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Ep 8. Lessons from around the world with Lucy Crehan

This transcript was created with speech-to-text software.  It was reviewed before posting, but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.

You can listen to the episode here: Chalk & Talk Podcast.


Ep 8. Lessons from around the world with Lucy Crehan

[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor and your host.

You are listening to episode eight of Chalk and Talk. My guest in this episode is Lucy Crehan, who joined me from Wales. She is a teacher and author of the book, Cleverlands. If you're curious about education systems in different parts of the world, you'll want to stick around for this episode. Her book details her observations of the education systems in Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada. 


We start with a discussion about PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is an international assessment written by 15-year-olds around the world. We discuss what's required to become a teacher in Finland and Singapore and what teacher [00:01:00] professional development looks like in Japan. We also discuss the use of high-quality textbooks and the role of practice and memorization in East Asian countries.

We then cover cultural differences, some of which may impact educational outcomes. Her knowledge of various education systems and the lessons we can take away from them is fascinating. I found the conversation extremely interesting, and I hope you do too. So without further ado, let's get started.

[00:01:33] Anna Stokke: I am delighted to have Lucy Crehan joining me today, and she is joining me from Swansea in Wales. She is a qualified teacher, she taught secondary school science and psychology, and she holds a Master of Education focusing on politics, development, and democratic education. She's also an author and an international education consultant and speaker.

She travelled to Finland, Japan, Singapore, [00:02:00] Canada and Shanghai where she helped out in schools and lived with teachers to learn about the education systems there. And she wrote a book about it called Cleverlands, and that's how I came to know of your work. I recently read the book, and it's fascinating, so I thought it would be really interesting to talk to you today about education systems in other parts of the world. 

So thank you for joining me, and welcome to my podcast!

[00:02:23] Lucy Crehan: Thank you so much for having me on Anna.

[00:02:26] Anna Stokke: So you were teaching in London, and you decided to drop everything and take a trip around the world to investigate various education systems. Why did you decide to do that?


[00:02:37] Lucy Crehan: I just got to a stage where I was so disillusioned with the education system in England that it made me wonder, surely there's a better way of doing things. The effect of policies in England at the time, at least as far as I could see in my school, weren't having a positive effect on students and their learning.

And yet, I could see and read about, at [00:03:00] least, these other countries where students were doing so much better. Not just overall, but in particular, I care about those students who are most often underserved by our systems in general and our, especially our education systems. And while in England, we had about a fifth of students reaching the end of compulsory education without reaching basic literacy and numeracy, in some of these other countries, it was more like one in ten students. 

So, no country was managing to get everyone to at least these basic levels, but they were doing much better than us. So I decided to first of all study education policy to try and understand what makes for good education policy, and then ultimately, I felt like having read about some of these countries and some of the policies I couldn't really get a sense of what that looked like on the ground in reality.

And also importantly, how all of these different policies reacted together to have an effect in a context. Because of [00:04:00] course, when you study something from an academic perspective, often you have to look at it from just one lens, just looking at accountability policy or just looking at assessment.

And I was interested in how all of these things interact to have an effect. So yeah, that's why I decided to just go and see, really.

[00:04:18] Anna Stokke: It's a great idea, and it's a really interesting book. I was actually quite interested in what was going on in some of these countries, and I was able to learn a lot of that from your book. You were looking at PISA results. So for the listeners, can you just briefly explain what is PISA and what does it measure?

[00:04:37] Lucy Crehan: Sure. So PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. It's run by the OECD. So that's interesting in itself I think because it's an economics organization fundamentally. But they measure literacy, numeracy and science - children's science understanding - at age 15, or 15 to 16. And the [00:05:00] reason they've chosen that age is because that's, that tends to be the end of compulsory education in many countries.

So they're basically asking the question, what is children's educational outcomes in these three domains by the time some of them will be leaving school? And over time they have diversified. the main things that they measure are children's application of, and I should stress that it's not just rote learning; it's can they use their mathematical knowledge to solve problems?

Can they use their literacy knowledge and understanding of language to, to answer questions and solve problems in that domain also? But they have added in measurements of other things as well. So for example, creative problem-solving in 2012, collaborative problem-solving in 2015, global competence in 2018.

So it runs every three years. And it's not, it's not perfect, and it's not everything. But it is, I think we can all agree, I'm sure there'll be someone who [00:06:00] disagrees, but I think, you know, most people who work in education, most parents will agree that at least a part of education, and a quite important part of education, is that our children leave school with the ability to be literate, to be numerate, to be able to use their maths to solve the kind of problems that they will come across in their lives and in their, in their jobs, and to have a basic scientific understanding as well, alongside, of course, other very important things.

[00:06:28] Anna Stokke: Absolutely. And for sure those are things that we would want from our students. And so ultimately, PISA really is a problem-solving test, and we'll come back to that a bit later. Certain things in your book, just sort of kept coming up for me. I live in Canada, so I kind of already know what's going on here, but I was paying really close attention to Finland and the Asian countries, and some of the things I noticed were that teaching is really a highly respected career and that teachers are well qualified and several other [00:07:00] things that I'm going to bring up throughout the interview, but let's start with teachers.

