What can we learn from high performing education systems?

My obsession with the South Korean education system began when I read this passage from Amanda Ripley’s excellent book ‘The Smartest Kids in the World’:

…a teenager named Ji stabbed his mother in the neck in their house in Seoul. He did it to stop her from going to a parent-teacher conference. He was terrified that she’d find out that he’d lied about his latest test scores.

         This ghastly story captivated the country, as might be expected, but for specific and revealing reasons. Ji’s crime was not, in the minds of many Koreans, an isolated tragedy; it was a reflection of a study-crazed culture that was driving children mad.”


I was fascinated by this tragic story and wanted to learn more about an education system that was so intense and high stakes that it could push a child to do something so awful. It made me feel very uncomfortable. South Korea is a famously high performing system, and the students are known for being relentlessly hard working. In many ways, it sounds like they have got many things right that we have got wrong.

Although we want our pupils to be motivated and to achieve more, we don’t want our system to go as far as South Korea has. The pressure on kids in South Korea is obviously far, far beyond what is necessary for them to succeed academically, and in many cases is detrimental to children’s wider development. Most would (quite reasonably) be shocked and appalled by the story above, and some might think that such cases are grounds for discrediting systems like this entirely. But my intuition is that we would be unwise not to learn anything from this and other high performing systems worldwide.

As we all know, South Korea is one of the top performing countries on the PISA tests, up there with China and Japan. A closer look at these three system reveals that in many ways, they are all very similar. Each of these countries has a very high stakes exam at the end of high school: in South Korea there is the ‘Sooneung’, in China, the ‘Goakao’ and in Japan, the ‘Shiken’.

All three exams happen once a year, usually lasting up to nine hours. Every candidate in the country will sit the same exam on the same day. The stakes are high for students in all three of these countries: the result they obtain will determine which university they go to. There are no options to retake, be entered early or take a modular route. Everything hinges on one day, one exam hall, and one ferociously challenging exam.

So what can we take from these systems?

  1. 1.   Multiple choice exams

The Sooneung is the only exam of the three that is entirely made up of multiple-choice questions. This is likely to make some readers recoil in disgust and assume that the only thing that South Korean children learn is a list of mindless facts. But as Daisy Christodoulou shows here, this is not always the case. (And facts aren’t mindless, as shown here.) If done well, multiple-choice questions can be very challenging. In the Korean literature paper, for example, pupils are given various important poems and pieces of literature to answer questions on. A question on a poem roughly translated as ‘The Falling Flower’ is as follows:

What is the most appropriate summary of the poem?

-it is representing the paradox of life through self-deprecating expression.

-It creates a cheerful atmosphere through onomatopoeia

-It reveals the author’s sentiments in a monologue

-It reinforces the unchanging nature of subjects by using sentimental imagery

-It emphasises the meaning of cycles by repeating the same sentence structures.

As you can see, this is very difficult. Just the vocabulary in these options is complex enough to throw you. The options are also very different, so they reveal what the pupil did understand from the poem even if they select an incorrect answer. For example, a pupil may have identified that the poem was a monologue, but might not see that it was not revealing the author’s own feelings.

It is interesting that even the interpretation of poetry is reduced to multiple choice. Perhaps this isn’t the best way of assessing interpretation, but it certainly does give us a very good indication of the depth of a pupil’s understanding of the poem. Perhaps a synthesis of this approach and essay writing tasks could provide some balance here.

2.   Everyone values education.

Exam days in South Korea, China and Japan are very different to exam days in the UK. Parents, families and other supporters line the streets and cheer the candidates on as they enter the exam centre. During the listening section of the English exam in South Korea, all planes are grounded so that they do not fly over and disturb or distract candidates. Police and taxis offer pupils free lifts to school, and business and trading starts one hour later than usual to limit the rush hour traffic.

This might sound crazy, but what it reveals is a culture of understanding of the importance of these exams. Everyone values education. Everyone knows that these students’ futures depend on the exams they do.

