Learning Tower of PISA?

I’m now in Dubai among some of the tallest and newest towers of the world. They really are hugely impressive and a feat of human strength, creativity and desire (and rather a lot of money).

I’ve been reading up on the plans for educational development in the country and its vision for 2021. The ‘Vision for 2021’ contain several targets which are part of an overall plan for this rapidly growing and truly globalised country. Unsurprisingly, the ubiquitous PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables are prominent in the targets – the UAE wants to be in the top 20 countries of the world by 2021 according to each of its three measures: reading, mathematics and science.

It is another example of how this spurious ‘world league table’ has changed the nature of educational advances throughout the world – mainly in Asia, the Middle East and Western Europe. And it is extremely dangerous. I’ve been encouraged by reading the writing of the American academic Dr Yong Zhao who has made several detailed criticisms of the PISA obsession.  I distil them below adding my own vernacular.

  1. The more authoritative the education system, the more students are likely to blame themselves for failure in testing. This breeds low confidence and low self-esteem. PISA entrenches this.
  2. The existence of schools is solely as exam preparation centres. My own boys are now given learning targets in ‘improving test technique’. In my own school, we bemoan our pupils’ poor test technique as the key reason for us dropping down the league table. We shouldn’t be surprised because we don’t coach them. We are overly focused now on ‘getting the credential’; the learning bit is peripheral.
  3. Academics have uncovered significant technical flaws in the methodology that calculates the eventual PISA numbers. Notwithstanding this, can any sane person really judge an entire country’s educational system on the basis of just three numbers? And how can this be universally valuable? The needs of Greece and China are SO different.
  4. PISA leads to histrionic reaction, now so typical of our lazy journalists. The Daily Telegraph ran a story after the latest PISA release suggesting ‘China’s poorest beat our best pupils’, conveniently omitting the fact that one quarter of Shanghai’s students were excluded from the test. At a push, PISA may even inflame national and intra-national feeling. Just wait for a Catalan ‘separatista’ to say, ‘Free us from Spain, whose educational system leaves us at the bottom of the PISA tables!’.
  5. The ultimate irony is that China actually wants to reform its educational system. The authoritarian model just isn’t assisting their economy or society. Soft skills and creativity are weak. China are almost trapped; they cannot change course because they will risk falling down the league table, but they know that the paradigm shift that is needed may have exactly this effect.


Dr Zhao is right in his criticisms, and he should know. He was educated in Chongqing, China, my destination in November.

On a wider level, we must avoid being so seduced by elegantly packaged data. All good Ofsted inspectors know that data/information does not provide answers but, instead, merely raises questions. Even if this PISA data did happen to be useful and accurate, it should be taken alongside a whole range of other evidence e.g. TIMSS, SATs and whatever else these analysts are wasting our taxes on.

It is all so needlessly disorientating. Our world now needs countries to be supporting, sharing, training and coaching teachers and students – working collaboratively, not as competing armies. Inclusivity is key, and technology has given us that opportunity. Instead, we fight over who is ‘top of the league’ and ‘flavour of the month’.

I think we’re all tested out. Sometime soon, the tower of PISA needs to come crashing down.

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