Book Review: Clever Lands by Lucy Crehan

Book Review by VIPTeach Fellow Alex Weatherhead

Exasperated with the constant flux in government policy that was aimed at improving overall education performance to stay competitive with top PISA performing countries, Lucy Crehan embarks on a journey to five of the top PISA scoring countries and experiences their education systems first-hand. and learn about the complexities of how culture, policy, history, and psychology weave together to create some of the education systems we have today. While there is no universal blueprint to achieving a ‘successful’ education system, the insights gained from Crehan’s experiences can teach us a lot about our own education systems and how we might go about trying to improve them.

Crehan’s first stop is Finland. While Finland consistently ranks in the top PISA scoring countries, children in Finland famously do not start school until they are 7 years old. What this means is that young children have the opportunity to grow and develop at their own pace and are introduced to school when they are ready. While some children may not need that extra year or two, the benefits to other children who do are immense. Finland also invests heavily in early childhood education to ensure that preschoolers develop the foundation and support skills that will help them when they do learn reading and math.

Another important insight from Finland is the social values around teaching. The teaching profession in Finland is highly competitive and only the best students are accepted into teaching programs. Once accepted, primary level teachers complete a five-year master’s degree in education and secondary level teachers complete a one year masters in education after their four years of subject-based bachelor’s degree. Once in the classroom, teachers have a far greater autonomy in the classroom than many other school systems allow. Teachers do not need to make lesson plans, there are no observations, no national exams, and teachers choose their own professional training based on their own perceived needs.

Another interesting fact about Finland’s education system is the importance – and resources – they put into supporting students. It costs society much less to provide high quality resources and support to students at a young age to ensure their success as adults than to allow students to struggle and end up supporting them through the social support system throughout their adult life. The evidence for this is overwhelming. In the US, two thirds of students who cannot read by the end of the fourth grade end up in the prison system or on welfare. In the UK, the vast majority of children who end up in youth custody have been excluded from school at some point and often have only a primary reading level. Part of the student support offered in Finnish schools includes trained professionals like psychologists, social workers, study counsellors, speech therapists, family counsellors, nurses, and dentists in each school (or regular visits if schools are particularly small). 

Crehan’s next stop is in Japan. Japan is the first of a few countries on her tour where the concept of collectivism plays a central role in schools. From an early age, students are divided into groups of 4-5 students called a han and they do everything with their han including school work, sitting together, eating lunch and cleaning the class. They succeed or struggle together and are not praised or admonished individually. As students get older, their hand expands to include their entire class where separate classes compete against each other. As Crehan notes, “all of this fosters a sense of belonging and shared responsibility for the outcomes of the class.” This may have a direct impact on the kind of grades students achieve throughout the year, but it also may have a larger scale impact on the collective responsibility of Japanese society that cannot be measured from a test.

In Japan, amongst many other countries, there is a commonly held belief that academic success comes from hard work rather than intellectual ability. Students start off on equal ground similar to Finland where they are not grouped according to ability until high school. Teachers are also regularly moved around to different schools, ensuring that no school has all the best -or all the worst- teachers. It is also believed that this rotation system helps keep teachers engaged in professional development and involved in student success as they will experience a new school and students every 2-4 years. Research shows that teacher expectations make a difference. Teachers who believe in the success of their students help create this self-fulfilling prophecy of success (and unfortunately, vice versa).

Teachers in Japan create well thought-out, detailed lessons that are targeted toward the achievement of specific goals. This can make the difference between engaging classes discussing an interesting topic or successfully learning a new math concept through a demonstration that students can understand from the beginning. Teachers are able to do this because of the amount of lesson planning time they are given. In Japan, teachers have an average of 18 lessons a week whereas American teachers have an average of 27 teaching hours per week. Having the time to properly prepare a lesson can make a huge difference in student success rates and I think many teachers can attest to this.