In many ways, particularly in the current climate, our students’ exams are just as important. For those that want to go to a top university or pursue a highly competitive career, exam results are everything. But this is not the case for all pupils. Many of our pupils do not take exams seriously at all, and many parents don’t, either. We could debate for hours about whether or not we should be testing pupils in the way that we do, or the value of different types of exams, but the fact is that results are important for future choices and opportunities. If our culture truly embraced and understood the impact of results, perhaps our pupils might be more motivated to succeed.

3.   Pupils work hard. Really hard.

Not only do pupils in these high performing systems take exams and their results very seriously, they work extraordinarily hard for them. Much of the work they do is carried out after school hours, with many pupils attending private ‘Hagwons’ or other expensive tutorial sessions. This model is clearly not sustainable: some might even argue that the success of these three countries is owed largely to the additional tuition that pupils get outside of school. Nor is it something that we would want to implement here, but again, it reveals something interesting about pupils’ work ethic.

If a pupil does not do well in a test in South Korea, China or Japan, they do not blame the teacher, the test, the circumstances, their background or anything else. They blame themselves for not working hard enough and they go back, learn it again, and do better next time. Our kids could learn a lot from this attitude.

4.   The curriculum is consistent.


In the UK teachers spend hours planning lessons, often staying up until the wee hours cutting up card sorts and colour coding differentiated work sheets. This is all very lovely and admirable, but we operate under a strange culture of trial and error that results in huge inconsistencies from class to class, teacher to teacher and school to school. Teachers have autonomy over most aspects of what they do, critically, in terms of what we teach and how we teach it.  Some teachers might teach well-planned and sequenced units of work that embed knowledge and skills and help pupils to remember key concepts; others may not.

In China, South Korea and Japan there are standardized units and textbooks that everyone uses. Planning is no longer the responsibility of the individual classroom teacher, but is outsourced to people who are experts in the field of curriculum planning. Instead of drivers being asked to design their own engines, engineers do it for them.

Again, many reading this might dislike this intensely. There are undoubtedly lots of reasons why teachers would be reluctant to adopt such an approach, but it would ensure consistency at the very least.


What can we learn from these systems?


Do we want to copy what goes on in these top-performing education systems? Probably not. Anecdotally, a Chinese friend of mine informs me that employers in China are growing tired of young people’s poor social and team working skills. They know lots, and work hard, but struggle to work effectively with others. Don’t worry though; I’m not about to dust off the De Bono hats just yet! We still need to ensure that pupils have received a rigorous academic education. After all, in education, mastering appropriate content must be paramount. If you judge a system purely on the basis of its ability to make kids work hard and learn lots of stuff, then the countries I have discussed have cracked it.

In terms of the wider issues that education aims to address, such as pupils’ social development and other such ‘soft’ skills, well… I don’t think the East necessarily has all the answers.

Many thanks to In Yong for translating the questions from the Sooneung for me!


4 thoughts on “What can we learn from high performing education systems?

  1. Pingback: What can we learn from high performing education systems? | Educación, TIC y Opinión

  2. I’d like to hear more about these Chinese employers: their expectations and how they are not being met. My experience of China is that the Chinese (in comparison to westerners) tend to work together in teams very well, mainly because they view China as the most important thing: you give of yourself to advance your country. It may be that these employers were used to an even greater degree of this before, and that as freedom of thought enters China, they are now starting to lose this. In other words, the rigidity of their education system is not responsible for this new way of being. Rather, it is the influence of the West that is responsible for it.

  3. The problem with looking at other education systems is that any education system is embedded within a particular culture; our culture is nothing like that in China, Japan and South Korea and so we wouldn’t expect it to work well here.
    For me, it would be more productive to look at our own systems and accept that the way the we have worked since the introduction of the National Curriculum was always going to produce hoop jumping and chasing of numbers instead of high quality learning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s