Challenging education in Australia

Dear St Andrew’s community,

I was fortunate enough to hear Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills at a conference in New Zealand in the last weekend of the term break.  I tried hard to summarise his in-depth presentation to share with you, only to find he has presented a similar speech here in Australia and the Weekend Financial Review did an excellent job of highlighting what I thought were the key take aways:

The OECD's top education official has issued a wakeup call to Australia, declaring that China's schools are no longer stuck in rote learning but have overtaken Australia in teaching creativity and reasoning skills.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD director for education and skills, said Australians had an outdated perception of how their schools compared with those in rising Asian countries such as China.

"I've met many people here who say, 'China is about rote learning'," he said speaking in Sydney at Social Ventures Australia's education dialogue.

"Actually, in China you will find more emphasis on conceptual understanding, on creativity, on those kinds of non-routine skills, than in Australia."

He attacked Australia's push to reduce class sizes in schools – a decades-long process which has been championed by teachers' unions and many policy makers.  "The smaller classes have been a political goal but have taken away resources from things that probably would have had a larger impact on quality," he said.  Reductions in class sizes meant teachers had less time for professional development and other programs which build quality, such as observing colleagues teach their classes.

Mr Schleicher – who met education leaders, teachers, philanthropists and policy makers on his visit to Australia – endorsed findings earlier reported by The Australian Financial Review which show that teacher quality is far more critical to education achievement than smaller class sizes.  He is respected globally as the founder and overseer of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures and compares the educational achievement of 15-year-olds in OECD countries as well as many developing nations.

Wrong direction

He said Australia's PISA results – which show a steady decline in maths, reading and science – were going in the wrong direction and Australian students weren't equipped to deal with the harder test questions because they relied on rote learning rather than higher order skills.

"You can see Australian performance being strongest on [PISA] questions you can answer with memorisation strategies, and weakest on questions where you need elaboration strategies, creative thinking or divergent thinking," he said.  This contrasted to China where "there's a little bit of memorisation going on, but not that much." But Chinese students are very good on "elaboration" skills – such as reasoning, deep learning, intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, creativity and non-routine problem solving – where Australia is weak.  He said the "routine cognitive skills" – that are Australia's strength – were declining in value in the world of 21st century work where routine procedures are being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence.  The premium now lay in "non-routine analytic skills, social skills, the capacity to think for yourself and work with others".

High price of small class sizes

Mr Schleicher said the price of Australia's small class sizes "is your teachers have so much less time than teachers in other countries in terms of working with other professionals and being involved in [professional] development."  "If you're a teacher in China you teach between 11 and 16 hours per week. But you work more [hours] than Australian teachers so you spend so much more time working with parents, working with individual students, working with your colleagues, observing other teachers' classrooms. You are exposed every day to the best practices in education," he said.

He said Australian teachers taught classes for about twice the hours of Chinese teachers. "If you are a teacher in Australia you have relatively little time do to anything else but teach."

OECD statistics show that Australia and China have similar student-teacher ratios in schools, but Chinese schools have far higher class sizes – 37 in primary schools compared to 24 in Australia, and 49 in lower secondary school in China compared to 23 in Australia – which frees Chinese teachers for other activities.

Mr Schleicher said one barrier to Australian schools teaching higher order skills systems was an overcrowded curriculum.  "The [Australian] curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. It's very crowded, with a lot of content," he said.  "Whereas in many high-performing [school] systems you have more rigour in terms of cognitive demand, more focus in teaching fewer things in greater depth, and more coherence in terms of learning progressions.

I was fortunate to be able to drill down with Andreas on a couple of matters that interested me and relate to some of the projects we are focussing on here at St Andrew's.

I asked him about his opinion of integration, something he supported in a 21st Century education, he was very adamant that this is not an excuse to mix or blur subjects.  As he stated above, we need to teach disciplines to a much greater level that we currently do.  When he refers to integration, he is supporting a collaboration on solving complex problems.  He was very clear that if we are to improve our approach to deep thinking, then we need to teach skills that are transferable and utilised across different disciplines.  We need to have expertise in our disciplines and then allow students to analyse from a position of depth and from several perspectives.

I found his reflections on education very re-assuring for some of the projects we are endeavouring to undertake; however, at the same time, very confronting when I realise how accurate he is in his criticism of how we approach education here in Australia and consequently, here at St Andrew’s. 

Great to be challenged and to have the opportunity for some deeper thinking.



Lisa Martoo (Director of Positive Education) has advised me of her retirement to focus on family and further study. Lisa has been a long-standing member of St Andrew's and instrumental in the implementation of our Positive Education program.

I am pleased to announce that Dr Jasmine Green has commenced at the College in her role as Psychologist. Jasmine is joining us part-time initially and we look forward to welcoming her.

Best wishes,

Reverend Chris Ivey