The third country Crehan visits is Singapore. In this section, Crehan explains the elaborate education system in Singapore and the underlying education philosophy it was built upon. Singapore has a highly selective education system where students are streamed into one of four main pathways from an early age. Only two of these pathways leave students eligible to continue to university while the remaining pathways leave students with options only in technical and vocational courses. These pathways are determined by the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE) results taken at age 12. These exams, as Crehan shows, are highly competitive and families who can afford supplementary private education/tuition do so, which systematically leaves disadvantaged families behind. These exam results determine the rest of your life – including your future education attainment, career prospects, social group, and marriage prospects.

The state school system does not adequately prepare students for the PSLE; a large gap between what is taught in state schools and what is on the exam has been identified by blogger Petunia Lee (amongst others), suggesting that students should be at least 4-5 years ahead of the textbook to get an A on the PSLE. This type of inequity plays out in classrooms where teachers are teaching mixed classes with knowledge gaps of several years between students. As students advance through the system, it also leads to narrowing social circles and elitism where students struggle to empathise with people who are different from themselves or understand varying perspectives outside of their isolated circles.

Crehan concludes the Singapore section with an exploration of the teaching profession in the small city-state. Singapore’s Ministry of Education is highly supportive of teacher training and ongoing professional development. First, they support initial teacher training through scholarships where students entering university can have their degrees paid for, both domestically and internationally. This is in exchange for 4-6 years of service as a teacher in state schools. Second, teachers do not receive a pay raise after their third year of teaching. To receive any sort of pay increase after the initial three year period, they must enter one of three tracks – teaching track, leadership track, or specialist track. Teachers receive 100 hours of professional development per year and like in Finland, this is of their own choosing. Also like Finland, teachers have lower than average classroom time, leaving them more time for ongoing professional development and quality lesson planning and preparation. When teachers first start teaching, they are given a mentor and work as part of a team to plan lessons. This type of teacher support would be beneficial in any context and is one of the easily transferable concepts that can be applied to most education contexts around the world.

The next stop in Crehan’s international education adventure is Shanghai. China’s education system is not uniform and there is great disparity between provinces and districts in terms of resource distribution. Shanghai, as one can imagine, is one of the best places to go to school in China. Interestingly, students do not get to choose where they attend school. In a system called hukou, families can only access public services – including education – in their hometown. This means that migrant workers must send their children back to their hometown for school. This is significant because many of China’s cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have a significant migrant population. One way to get around this rule is through private education, however this is only an option for families who are already well off enough to be able to afford private school fees. Many families who have residence permits for Shanghai are able to legally send their children to school in Shanghai at the primary level, but their children cannot take the high school entrance exam in Shanghai. This means they must return to their hometown well before they are expected to take the high school entrance exam to study the material from their hometown. The entrance exams are not the same nationally. Conveniently, this leaves students whose families are originally from Shanghai and all the privileges and resources that come with that taking the PISA test at the age of 15 after being educated in one of the best school districts in the country.  Crehan does note that China is making an effort to fix these inherent inequalities and things are getting better in terms of equal access to quality education.

Crehan takes a pause in the next section to discuss cultural attitudes and research surrounding the topic of memorization. In North America, we tend to almost demonize memorization and often emphasize critical thinking as the ultimate goal. While there is certainly merit toward this type of attitude, memorization has its place in learning and, pedagogically speaking, can strengthen student’s problem solving abilities. Crehan explains the difference between rote learning and repetitive learning. The former is shallow with no attempt at understanding, whereas the latter involves ‘deepening your understanding through deliberate repetition, paying attention to the features of whatever it is you’re learning’ (p 185). In Chinese education, memorization is the first stage of the learning process followed by understanding, application to problems and situations, followed by questioning and analysis. If students have the basics memorized, these things will come easily or intuitively to them, strengthening their understanding of problems. In English Language Learning (ELL) teachers often help students memorize irregular past tense verbs like was and were, saw, had, and went. If students can memorize these commonly used verbs quickly, this will allow them to focus on other aspects of sentence structure and rapidly increase their accuracy of basic sentences (ex. I went to the store). This frees up working memory to focus on other things when solving problems.