So what is required to become a teacher in Finland?

[00:07:09] Lucy Crehan: So in Finland they have grade point averages, I think in some ways similar to Canada. And it, it depends on where you're applying so there's not like a set score. It's highly competitive; lots of people want to be teachers in Finland. So ultimately it will depend partly on how high is your average score, your teacher given grades from school. But they will also all of them set a task of VAKAVA. I think, you know, I might be pronouncing that wrong. But it's a test that is about education, and they have lots of time to prepare for it where they read certain educational articles, and they have to answer questions about those educational articles.

So it's kind of testing their ability to engage with, and, and I suppose to think critically around educational issues. They also, if they get in as far as an interview, they have to do a [00:08:00] simulated teaching exercise, and they have an interview. So there's a whole range of, of different things that, that are looked at but they all have, you know, a good academic record. 

They all have an interest in education, a demonstrated interest. And through the interview, they're assessing, you know, do, are they in this for the right reasons? Do they care about kids?


00:08:17] Anna Stokke: And so how about Singapore? My understanding is that they went through a period where they really wanted to recruit teachers. And so what did they do to recruit and train teachers?

[00:08:30] Lucy Crehan: So Singapore's a really interesting one because, as you alluded to there, they did have a time, I think it was back in the eighties, where they had a shortage of teachers. So it's not been the case that, oh, “it's easy peasy in these East Asian systems” because history and culture and status is not always easy.

And so, they had to make some policy decisions to make it a more attractive profession. One of the ways in which they do that is ultimately funding. They pay for teachers to have, well, they pay for their training to start with, and they also pay for [00:09:00] them to have a, a stipend, like a salary essentially while they're training.

So it's not a, a period of financial difficulty that they have to fund themselves. They also have different roots into teacher training. So you can, well, they might, they might have finally got rid of it, they've been trying to get rid of it, but they did have a program where you didn't have to do a degree.


And you could do two, two years of teacher training post-school. But they're, they're trying to phase that out. You can do a primary Bachelor of Education, which is four years long. You can do a post-grad program, which is kind of a year and a half-ish. All of it, because it's a tiny country, is hosted at a single institution which does give the government and that institution quite a lot of control over how teachers are trained.

And it's very, very carefully thought through. There are some absolutely fantastic people working, working there that, that contribute to making sure that the teacher training is research-based in terms of how do children learn, how do children learn maths or whatever it is that, that [00:10:00] they're trying to teach.


[00:10:01] Anna Stokke: And I think we can maybe shift a bit to professional development because that also seemed to be something that kept coming up - high-quality professional development and uniform professional development was my understanding. 

And the one that I was, I found kind of interesting was Japan. So what does professional development look like in Japan?

[00:10:22] Lucy Crehan: So there's two kind of, two types I suppose of, of professional development in Japan. One is the more formalized, external to the school, organized by the local authorities usually. So it's kind of equivalent to, I suppose, a bit bigger than districts. 

And it does differ in different parts of the country as to how many hours they need to do, but relatively recently, or maybe decade ago or so, the government brought in a new, new legislation where teachers have to recertify. 

But they have to essentially show that they are up to date with [00:11:00] their knowledge and their skills, and they have to undergo a program of professional development every 10 years to make sure that that is the case. 

So that's half of it. I think, to be honest, I think in Japan, the more important part of professional development is what's happening as part of their daily lives in school. In particular, the lesson study process, which I'm sure you'll be familiar with.

For the benefit of the listeners, as I might, I'll just explain what lesson study is. So lesson study is where you have a group of teachers, perhaps within one school, sometimes across different schools within the same area, who will meet together and plan one lesson in great depth. So they obviously don't do this for every lesson they teach because that would take all of their time. 

But they pick one lesson, and they really think deeply about, what's the, how can we make this lesson the best we can possibly make it taking into account any research that is available on the teaching of that particular topic and what's effective, their different experiences as [00:12:00] teachers and bringing their own lived experience to the table.

Bringing in any kind of, sometimes it's, there might be a focus on new technology or, or something else. And then one of those teachers will then teach the lesson, and the other teachers will observe it. And what is really interesting or different, I think, or certainly was new to me coming from England, was that when the teachers are observing the lesson, they're not looking at the teacher.

They're not interested in the teacher. No one is judging the teacher. Because more or less they know what the teacher's going to do, largely, in terms of, they have planned this lesson together. So what they're looking at is how are the students responding to this educational input or this educational organization that they have jointly designed.

So I think it's the closest really we get as teachers to studying the very thing, which is the main feature of our profession, which is what is this interaction between what we do as teachers or how we organize that learning environment as teachers [00:13:00] and the student learning? And although we can't see student learning itself, part of the features of the lessons that they're planning is designing ways in which they can try and understand what have students understood, what haven't they understood?

So listening to student conversations with each other, doing some short assessments or exit cards. And then interviewing students after the lesson as well about how they found it, what they understood, what they didn't understand. 

