Over the past few years, East Asian countries have been brought to light in terms of their successful education systems. Their success is especially noticeable in the PISA test. So, why are Asian countries such great education performers? In a previous article I explained some of the main characteristics of the Finnish education system. Now let’s see what the Asian countries bring into education.
First of all the status of the teacher is far away from that we experiment in Western countries. Teachers in Asia are highly valued and respected, so the education field is appealing for many. Another interesting feature is that teachers can evolve in their profession. They have real career prospects that are engaging for them. On top of their status teachers also benefit from competitive salaries and they also receive bonuses for their hard work. As in Finland teachers receive a lot of free professional training and they are encouraged to take on leadership positions. With such appealing characteristics schools in East Asia have many young teaching talents ready to enroll!
One of the reasons why schools are so successful and why teachers are so respected is partly due to a cultural conception of education. Asian culture places a high importance on education and educators. The families and society convey the idea that education is key to success in life. As a consequence children are trained from a very young age to be high performers. They are encouraged to take intensive courses, tutoring and extracurricular activities on top of their normal academic hours.
Because of the high value placed on education students are resilient in classroom and behavior management is not a main concern in Asia. As a consequence it is not uncommon to see classes packed with 40 students or more. The contact time between teachers and students is however particularly low. For example, upper secondary teachers spend on average 30% of their working time in classrooms, the contact time in South Korea is close to 40%, which makes a big difference to the contact time in the US which averages 53 %. (OECD data in 2010). The time spent outside the classroom is meant at improving the teaching-learning process, so teachers in East Asia will spend most of their time observing their peers, mentoring, researching, analyzing data and preparing resources to improve the curriculum.
Even if Hong Kong, Shanghai, South Korea and Japan are part of the best achievers according to PISA, it´s worth noticing that PISA tests only focus on cognitive skills in reading, maths, science and literacy and on test taking. In other words Pisa doesn´t assess the independent thinking ability or the ability for students to adapt their skills to new contexts. Students are therefore excellent test takers whose knowledge is based on rote learning but the creative and innovative part is left behind. Some may also argue that this type of education can be detrimental to the psychological development of children. And it is true to some extent that in East Asia the emphasis is more on results and performance than on the child´s well being. It is therefore quite common to see some children burn out before they are teenagers.
Nevertheless Asian countries are well aware of the flaws in their education system and they are willing to go a step further in the improvement of their systems by sending teachers abroad to observe the way Westerners deal with teaching-learning. As a consequence in Japan and Hong-Kong for example they have dramatically reduced their class sizes to offer a more personalized support to students. And in terms of creativity and innovation they are trying to understand how foreign education systems foster creative thinking.
There are many features that could be borrowed to East Asian countries. The high value they give to education, the respect naturally given to teachers, striving for excellence etc. but above all what is highly remarkable is the ability and willingness of these countries to improve their education systems. They don’t fear the comparison with others they just adapt what they learn abroad to make it work in their education systems. They are not afraid to go beyond their borders and to think out of the box to create high performing education systems.
Top performers – Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment
Note: The chart shows countries in Index Group 1 (z-scores at least one standard deviation above the mean) and Group 2 (z-scores within half to one standard deviation above the mean.)
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.
Most businesses are dedicated to promote the delivery of high quality products. That’s the same for schools. However schools are now under the spotlights for improving their performance in many ways and many of them don’t know how to face the challenges. The community and parents are more and more demanding “customers”, the children have more needs –or at least we have diagnosed them with more disorders and we need to address the needs of these children, the government implements new rules and sets higher targets every now and then, and the boards of the schools also have their word to say about the way the schools are managed.
All the educational, governmental and social changes have shaped school in a completely different way from when we started learning or teaching. Now we need to define the factors that have an impact on schools and try to find adapted ways to tackle any issues resulting from these factors. We must systematically examine the factors and measure the impact these factors have on our teaching practice. Only then can we put in place strategies to improve the teaching delivery.