Crehan ends her journey in my own country, Canada. While Canada is not a top 5 PISA country, it still scores remarkably high given the significant challenges Canada faces with educating a highly diverse population across a huge expanse of relatively sparsely populated areas. Crehan adds that it does this with a ‘culture that is in many ways similar to the lower-scoring UK and the US’ (p. 194). First and foremost, Canada has a positive attitude about diversity. Diversity is seen as a strength that allows students to understand other cultures, prepares them to solve global problems, and do business with the rest of the world. Interestingly, performance indicators do not change significantly between higher and lower income neighbourhoods and Crehan attributes that to Canada’s social welfare system. In the 1980’s a major policy shift changed the funding structure to a system where funding goes to the school board directly from the provinces and money is distributed to schools based on number of students enrolled, as well as additional money sent to schools in lower income areas.

Canada’s approach to motivation comes from listening to the students and teachers and essentially giving them what they want. Crehan notes that at each school level, there is an impressive array of extracurricular options for students to participate in if they want to. I can personally attest to this as a former Ontario high school student with more extracurricular options than I could ever dream of participating in. This means that everyone has a stake in school, and if classes are not the reason students are motivated to go to school, maybe the rugby team, the school band, or the photography club is. One school counsellor Crehan spoke to explained that one of her students was struggling in school but they didn’t want to drop out because then they would have to leave the basketball team. The role of (professionally qualified) counselors in each school is also discussed as a way for students to be able to build a meaningful, positive relationship with a responsible adult who cares about their education, especially for those students who do not have that elsewhere in their lives. Many schools are comprehensive and offer an array of academic courses like math, physics, and English alongside more technical courses like mechanics or IT. My own high school offers photography, media arts, business leadership, kinesiology, earth and space science, nutrition and health, fashion, philosophy, construction, architecture, computer programming, design technology, transportation technology and manufacturing technology to name a few.

There are some key takeaways that come to mind when we think of our own respective school systems and how we could possibly go about improving overall education experiences and outcomes based on Crehan’s journey. First, I think it is important to invest in teachers and treat them as the respected professionals they are. Teaching well is not an easy job, but it becomes nearly impossible if teachers do not have the support they need to effectively do their jobs. Second, delaying expectations of young children until they are ready for primary level learning seems like a good idea. A strong preschool program that prepares young children for formal education – without expecting them to achieve formal education benchmarks in preschool – through a focus on social and cognitive development plays a key role in successful primary school students.

Breaks between lessons of 10-15 minutes benefit both students and teachers. Four of the five school systems Crehan experienced used this system. I experienced this as a teacher in Korea and can personally attest to being well-prepared for each lesson by using that time between classes effectively, maximizing class time for learning. Students were also better focused in class, knowing they have a 10 minute break after each lesson to run around outside, play games with their friends, or just socialize. It also gives teachers an opportunity to address behaviour or academic issues with students individually without having to wait for lunch or after school time.

Mixed ability classes are actually beneficial for both high and low achievers and contribute to tolerance and understanding amongst diverse groups. This has a greater social benefit that isn’t measured in exam scores. It is important that schools can offer support to struggling students. The idea that it is less expensive to give students all the support they need to succeed than to deny them the support they need and pay for them through welfare or the prison system for the rest of their lives is certainly a strong argument in favour of education support staff, counsellors, a meal program, and after school support.

Finally, it is important to reflect on the fact that Crehan’s journey took her to the best school systems in the world (according to PISA results) and that the gap between these school systems and many other school systems can be immense. Not all countries have the financial resources nor the political will to implement these things, and some places are just happy to have a teacher in the classroom at all, or desks for students to sit at, or even chalk in the classroom(s). However, her research gives valuable insight into what works, what doesn’t, and why based on peer reviewed academic research, her own experiences, and the experiences of others in the field of education.

Alex Weatherhead holds a BA in International Development from the University of Guelph and an MA in International Education from the University of Leicester. The focus of her research has been on the role technology can play in delivering quality education to refugees and other learners in rural and remote areas. She has been teaching online since 2017 with some of the leading EdTech companies. She has also taught in classrooms in Korea, Thailand, and Iraq since 2014. Alex has a long history of volunteering with NGO’s and International Organizations (IO’s) and she currently volunteers her time teaching refugee students. Alex is currently based in Turkey.