And as, as a result of that, of course, they do then go back and adjust the lesson plan, and one effect is you then have this lesson plan bank of some really carefully thought-through lesson plans that teachers can draw upon and obviously make their own. Anyone who's been a teacher knows that you, it's really weird just teaching from a lesson that you haven't planned yourself, so you make it your own.

You could adjust it to suit your personal style or, or your, your particular students. But the more important thing, I think is not this lesson plan bank, but the learning that takes place. Because if you are, you are participating in that process, let's say every six weeks or so, [00:14:00] you are constantly reflecting on and learning new things about what makes for effective teaching in your particular subject or with your particular age group.

So I think that's a really powerful tool for professional development.

[00:14:12] Anna Stokke: Yeah, it sounds like a great idea. And it's a good collaboration exercise among the teachers as well. And like you said, they have this great bank of lessons at the end of it. In order to do this though, they need the time. They need time to be able to sit and observe other teachers lessons, which probably wouldn't be available to teachers in a lot of countries.

My understanding though is that the amount of time that they spend actually teaching in the classroom is somewhat less than in some other countries, but this comes at a price. And that would be larger class sizes, right? Yeah. So the class sizes might get up to what, 50 students?

[00:14:53] Lucy Crehan: Not so much in Japan. It's more than 30, 35 maybe.

[00:14:58] Anna Stokke: Okay. So in some [00:15:00] of the other countries, same thing. They had less time that they had to be in front of the, the class, but they had quite large classes. So one of them, I thought you said, had around 50. 

[00:15:11] Lucy Crehan: Most likely in China.

[00:15:13] Anna Stokke: And that, that kind of brings me to another thing because you, you were talking about how they had these nice lesson plans that they came up with together, and, and that was another common theme I sort of saw throughout the book, is that in a lot of countries, they have really good textbooks, common textbooks that are, are used by all the teachers, high-quality textbooks, along with teachers' guides and lesson plans.

And I would say, you know, that's not something that is that common actually in Canada, at least not where I live. Often there aren't any textbooks. And I've always kind of been surprised by this because I'm a mathematician, and I know a lot of math, and I would not teach [00:16:00] without a textbook. I just think it's really good to have the textbook for structure, et cetera. So would you say that was a common theme in Finland and the Asian countries that you visited that there were high-quality textbooks that teachers were using?

[00:16:14] Lucy Crehan: Absolutely, absolutely. Which is often a surprise to people when you talk about Finland. Especially I think because the media kind of spins a certain image of what Finland is like, that is actually quite different from what Finland is really like. And perhaps, what the media is spinning is what Finland aspires to rather than what Finland, what Finland actually does.

So yes, absolutely lots of - they use textbooks a lot. That's not to say that it, that they are the kind of lessons where it's “Right. Turn to page 94, do exercise 3b.” They're used intelligently and as a, as a tool to support the lesson. Like a main tool, but it's not, it doesn't take up the whole of the lesson just reading from the textbook.

And they're not, the lessons aren't [00:17:00] scripted. I wouldn't, not in any of the countries that I went to, the lessons weren't scripted. There were, the teacher guides contained really useful guidance and knowledge, to be honest, if I can use that word, in relation to, to teacher practice, specifically, what we would call pedagogical content knowledge. 

So it wasn't just kind of generic, “Here's some pedagogical strategies,” although it might suggest something. Nor was it specifically, well, you know, “here's how you add fractions,” because obviously, teachers teaching it would be expected to have that mathematical knowledge.

But it was that, where those two things overlap. So it was. you know, here is a particular way of explaining adding fractions, which tends to lead to fewer misconceptions with students, for example. Or here are some common misconceptions that students might have when they're learning about gravity. Or here is, here are some questions that you can ask students to get them to think really deeply about the use of, of [00:18:00] poetry or whatever it might be, you know. And I think those, those, I certainly, from a teacher's perspective, I would've loved to have had that when I was teaching because it wasn't in any way, it didn't look like it was kind of dictated that they had to use that. And that's why I wanted to kind of flag up that it wasn't scripted. 

It wasn't a case of “you have to say this, you have to do this.” But it was just like a toolbox for them that they could have on their desk to draw from. You know, when actually, these students have already finished this task, or they found it pretty easy. “Oh, here's some suggestions for what I can give to them to get them to, you know, to stretch them.” So, so yeah, the combination of those two things, student textbooks and teacher guides, I do think had a big, big impact on the success of students in those places.

And textbooks as well, specifically - and this is going to, I warn you, I am going to go off into a whole tangent here, but I think it's an important tangent. Textbooks form a really important part in making sure that the learning or the curriculum that the students receive is coherent. [00:19:00] And that was the case you know, it's certainly in Finland and in East Asian countries where they did use textbooks a lot. 

It means that quite deliberately, what they're learning in one lesson relates back to, you know, what they've learned the week before or the month before. And the textbook will draw students' attention to that previous learning. And so everything is all very carefully connected up in a way that, if you follow the textbooks, students aren't missing out on any really important learning. In a way that if you don't have that, and in England, you know, there was a kind of move away from textbooks. They were seen as being old-fashioned and boring and old, you know, poor teaching.