Building projects to improve the quality of schools can be tricky and it does take time. Before even thinking about a project, the staff in charge of it needs to collect data and analyze them. After that the process about the project can start. When building projects the teachers, managers and leaders have to work hand in hand. The good thing about building projects is that it gives members of a team a feeling of belonging. They share for the good of the school. When some teachers or middle leaders are in charge of quality improvement or closing the gap, they generally work with four or five people and each and every one of them will be given some task to complete.
The first step is to choose a project that will be suitable for the school. It should be in line with the mission and vision of the school. If you work in a school where behavior management is a constant issue, it could be a good starting point. If you feel your school needs to improve the provision for SEN students, here’s another idea. Developing the provision for gifted and talented students or for ESL are other options.Then narrow your project so that you can have a clear outcome. If you decide to work with SEN students for instance you may want to choose a project focusing just on dyslexic students. You must establish clear limits to your project as you will have to prioritize time and the implementation of ideas. After that, once you have the title of your project, come and meet people who know best about the topic. You will need to consult colleagues in and out your school, read a lot of articles and researches and you willvisit other schools to give you a clearer idea of what will be required of you.
The next step is related to planning. You will need to write an action plan with clear deadlines about actions you will take to put your project in place. The actions you will write on your action plan must be measurable and they must be small steps towards success. We often have the tendency to see the goal as the main achievement but all the small little non complex actions that we will take on the road are almost as important as the final result. These small little actions are important because they will help us to gain experience and confidence in what we do. It will prove that our project is doable and worth it. Action planning is really important as it is a tool which will help us clarify our projects and it should help us be more realistic about it. Here are the questions we need to ask ourselves when drafting our action plan: What is the purpose of our project? What is the expected impact of it on the school? What exactly do we want to put in place? Who will be involved? How much time do I need to do it? How much time do I really have? When can I start it? Which tools do I need? Which tools can I use?
You are not alone. Share the workload with others. Having ideas is great but you need the workforce to help you with the building of your project, No action can be done without a little help. Everyone should be asked to contribute. That is when you need to use your convincing skills to get people to help you. From teacher to senior leaders everyone must be part of the game to ensure the success of the project. Be as realistic as you can. If the goal is too ambitious, you need to redefine your priorities and narrow your topic a little more. Revaluate your project as you go through it. Ask people what they think of it as they will see it under a different angle and they may give you valuable tips.
The existing gap between students’ performance has been brought to light in the past years. The variation between high achievers and low achievers has widened over the decades and schools have recently been engaging in different programs to train teachers and middle leaders to close the gap.
Who are middle leaders? Middle leaders are the ones in charge of a team of teachers. On top of their teaching, they observe lessons from their peers, they provide them with accurate feedback, they train them and they hold staff to account, they analyze data and tackle underperformance and misbehavior, they are also the link between their staff and parents and between their staff and senior leaders.
Middle leaders are the ones who need to implement the senior leaders’ strategies and vision and they also need to check that it is doable in the classroom context. They are basically at the heart of change. They are the ones who will turn the leaders’ ideas into reality in in the classroom.
What do middle leaders have to do? They need to question the system by analyzing data. They need to point out any underperformance. They must engage with senior leaders to decide on a path to take to tackle issues. They need to share their ideas with other middle-leaders to encourage collaborative work. After that they need to start implementing projects that should reduce the gaps between students. After the implementation of systems and structures to support their project they need to analyze if their projects have been successful. If their project was a success they will be in charge of coaching and training their peers to develop the project on a wider scale and to give some aspirations to others to find meaningful projects to improve the teaching delivery.
Developing middle-leaders is vital on the long term for the school for many reasons: First of all developing successful middle-leaders who will be able to bring some positive change to the school and teaching practice will have a tremendous impact on teachers. Teachers who need challenge and who want to implement new ideas will find in the roles of middle-leaders some inspiration and they may want to pursue their career as middle-leaders. Becoming a middle-leader means being in charge of a certain area of development and middle-leaders can fulfill their potential by developing sustainable projects aiming at closing the gaps in terms of achievement and performance within schools. The role of middle-leaders tough uneasy can be extremely rewarding on a personal scale. Another important reason for developing middle-leaders is that they will implement systems to sustain the leaders’ vision. In other words senior leaders should be given more time to think about improvement while middle-leaders will dedicate some of their time implementing structures to make the improvement come true.
