CleverLands: Why copying other countries won’t work.

In Luke Chapter 18, beginning verse 18, a rich man asks Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The rich man explains he has kept the commandments since he was a child.  At this point he must have been feeling pretty good about his chances so what Jesus told him next was probably a bit of a bombshell.  “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come follow me.”  This is too much for the rich man.  Giving up everything he owned for something hypothetical was too high a price and he went away unhappy.

I’ve been thinking about this story while reading “CleverLands” and remembering my own experiences teaching in Ethiopia, a very different education system both to Britain and the educationally successful countries Lucy Crehan travels to.

In 2006 I traveled to Ethiopia with VSO to work for  a year old university, training teacher-trainers.  I’d taught for three years in England and was fully schooled in the active learning methodology so dominant a decade ago.  I’d never been exposed to any other philosophy and had never questioned the methods I’d been trained in.

My job was to train teacher-trainers to train teachers to use active learning methods in their classrooms.  The consensus was that This Was A Good Thing, and my early observations of Ethiopian teaching did little to make me question this impression.  Teachers stood at the front of their classes, sometimes lecturing, sometimes just reading out of a textbook.  The students made notes, either in cheap, colourful Chinese made exercise books or scraps of paper.  There was no questioning, discussion and certainly no group work.  Lessons ended when the teacher ran out of time and the next lesson was invariably just a continuation of the last until the content ran out.  Tests and exams were always multiple choice.

To try and move teachers away from this orthodoxy I facilitated workshops and then observed teaching.  I advocated group work, discussion, peer assessment and a huge range of the other methods I’d learned while a teacher in Britain.

Little of what I taught was directly useful to my students.  Ethiopian teachers had to lecture to their students because there were no other resources.  In many cases, the only copy of the textbook was the one owned by the teacher and reading it to the class was an entirely appropriate way to communicate a body of important knowledge to a large number of young people.  The idea of applying knowledge thorough active learning was, of course, impossible as the students had no knowledge to apply.  Even had they had this knowledge, getting students to question and challenge would have been very difficult given the importance Ethiopian culture places on hierarchy and deference to elders.

Active Learning was never going to work in Ethiopia because it was a product of an entirely different culture. (I’m leaving aside wider arguments around the efficacy of Active Learning in general but suffice to say, I’m sceptical of it even in the UK.)  Educational systems are expressions of culture and attempts to graft an element of one into an entirely different one in the hope of achieving the same results will not bare fruit.

I’ve seen such attempts do enormous damage.  In one horrifying incident, another Western volunteer from a different organisation at my university, trying to empower student voice, encouraged a group of first year students to organise a strike against poor food in their canteen.  They did so and some were expelled with no appeal and no possibility of admission to any other university.  The volunteer, by naively assuming that their own experiences and values could easily be slotted into a very different one, destroyed the educational dreams and aspirations of those they’d tried to help

This lesson is the one that comes across most clearly to me from CleverLands.  Each of the successful educational systems  described seem very much products and expressions of the cultures in which they grew.  There may be elements we like, but thinking that we can successfully take these individual elements and plant them in isolation of the others in our own system is wrong. If we want the baby we must accept the bathwater too. We may like the idea of parents being more closely involved in their child’s education, as in Japan, but forcing this would almost certainly be too politically unpalatable, as would requiring teachers to enforce the idea of collective responsibility.  If we can’t achieve these changes, then the changes we can accomplish take place out of context and aren’t likely to be as successful.

To achieve the same results these systems do we would need to adopt not just their entire education system, but their social system too and even if this were possible most of us wouldn’t want to.

So I think we’re like the rich man in Luke.  We may think we’re willing to do what it takes for a better PISA score but we’re not, not really and perhaps rightly so in light of the disturbing chapter on Singapore.  Giving up what we’re used to for hypothetical benefits is just too high a price for most of us.

Meaningful reform can only happen when there is sufficient political appetite for whole scale change and the inevitable structural and economic reforms that comes with it. Of course this is possible but, sadly, I feel we’re a long way away from that.


5 thoughts on “CleverLands: Why copying other countries won’t work.

  1. As far as I’m aware, no one’s suggesting that we slavishly copy the educational systems of other countries. Traditionalists are certainly not proposing to do such a thing, but rather to restore conservative practices that once worked in Britain and that cognitive science has shown to be effective. In your analogy of the rich man, you seem to be suggesting that British education is currently very rich and would lose a great deal by adopting different methods. I’d argue the opposite – the current ideas pervading schools are poor, leading to mediocrity and social inequality.


    • That really isn’t what I’m saying. My point is that to successfully adopt the methods of other systems we’d have to adopt aspects of their cultures too, and this probably isn’t desirable to most people.


      • Yes that’s true: schools with strict discipline in the West are going against cultural norms of freedom and indulgence towards children. But I think cultures can change and that traditional practices are making a comeback now. I don’t think we should be defeatist about the possibility for change.


  2. I’m not against this and have tremendous respect for schools trying to do it. My negative conclusion is because, at the moment, I just don’t see the political appetite needed to make the major changes that are necessary, especialy as I’m sure they’d be expensive as well as societally unpalatable. Having just re read the chapter on Singapore, I think we do have to also be very careful not to fall into trap of thinking any means justify an end.


  3. I liked this blog, Ben. I find that when people talk about a ‘return’ to the ‘values’ of the past, they fail to mention the use of corporal punishment that was rife in schools in the past, and that was not actually banned in the UK until the late 1990s. It was a major facet of my own education. I’ve been looking at some statistics on Wikipedia this morning, and in both Singapore and Japan (top 2 on PISA) the use of corporal punishment is widespread.


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