And instead, teachers are having to rely on worksheets, which then, there is so much more of a risk that you miss out on some important learning. And it also takes away some control from the students because then students aren't able to own their own learning and think, “Oh, actually I can't remember how to do this. Let me go back and have a look and see an explanation,” unless they're able to keep all of their worksheets, you [00:20:00] know, neatly, neatly in a folder, which I certainly would not have been able to do as a student - I can't even do it now. 

So I think they perform quite a lot of really useful functions and coherence in particular, being really, really important.

[00:20:12] Anna Stokke: You know, that would be really helpful for a new teacher to list the misconceptions that your students are likely to have. Because I think we forget sometimes when we know how to do something, and it's straightforward for us, we forget where we would mess up when we were first learning. 

And when you've been teaching for a long time, you just know, you know where students are going to struggle and where they're not going to struggle and what the misconceptions are going to be. So it makes a lot of sense to pass that along and to have that written down for teachers to use.

So I thought that was really, really great. Let's shift gears a bit and let's talk about actual lessons, maybe even a math lesson because that's what I love to talk about. So [00:21:00] what would a Shanghai math lesson look like?

[00:21:04] Lucy Crehan: There's obviously some variety. They're not all exactly the same, it'll depend on the teacher, it'll depend on the lesson topic, but I'll give you, kind of share some broad features of what they tend to have in common. So first of all, in terms of the overall structure, I'll tell you what it isn't.

First of all, it isn't the teacher standing at the front just talking for the whole lesson while students make notes. It is not that. Nor is it a lesson in which the teacher comes in and gives a problem for the students to solve and then leaves them to do it for the whole lesson. Nor is it a lesson in which the students are all working on completely different things at their own pace, aided by technology.

It's none of those things. What it is, I think, a kind of a lovely balance between those two extremes of pedagogical approaches, in which most of the lessons are kind of divided up into a [00:22:00] series of, of chunks of, you know, 10 or 15 minutes. Some of that is the teacher explaining. There is some, you know, teacher explaining this is how you do this thing.

Some of it will most likely be a teacher-led discussion. It might not be a whole discussion lasting 10 minutes; it might be actually a series of much smaller discussions lasting two or three minutes. And I'll come to the content of that discussion in a moment, but it will involve lots of questioning from the teacher to the students and students to the teacher.

Some of it will be independent work, but again, it's not students working for a long time, it's them working quite a focused problem they've been asked to solve or a procedure or whatever it is for five or 10 minutes. Some of it will involve group work. So, a small group of students working on something together or possibly pair work.

So they utilize all of those different lesson approaches, all within the same lesson. So you don't have big blocks of, everyone's just doing one thing. So it's quite, it's quite [00:23:00] pacey in that sense. In terms of dialogue, dialogue is really, really important. So some of the stereotypes about East Asian education are that it is all very, the students are very passive, and that they're just listening and rote, rote learning, and that's not the case.

And it’s been, you know, this is a much-studied phenomenon called "The Paradox of the Chinese Learner," coined by John Biggs. But this paradox is that, you know, in the West, our perception of East Asian education is that there’s large class sizes, very teacher directed, the students are rote memorizing everything, and yet they perform really highly on tests of problem-solving and conceptual understanding. So that, hence this being a paradox. 

How can they possibly be doing so well in things we care about, if they're doing what we consider to be bad teaching? And the mistake here, I think, is partly what we think that they're doing and what it looks like and what is actually happening.

So they're not just rote learning, there is some of that, [00:24:00] but actually, a big focus of math lessons in Shanghai and in Japan and in Singapore are focused on the students having conceptual understanding and really thinking deeply, thinking carefully about the mathematics. And the ways in which teachers facilitate that is, a lot of it is through the kind of questions that they ask students.

But it was back, back with the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) video study. So TIMSS is another international test, and I think it was in 1995 they videoed lessons from a range of countries. And this particular study was looking at maths lessons in Germany, America and Japan and analyzing them in looking at the similarities and the differences in questioning.

And all teachers in all three countries asked lots of short answer questions. But in terms of the differences between those three countries, American teachers were more likely to ask yes or no questions to the students or responding a yes or a no to the question.

[00:25:00] German teachers were more likely to ask questions that were asking for names or numbers. Japanese teachers were more likely to be asking questions that required an explanation, so students would actually be having to explain what, how do they come up with that particular answer? And you really can see that in, in lessons. 

Some of the lessons I observed I had an interpreter with me, some of them you can just tell by how long people are talking for - in terms of how long the students are talking for. But they will, they will ask students, you know, they will be quite careful about the questions they ask, and they will start with often some, some kind of easy, short answer questions, yes or no questions or what you know, give me just a single answer. 

But they will build up to, “Okay, and how did you solve that and why did you do it that way,” and “What will be another way of doing it,” and “How does that relate to the way that we solved that last problem?” And so, through the question, they're really getting students to think deeply.

Another way in which they encourage student thinking, and you know, students are very active in their thinking, even if they're not [00:26:00] from a kind of, to a non-trained observer, they're not necessarily active physically in terms of moving around the classroom, but they're active in their thinking, is teachers are spending more time on a smaller number of problems than is typical in, in the west. 

