- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Random House UK (April 1, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1783522739
- ISBN-13: 978-1783522736
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
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Cleverlands: The Secrets Behind the Success of the World's Education Superpowers Hardcover – April 1, 2017
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"Crehan's work has the edge... A powerful defence of the idea that there is a lot to learn from how other countries learn" - The Economist
From the Inside Flap
As a teacher in an inner-city school, Lucy Crehan was exasperated with ever-changing government policy claiming to be based on lessons from 'top-performing' education systems. She became curious about what was really going on in classrooms of the countries whose teenagers ranked top in the world in reading, maths and science.
Determined to dig deeper, Lucy set off on a personal educational odyssey through Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, teaching in schools, immersing herself in their very different cultures and discovering the surprising truths about school life that don't appear in the charts and graphs.
Cleverlands documents her journey, weaving together her experiences with research on policy, history, psychology and culture to offer extensive new insights and provide answers to three fundamental questions:
How do these countries achieve their high scores? What can others learn from them? And what is the price of this success?
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And I was more than a little weirded out when the school called us in last year to inform us that my son’s class was being specially prepared for a test on which the school itself would be evaluated. We were supposed to prepare them for the sake of the school’s status (perhaps even funding?), but also not tell them they would be tested, lest this ended up having an impact on their attitude. You could tell the teachers were terrified, that’s for sure.
Author Lucy Crehan, a teacher in the English system, must have been confronting similar dilemmas when she decided she wanted to explore what works in other countries. So she visited five countries that score high on the PISA test to see how they go about educating the young.
Her tour starts in Finland, where kids don’t go to school till they’re seven, but proceed to catch up with the world by the time they are fifteen years old and then comfortably sail past the average, all in the absence of any type of streaming of the students or official testing and supervision of the schools. What seems to do the trick for them is five (count’em) years of education for their teachers. Educators in Finland have a sense of entitlement that comes from belonging to a respected profession, a position accorded to educators by Finnish history. They additionally benefit from a rather uniform student body and a strong emphasis on discussion among teachers about the lessons they will give, supported by continued education and time dedicated to the discussion of the curriculum and the teaching methods.
From Finland, the author goes to Japan, where the primary role of the school is to instill traditional Japanese values in the students. The classrooms are not heated, so the students must learn “gaman” (Japanese for “saintly patience in the face of uncalled-for suffering,” it seems) and students are never praised or punished individually. You get an answer right, the whole class is congratulated. You mess up, everybody suffers alongside you. Streaming is, most obviously, out of the question. Rote memorization is anything but! Primary school is all play, but once you hit junior high your life ends, as you get buried under homework. And you’d better do well, as your future (including who you will marry) is determined by what school you’ll get into. The teachers must work very hard too. They specialize in improving teaching methods and take great pride in developing them to perfection. In their efforts, they are supported by the mothers of the pupils, who are pretty much obliged to put in hours of work every single day, helping out their offspring with schoolwork. In Japan, a career is not a realistic option for a mother who wants her kids to do well in school. Flip side is that all the kids get a strong and broad education, both in academics and in how to fit in Japanese society. Finally, the author admits that alongside this very egalitarian and well-thought-out system operates a semi-mandatory system of private cram schools, juku, that are attended by all students who plan to do well on state examinations.
Next stop is Singapore, where the emphasis is on identifying and focusing on the development of the smart kids. Exams in Singapore are all graded on a curve, not against the attainment of specific educational goals. By the time the kids are 12 the system has arrived at a verdict for every student, with hardly any room for a pupil who’s been selected for vocational training to ever make it to university. Funny thing is that upon graduation the “less gifted” students (the ones who have been selected out) reach a level of educational achievement that places them far above their peers in other countries. Singapore, it seems, pulls everybody up, but at the price of extreme prejudice and unconscionable pressure, including on the families. Singapore, moreover, takes the education of its teachers extremely seriously, offering them three separate career paths and showering them in (mandatory) further education. Excellence is state-mandated and a matter of national importance.
In many ways, China (or Shanghai, rather, as this is where the author spent her time) is the polar opposite. Students are never streamed and are praised exclusively for effort. The thinking in China is that you can “study yourself smart” and that’s what people do. Classes are enormous (50 kids to a class) but the teachers somehow find the time to send multiple text messages per day to the parents, informing them about any work that was not done right! The emphasis is not on creativity. It’s on memorization and on learning the correct methods. A further similarity with Japan is that the curriculum is not only deep, but also broad. The culmination of the secondary school experience is the gaokao, the thousand-year-old tradition that is the end-of-school examination that determines where you will end up in university and in life. Because attendance of a good school is paramount, connections (guanxii) are necessary, both to dance around the huku (the system that effectively separates the rich from the poor parts of the country) and to land in the good schools in the big cities. The most important thing to take away from China is that education is a duty the student has to family. In turn, the family will move heaven and earth to help its offspring in their educational endeavors.
Last stop on the tour is Canada, a country that places below the first four in the PISA tests, but must teach a much more diverse student body. The author does not hide that it’s her favorite of the five (p. 235). In common with all but Singapore, Canada does not stream its students. Neither does it ever leave a child behind who can’t handle the work on its own. The motivational hit from staying behind one’s peers is too high a mountain to climb for any potential stragglers; it’s better if the school allocates the necessary resources to keep classes intact. Students are forced to participate in group activities, which enforce the sense of belonging to a class and a school. Expectations are set both for all pupils and for all schools. Same as for the students, schools that are struggling do not see their resources cut. To the contrary, they are showered with the necessary resources to keep up with their expectations.
And there you have it!
But Lucy Crehan does not leave it there. She distills her tour of the “Cleverlands” into five principles:
• Get children ready for formal learning
• Design curricula concepts for mastery (and context for motivation)
• Support children to take on challenges, rather than make concessions
• Treat teachers as professionals
• Combine school accountability with school support (rather than sanctions)
The thing I most liked about reading Cleverlands is that it’s a book with a soul. You can read my summary above and all you really have is the bones of her account, but you’re still missing the meat. What obsesses the author most is how we can create individuals who are better prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century. And that is what she talks about with you as she takes you along on her tour. The other thing is she’s very clearly super young and impressionable. You’re doing something here too, you’re escorting a young girl on her discovery tour. It’s fun!
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