We’ve all heard about these schooling ‘success stories’ before – the education system in Asia that churns out prodigies in maths and science, and the underprivileged urban schools in the USA producing chess champions and future Silicon Valley stars. But what about the schools where teachers are working wonders to reduce truancy rates, raising environmental consciousness among students or fighting playground bullying? According to worldwide education sources, global learning is an increasingly rich and innovative space, from flipped classrooms where students watch teaching lessons online at home and do homework in class, to schools based in museums and zoos which use Minecraft to Dracula as teaching tools.
So what are five lessons Australia can learn from the world’s leading education systems?
Mathematics and science
In this crucial educational measure, Asian countries including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore dominate the leader board. Australia, on the other hand, has slipped to 28 out of 49 countries in maths and science in the four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Only seven per cent of Australian students performed at the advanced level of maths, compared with 54 per cent of students in Singapore.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham, senior research fellow and director of the Five from Five literacy project at the Centre for Independent Studies, says Australia would do well to emulate the Asian educational system’s focus on an explicit style of teaching based on a solid foundation of knowledge when it comes to fundamental concepts.
“Problem-solving, critical thinking ability, is heavily dependent on knowledge,” says Dr Buckingham. “So this idea you can teach critical thinking skills in a way that is abstract, in a general kind of way that you can then apply to any area, is not right; you have to have the knowledge to start with.”
At New York City’s Quest to Learn, Minecraft and game design feature in the curriculum.
But increasingly, schools around the world are also looking outside the traditional classroom model to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. At AltSchool, backed by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg, for example, students turn everyday objects into circuit boards and learn 3D modelling to build playhouses. At New York City’s Quest to Learn, Minecraft and game design feature in the curriculum.
Australia has much to learn here too, warns Buckingham. “In the past 15 years of the Programme for International Student Assessment, Australia has dropped by about 25 score points in our median score in English literacy, and that is equivalent to about a year’s worth of learning.”
She would like Australia to focus on high-quality early reading instruction and emulate England, which “is one of the English-speaking countries that hasn’t moved backwards in terms of literacy… In the last four years, the government has mandated that all primary schools should use explicit phonics instruction in the early years of school.”
Often, boosting literacy can result from a simple tweak; Buckingham was at a school in England last year where all homework was replaced by a set text – Dracula – to be read at home by all Year Seven students. “It’s a pretty intense novel but the school led them through it… I thought it was an interesting approach.”
Creativity, balance and innovation
Increasingly, even the Asian educational tigers are realising the drawbacks of a pressure-cooker academic system and turning to countries like Finland, with its short school days, minimal homework, and focus on play, free time and outdoor-based learning as a model (though Finland’s recent slip in academic standings should not be overlooked, Buckingham warns).
Schools around the world are realising the importance of fostering creativity, adaptability and out-of-the-box thinking: from the Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam where all students receive iPads fully loaded with apps to guide individualised learning, with the goal of getting children designing their own education, to Brightworks, where children get dirty, play with fire, and deconstruct home appliances, to the Zoo School in Michigan, which runs an intensive year-long program where students feed zoo animals, raise salmon, sample water and go on camping trips alongside classes in forestry, astronomy, zoology, chemistry, and physics.
For students who are not necessarily academic, innovative hands-on programs include the Big Picture Learning system in place in 55 US schools, where students learn in the real world, are paired with mentors, and work on projects connected with their interests, from fixing cars to starting a business.
For tackling truancy rates and boosting engagement, Detroit school Clintondale has been working wonders in academic results and discipline with its ‘flipped classroom' model where students watch teachers’ lessons at home.
For tackling truancy rates and boosting engagement, Detroit school Clintondale has been working wonders in academic results and discipline with its ‘flipped classroom' model where students watch teachers’ lessons at home; and then come into school to do “homework” and problem-solving with the guidance of their teachers. Thanks to the school’s pioneering efforts, other K–12 institutions across the country are using flipped classrooms.
Investing in teacher education and schools is also crucial. From Barbados to Qatar, educational standards are rising due to increasing government investment in education. Buckingham says that countries like Australia, which already have high levels of education expenditure, would do better to target that money at specific objectives, such as emulating Finland in raising entry and graduating requirements in teacher education. This has resulted in the rise of teaching as a prestigious occupation there.
Innovation in social issues
From fighting bullying, sexism and homophobia to increasing environmental consciousness, Australia could learn from schools around the world that are blazing trails. These include the Egalia school system in Sweden, founded on total equality between students; The Harvey Milk School designed for, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students; Alliance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the first school created expressly as an anti-bullying institution; and the Evergreen school in North Carolina, featuring sustainable initiatives like stream and creek clean-ups, “leave-no-trace” ethics on all school outings, rooftop solar panels, a greenhouse, a composting system, and an aquaculture program.
'Testing Teachers' is a three-part observational documentary that will take viewers behind the school gate to reveal the struggles and success Australian teachers face in the schools of Australia's toughest communities. It follows six first-time teachers over the course of 12 months as they start their new career. Testing Teachers premieres on SBS on Wednesday 19 April at 8.30pm and will be available after broadcast, streaming anytime on SBS On Demand.