So we might, so one description that I read of when American teachers were asked to observe some, some lessons from China were that they were unbearably slow because they spent, they spent a lot of time on a single problem or a single idea.

But it's the, there's, there's pace in the lesson in the sense that there's different activities and there's lots of, you know, it's broken up into lots of periods of much, much shorter times with different activities. But it's all focused on a small number of problems, and you could spend even a whole lesson on a single problem.

So, so yeah, those are two, two of the features that mean that they do actually spend a lot of time really getting students to think quite deeply about stuff. [00:27:00] They will also, this is gonna move slightly onto curriculum, but they'll spend quite a lot of time on the same topics. So they'll, students will get a lot of practice on each topic before they then move on to the next topic.

[00:27:10] Anna Stokke: You had an analogy in the book to serving in tennis. And the idea is that a good tennis player practices serving so much that it just becomes part of their blood, and you don't think about it, you just know what to do. 

And that's maybe what it's like sometimes when you're, when you get to a point where you're really, really good at doing math problems, you just, you don't think about the steps anymore. You're just able to do it. And I think sometimes, certainly in Canada, there's sometimes a lot of different things covered, but maybe students aren't getting enough practice with them.

And so, when they're trying to solve math problems, they're just chugging along, trying to think through every step and not really getting there. They lack the intuition that you achieve through practice. [00:28:00] And the other interesting thing about that too is that they do focus a lot on practice in some of the East Asian countries, right?

And that's a really important part of learning there. Could you elaborate a bit on that?

[00:28:13] Lucy Crehan: So there's time, there's for two reasons, there's time for the students. They do a lot of practice. Each thing they do, they do a lot of it. There's a quote that, that illustrates it really nicely especially given that you're Canadian, Anna because this is a student who I met in Canada, in Ontario, who'd moved to Canada when she was 15. So she'd spent most of her education in China, and then she moved over to Canada. 

And I was asking her about the, the biggest differences between the two countries. And she said “The most significant difference I find is the depth of material covered. In Canada, they do a little bit of everything, and they do it really fast before you really get the essence of that part, and then they jump into something else. Whereas in China, they go on [00:29:00] about some knowledge for quite a long time, maybe several weeks, before they move to the next topic. So you get a lot of practice, and you really know it.”

One, one of the reasons they're able to have more practice is there's just less in the curriculum to, to start with. So they have more time on each topic. And secondly, because they do spend more time on homework until they are, they have that fluency.

That then means that, that then it does seem second nature to them. And this same, this same lady, Sophie, was saying how she found it quite frustrating in Canadian high school because she was having to write down all the different steps and she was getting marks for going through the various different steps of solving a problem and she could just see the answer without having to go through all of those steps because it was just intuitive to her. 

Because of all of that background knowledge and practice meant that when it came to solving that problem she could just jump over several of the steps rather than having to go through step one, do this, step two, do this, step three, do this.

[00:29:56] Anna Stokke: Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting thing because we can say [00:30:00] we have more in our curriculum, but I would say it's more of the wrong things. So I've looked at the Singapore curriculum because you can actually, it's online. So I've looked at the K-6 curriculum, and one thing I noticed is they just, they've chosen the topics that would really set someone up for later success in math.

So lots of focus on things like fraction arithmetic and time stables are memorized quite early. I think you mentioned even that times tables in Japan they're memorizing them in Grade 2. Well here in Manitoba, it's Grade 5. And things like in the Singapore curriculum, they're doing fraction arithmetic quite early - maybe Grade even 3 or 4. 

Whereas in my province, it's Grade 7 or 8. And so, what's going on is there's just every single thing that is being covered in our curriculum, students are expected to learn it in several different [00:31:00] ways. They're supposed to demonstrate their understanding in several different ways, which is sort of an odd, to me, an odd idea of what understanding is because Singapore for sure, the books I've looked at that they use in Singapore to teach math, there’s absolutely a lot of focus on understanding there, but it's streamlined. 

Okay, it's not “show this in three different ways.” I think we could learn a lot from some of the things that they're doing there.

And one of the problems though I think is that oftentimes there's sort of, and you kind of alluded to this, there's this idea that, you know, there's so much emphasis on rote learning, which you say likely isn't even the case, and overpracticing that students from Asian countries are maybe good at procedures, but they can't think creatively, that there's a lack of creative thinking.

And yet, they do so well on PISA, right? And PISA's a problem-solving [00:32:00] test. I think that to become a good problem solver, you need a good foundation which means you're gonna get a lot of prior knowledge and practice. And so what do you think about that?

What do you think about the notion that they may be performing well on these tests, but can they think creatively?

[00:32:17] Lucy Crehan: I've got two, two parts to my answer that will address slightly different elements of that question. So firstly, in terms of the memorization thing, there's a really interesting piece of data from the PISA 2012 where the focus was maths. And students were asked about how they prepared for exams and the extent to which they were memorizing procedures versus taking a kind of more meaning-based conceptual understanding approach, like relating it to what they learned before, et cetera, et cetera.


