges, personal danger and so on.

There are other ways to introduce spiritual concepts and experiences into classrooms without getting caught in the crossfire of religious and spiritually-specific terminology. Recent studies into the practice of mindfulness have shown promising results (Reid, 2011; Sawyer 2009). Further, introducing the spiritually playful concept of synchronicity may also be an opening to a general spiritual awareness (Cho et al., 2009). In business settings mindfulness has been shown to improve levels of wellbeing, reduce stress, enhance competitive edge and improve creativity (Martin 2013a,b). These are all measurable outcomes. Why then are we not bringing mindfulness into curricula, given how distracted most children are by electronic media and mobile devices?

The world is not likely to be transformed into the serenity of a giant Buddhist monastery anytime too soon, and neither is the average teacher’s classroom. I am suggesting small, balanced introductions to inner worlds. This can even be done with senior students. In 2012 I asked a new Form 7 class (18-19 year olds) in Hong Kong if they had ever tried visualization before. None of them had. Not ever in some 13 years of education! But I didn’t let that stop me! We did a visualization on something deeply meaningful to Hong Kong students – the public exam!

Finally, educators can’t fake wisdom or deep understanding of life. They have to discern amongst concepts they feel they have mastery or understanding of, and those they do not. Intuition must be employed in the classroom – to know what, when and how ‘deep’ to teach. And that is something subtle. It is a different way of knowing how to teach.

The shifting sands of the twenty-first century

The shape of the world is shifting. The dominance of Anglo/white culture is over. The global economic issues of today are not merely about greed or poorly regulated banking systems. We face a crisis of meaning. What does it mean be human in the modern age?

Contemplation and meaning cannot simply be afterthoughts in the curriculum. They are an essential part of life. Schooling is meant to equip us to live life in a way that is meaningful. We must bring time into the classroom to reflect upon what it is all about.

This entails a degree of vulnerability on behalf of the teacher. Is the teacher to admit her own fears and weaknesses, or her pain at loss and suffering? Is she to confess to the things in this world that she does not understand? Her limitations? And what of those profound life experiences which have granted her wisdom and understanding? Is she to remain silent regarding this? Talking about such things requires courage. This is a state of emotional vulnerability, which can only be negotiated by an individual with a high degree of psychological and spiritual maturity. In short: wisdom. And wisdom emerges from a deep introspection upon life experience. It emerges from inner worlds. We need to start planning for futures with depth.


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  • Tacey, D. (2007). The spirituality revolution. London: Routledge.


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