As I mentioned previously leaders are the ones having a vision for the school. They share and protect the school values. They must be inspiring for others and have some clear directions to achieve their goals and implement their vision. But what about managers? What are their roles? Why are they needed in a school context?
While leaders have a vision to do the best things for the school, managers are in charge of doing the right things to ensure the leaders’ vision can be implemented. To do so they will mainly focus on organizing structures and functional systems. They will analyze data and figures to make the dream of the leaders come true. In other words, the leader is the thinker and the manager is the builder. The manager will use his analytical skills to ensure that the vision can be implemented in the organization and that it will work on a daily basis and in the future.
Efficient managers need to have human and material resources to develop their skills and to make sure that they can create clarity among teachers. Even if managers are mainly concerned with data, systems, paperwork and administration they will have at some point to develop social skills to explain the reason and importance of the systems they are putting in place along with the leaders.
The examples of good leadership but bad management are endless; the examples of good management but bad leadership are endless too. So what would be worse: a school where leaders have no inspiration but managers can create great tools or a school badly managed where leaders are highly inspirational? Hard to say. Both situations show a clear unbalanced system and none of them can create positive change in a school. Good managers are necessary for the improvement of schools as they will bring the structures to avoid anarchy and create clarity. But schools need more. Schools need a vision; they need creativity, energy, enthusiasm and sometimes a dash of craziness. So they need leaders and managers.
The most efficient schools are the ones that work hand in hand with leaders, managers and teachers. The higher the level of communication and understanding among these, the better the results generally are for students.
In schools everyone has a role to play as a leader; teachers are leaders in their classrooms, Head of departments and managers are middle leaders and finally senior managers are part of the whole school leadership. There is no doubt that efficient leadership at all levels in schools will lead to a general improvement of the school performance. Appropriate leadership should in any case bring new ideas, innovation, reflection and consequently positive change. However the road towards success in leadership in schools can be thorny. There are indeed many obstacles that prevent schools from implementing efficient leadership.
The first reason for that is that there is still nowadays a pernicious belief that associates leadership with experience, age and hierarchy. I am not saying that without any experience you should access to a leadership position. However what I am saying is that young determined people who have a vision and who have the strength and energy to share and implement their vision should be given key leadership roles in schools to insufflate some positive change. How many young colleagues and myself included had to choose between staying in a position we knew wouldn’t evolve or resigning to implement our vision somewhere else?
Leadership is also often an isolating position while it should be quite the opposite. Leaders in schools such as head of departments or senior leaders are often seen by teachers as ambitious people whose main priority is their career. But actually leaders and managers are firstly here to help teachers in their delivery of high-quality teaching. Classroom leaders, middle-leaders and seniors leaders should work hand in hand to promote a better teaching-learning process but for that some discussion between all of them has to be engaged.
Now what are the key elements needed to become a good leader? I have already written about the skills needed for teachers to become efficient leaders but what are the 3 main areas where they have to develop?
First they need to have a clear direction, a purpose. They need to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they are doing it. Secondly they must be aware of the morals, values, beliefs, ethic and principles they convey. Does the end justify all the means? Last but not least they need to be people’s people. In other words they must be able to engage with others and share their vision with the majority. That being said they must find a balance between these 3 main areas. They need to be able to combine their principles, vision and ability to engage with people in a balanced way.
Schools leaders are the ones with a vision to implement change. Creativity, constant questioning, innovation, coaching, building and reinforcing relationships are some of the skills they need to demonstrate to be considered as efficient leaders.
Having good leaders ina school is vital for its growth and schools need urgently to help young leaders among teachers to emerge to lead schools and children on the path of success