And the, and the OECD in their analysis put these two things against each other as if you couldn't have both, but there we are, that's what they did. So they had this index where they, they put countries from - one end was the [00:33:00] more memorizing type countries and one end was the more meaningful understanding type countries. 

East Asia, East Asian countries were all towards the more conceptual meaning understanding, less memorization officially, which at first glance you think, “Oh, that's strange,” well everyone thinks that they do lots of memorization. They do, but they do it early so they don't have to do it later. So this test is, PISA is for 15-year-olds, so by the time they're 15, they're not memorizing procedures and how to do it. 

They are seeing what the answers are, and they're playing with mathematics, and they're being incredibly, you know, creative compared to the mathematics that we're doing in England and in Canada. But because they did, they've learnt their times tables, they've learnt their number bonds, and they've practiced a lot, and they've got that fluency with the tools that they need to then allow them to solve problems and be more, more kind of creative with mathematics and in other fields later on.

The second part though around, you [00:34:00] know, certainly stereotypes and to be fair, like some informed stereotypes about creativity and critical thinking in East Asian students. I think, I think there is some truth in that, in the sense of critical thinking depends how you view it.

And no one defines these things, do they? Critical thinking when it comes to, you know, broader education, not so much mathematics, but things like, you know, being critical in literature or politics and that kind of thing, there’s less of a tendency to do that. But I think that's mainly political and cultural.

So certainly, somewhere like Shanghai or Singapore, you don't teach children to be critical because it's dangerous. And perhaps dangerous is too strong a word in the case of Singapore, but it's not when it comes to China. You don't criticize the government. There are significant consequences for you.

So, so it's a, it's a political system and culture in which you don't really question authority. And in that respect, from a kind of [00:35:00] attitudinal perspective, students can be less critical because they're just, that's not a safe thing to be. And I think, I think there's also a confidence element to it as well, like a confidence when it comes to being entrepreneurial.

So I'm thinking beyond domain-specific critical thinking because I think in domain-specific critical thinking - so critical thinking, you know, within mathematics, well whatever that even means, you know, in terms of kinda solving problems perhaps in really different ways, thinking outside the box - I think they're actually pretty good at that, which is why they do well on PISA.

Because all of their math lessons are about how to think about things from different angles so they're great from the domain-specific element, but when you're thinking kind of more broadly, I think there is a confidence element to being entrepreneurial or critical thinking or risk-taking that sometimes students don't have, and I think that's a cultural thing. 

And there are pros and cons because there's, there's an awesome study by John Jerrim and [00:36:00] colleagues at UCL back in 2019. It's called “The Bullshitting Study,” and they basically looked at how confident students are at a list of mathematical topics that, three of which aren't actually real. And some, some students are more likely to say, “Oh yeah, you know, I'm very comfortable with this topic” even though it's not a real topic. This won't surprise you. A number of boys tend to be more confident slash, you know, confident about something they haven't actually studied than girls.

And, and nationally, they only looked at English-speaking countries, and Americans and Canadians were more likely to say, “Yep, yep. Done that.” The Scotts and the Irish were the least likely to be like that. English and then New Zealand is somewhere in the middle. 

But I would, I would put a lot of money on the fact that if East Asian students took part in that study, they would be like, they would definitely not say that they've studied something that they hadn't [00:37:00] because they are so, in a way, the two, I mean this is a massive generalization, but we are talking about kind of national averages, they are less likely to be quite confident about, “yeah, I know this and I'm gonna criticize this or do something completely differently for my peers.” 

There's, there is much more of a culture of fitting in with everyone else. Not going above your station doing things in the way that you've been taught. So I do think that there is some truth to this idea that East Asian students aren’t so good 21st-century skills, but I don't think it's the education system. I think it's the culture and the context.

[00:37:32] Anna Stokke: Speaking of culture, we should talk about that a bit because there certainly are cultural differences among countries. And so, for example, what differences did you notice between attitudes towards learning and intelligence among the countries you visited? 

[00:37:53] Lucy Crehan: There are really interesting differences in terms of approaches to learning in these different countries. There have been kind of well-documented by [00:38:00] psychologists looking at the differences between how people in different cultures tend to think about intelligence in particular and the, the sources of success, I suppose. You know, what, what are the factors that lead to a student being successful? And I'm gonna talk in some very broad stereotypes here, but these - not stereotypes, generalizations. 

Obviously, there are differences within populations, but there are some, some pretty distinct differences in terms of averages across different nations and, and even different parts of the world. And much of this research has been done between Japan or China to represent the East and usually America or Canada to represent the West. And the main difference is that in East Asia, students, parents and teachers are much more likely to put student success down to student efforts - unless down to any kind of genetic or inborn talent.

It's not that they don't recognize that [00:39:00] there are some differences between kids, and some kids find things easier and other things, some kids find things harder, but they just think that's less important. And that actually if they work hard enough or if they're taught well enough, those kids can still succeed. And you see that in terms of how they structure their education systems in terms of how they teach.


