Sunday, January 2, 2011

My trip to Shanghai: What the PISA results can really teach us

After the recent PISA results a New York Times headline read:
 “Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests”.  The story highlighted Shanghai’s top position in the recent PISA results and attempted to explain how this was achieved.  Here is a snapshot of the article: 

Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.
Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16.
“Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do,” said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “So if the test is on math and science, there’s no doubt Chinese students will win the competition.”
But many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.

The timing of this story was interesting for me because I had just returned from the Shanghai area to inspect schools that deliver the British Columbia curriculum. 
As part of my inspections I met with and interviewed randomly selected students.  On one particular occasion I met with five, soon to be, graduates.  Like many graduates here in BC, they were both anxious and excited to be on the precipice of their next phase in life.  
It was in these interviews that the deeper, untold story about the PISA results is revealed.  The students explained that, after spending their elementary and middle schooling years in a regular domestic program, they decided to enter the BC program in grade 10. 
Each of these students was thrilled that they could receive a British Columbia education.  I asked them all the same questions: 
1. Now that you are about to graduate, do you feel ready to move on to post secondary life?   
2. How has the BC program prepared you?
3.  What could have been better?

The responses that came back were virtually identical.  The students appreciated being empowered at school.  They loved having their voice valued both inside and outside the classroom and they were grateful to be a part of a school program that adapted to who they were and not the opposite.

One student said it best:

“I feel that I have received all the skills that I need, but more importantly, I have been allowed to reveal my true personality, express who I am and pursue my true passions”

As we reshape and redefine what our school system might look like in British Columbia, it might be of value to keep the thoughts of this student in mind.

(I would like to thank Chris Wejr (@MrWejr) for prompting me to write about my Shanghai experience)


  1. I would love to hear more! Were students aware/critical about the differences in their primary education v. the ways in which they learned/practiced their skills at the secondary level?

  2. The students that I spoke had vivid (and not too positive) memories of their previous schooling experiences. They definitely felt fortunate to be given a BC style education.