There's an assumption that it's possible for everyone. They just need to either work harder or have more support. Compared to the, a more Western idea which is that some kids are good at math, some kids are not good at math, and there's not a lot you can do about that.

You can make them feel better about it, maybe give them some easier work, try not to harm their self-esteem, but ultimately bless them, they're just not cut out for it. And so, I think what that leads to then sometimes is a lack of problem-solving sometimes on the, on the part of the system or the school, or sometimes the teachers - and not blaming individual teachers, but as a culture, if you don't think that it's possible for all kids to learn [00:40:00] how to add fractions, then you are not going to try and figure out ways in which actually you can slow things down or explain things differently or give them extra support or change your pedagogy.

The problem then is not yours; the problem is ultimately theirs. So I think it's different in how these two, you know, enormous cultures -when I'm talking about East and West, it's obviously the biggest generalization you can have - think about, think about learning. And I think that underpins a lot of what they do, is that belief that it's possible. And it, and it is, you know, it is possible. 

But not all kids, because obviously, some children have profound learning disabilities. But for most kids, what these systems show us is that most kids can reach a reasonably high level of academic achievement that's gonna support them in their success in life if you structure the system right and you do the teaching right.

[00:40:52] Anna Stokke: It's sort of disconcerting because you wonder how many kids get lost in, in the [00:41:00] system because someone didn't believe in them; whether it be a teacher, a parent. And sometimes, I think too much is put down to, “Well, this kid just can't do it,” when actually it maybe was the method you were using to teach.

And I actually really appreciated your comment that we can't take all these things from other countries and just implant them. Like, we're not gonna change the whole culture. And frankly, we probably don't want to. I don't want my kid having to go to tutoring every night, for instance, and that's another thing we'll talk about. 

But there are things that we can change. We can work towards teaching that actually, most students actually are capable of learning math as long as they're taught well, and that we shouldn't be pigeonholing students. And we're probably not going to change the parents’ attitudes, that would be almost impossible. 

But we can work on what's happening in, in schools in terms of attitudes. And actually, hard work will bring you a long way. And on that note, we should talk [00:42:00] about the sort of shadow education systems that are going on because there's a lot of outside tutoring happening in Japan and Singapore and Shanghai. 

Singapore essentially maybe even has what you refer to as a shadow education system where all the kids are going to after-school tutoring and prepping for this big test they have to take to see if they can get into a good high school and, and that sort of thing.

So, I do wanna mention though that it's dependent on whether the family can afford it in Singapore. So how do students with low socioeconomic status perform on PISA in Singapore? Because, presumably, they're not getting the same level of tutoring than, as a lot of the students in Singapore.

[00:42:49] Lucy Crehan: That's a really good question. They actually do very well. You're right, they don't get the same amount of tutoring, if any, because you do have to pay for it, and there is poverty in [00:43:00] Singapore. And yet, they still do pretty well. So if you look at like the bottom fifth of students in Singapore from a, from just a results perspective, they still do better than most disadvantaged kids in other countries.

So it doesn't really help them much from a kind of Singaporean economy perspective because - and there's a huge correlation in Singapore between the students’ backgrounds and the results. You know, and we've just heard already one of the reasons why that is probably is the case; it's not a very equal education system.

And in particular, there are two different ways you can think about equity. In fact, I'm sure there are many, many more ways you can think about equity. But from a kind of measurement perspective and how the OECD thinks about it, one is, to what extent does the student's background correlate or predict their achievement.

And the other is this question of like, well, how do, “those who do the worst, [00:44:00] how badly did they do?” “How many, what proportion of students managed to get at least baseline levels?” Which is what I started off our interview with, in that some countries do much better than England in this respect, and Singapore is one of them.

So Singapore manages to get the majority of its population to at least basic levels of equity in numeracy. So even those kids that do worse than everyone else, they're still doing pretty well, which to me says that it's not the answer to Singapore's success. It's not all about the private tuition. They're doing some things really well in terms of how they train the teachers, how they structure their education system, the pedagogy, the textbooks. And having seen it as well, they, it is, it's really quite impressive.

The education system in Singapore, in that respect, in terms of the quality of teaching and curriculum, it's very, very carefully thought about and planned. What is less good is the stress placed on students as a result of how early they select students into different schools.

[00:44:58] Anna Stokke: They actually select [00:45:00] at 12 years old.

[00:45:00] Lucy Crehan: Yes, that’s right.

[00:45:01] Anna Stokke: In Japan and Shanghai, they're, they're prepping to get into high schools, right?


[00:45:06] Lucy Crehan: Yes and no. So yes, officially, yes. The first exams, the first selective exams are at 15 or 16 to get into high school, especially in Shanghai. Although officially there aren't any exams to get into lower secondary school, some schools have tests for entry. So Shanghai is a, is a highly, highly competitive system.

So even though it's not, they're not supposed to, they do. Some of them do. There are various, kind more covert forms of selection happening at an earlier age in Shanghai in particular, and I believe some kind of elite, there are some elite Japanese middle schools that also have entrance tests. But the majority in Japan certainly, that are in the mean, that selection's not happening until high school entry, which is at age 15 or 16.

[00:45:54] Anna Stokke: What about Finland?

[00:45:54] Lucy Crehan: Finland doesn’t have any selection till age 15 or 16 as well. So they're, they're [00:46:00] all together in, they have a kind of all through school, nine years of education from the age of seven to 15. And then, high school is selective, mainly based on teacher-given grades. Although, some high schools have entry exams as well.

[00:46:16] Anna Stokke: And that was another thing I noticed is that there's a lot of whole class instruction, right? They're not differentiating, differentiating students within classes, really. 

[00:46:27] Lucy Crehan: Well, they are. It depends how you're defining differentiation. So, they are in the sense that it's not the case that there's just one thing the teacher says, everyone does the same exercise and if you don't get it, tough luck. Or if you've already got it and you're bored, tough luck. That's not happening.

So, so there is some differentiation, but that differentiation is in the form of some additional, more difficult work for some students who've understood or been able to do it already. So it's stretching the brightest, and it's additional support for [00:47:00] those who are struggling. So in that respect, there is differentiation, in that the teacher will work with or give extra support to those who are finding it hard.


What they don't do is give them much easier work. And because they're, they're always doing - there might be some kind of scaffolding or some support that that's going to help them to reach the same level as everyone else, but they need to be accessing at least the level that they need to progress into the next stage, into the next topic. As opposed to what I saw happening, and did myself to be fair, in England where it is, there was this expectation that you had different worksheets for different kids, and some of the kids would just have basically really easy work. And there was no chance that they were then never gonna catch up because they just fell further and further behind because every lesson they were doing much easier work.

So that's not happening in these places so much. It's more, there is, there's differentiation, but it's more stretching the brightest and giving support to those who are struggling rather than giving them easy work.

[00:47:57] Anna Stokke: And that will have a very [00:48:00] positive impact because as you said, particularly in math, if you get behind and you don't get caught up, you’re not going to get caught up. You have to keep working to get caught up to that level because you'll just fall further and further behind. So that likely is the best way to do it, to provide extra support to those who need it. Which isn't to say, you know, it's good to give advanced students extra worksheets or things to do as well that are on the same topic but just a little more challenging. 

I'll close it out with one last question. And there are a lot of things that we didn't discuss. I just want to make that clear because I know you care a lot about things like not having a lot of ability grouping and early childhood education and that sort of thing, and we didn't talk about some of those things today.

What is the main recommendation you would give to, you know, a government if they want to improve their education system? 

[00:48:51] Lucy Crehan: Slow it down, really. Slow it down, but be very, very deliberate about making sure that all students can keep up with the [00:49:00] slowed-down curriculum. And have, you know, no really clear expectations about what it is that children need to be understanding or being able to do at each stage of education and have strategies in place to make sure that they do and to support those who aren't yet there.

Rather than trying to do too much, but not being aware of or not being overly concerned about the fact that not all students get it, and then those students get left behind. So I have a, I have a, a rather childish analogy actually to illustrate the difference between somewhere like, well, any of these countries: Finland, Singapore, Japan compared to England. And you and your listeners can judge whether or not which part of the analogy Canada falls on. 

But in Finland, in Japan, it's about a learning train. And this learning train sits at the station for a while before it sets off, and it waits for everyone to get on, even people with heavy luggage; they have a chance to [00:50:00] actually kind of get settled and get sitting on the train before the train leaves. 

And obviously, that's analogous to starting school a bit later, making sure everyone's got all of the kind of educational, rich experiences that they need and they have the kind of skills, social and attentional and otherwise, to actually access the curriculum before starting with hard stuff.

And then once they're on the train, these trains start off slowly and they, they go quite slowly initially. And that gives anyone that is kind of falling behind, falling off, didn't get on, the chance to run alongside the train and catch up. And then, because it's gone so slowly to start with and everyone's come along with it on the train, it means that it can then speed up. And then just chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, and then go faster and faster as they get older. 

So ultimately, the train, the train from Finland and the train in England will get to the same endpoint, or actually, in the case of Finland, they go further, but everyone's on the train, or most people are on the train.

Whereas the alternative that, that I think we do in England is we, the train sets off before everyone's got on it. And some [00:51:00] kids are left behind right at the very beginning, before, you know, in year one, year two, because they're starting school very early, and they don't understand what's going on. And then we try and fit too much in. We kind of plan the curriculum for the top third.

And so two-thirds of kids, you know, don't really, they're not securing that understanding. And then the curricula just moves on, or that train just gets faster, and some kids are just not on it, and so they can't catch up. Whereas in these countries - Finland, Singapore, Japan - there is more time. Everyone comes along together, and ultimately they actually get to that destination anyway, even though they started off more slowly.

So forgive me, it is a fairly childish analogy, but it's just, that's how I think about it.

[00:51:40] Anna Stokke: Well, that sounds great. So thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed speaking with you. 

[00:51:45] Lucy Crehan: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:51:47] Anna Stokke: Thank you.

I hope you enjoyed today's episode of Chalk and Talk. Please go ahead and follow on your favourite podcast app so you can get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on Twitter for notifications or check out my website for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.


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