What Spanish schools can learn from Spanish schools

by Andreas Schleicher
Acting Director and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General

I arrived in Madrid in the morning of 1 April, coming from Singapore. I met with Singapore’s school principals and policy makers the day before to review the results from our new PISA problem-solving skills assessment. Singapore’s education system has at times been criticised for encouraging rote learning at the expense of creative skills development. Those critics should have a second look.

The PISA results show that 15-year-old Singaporeans are quick learners, highly inquisitive and able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts. Indeed, no education system outperforms Singapore on this problem-solving test. The Spanish results on the same test, which I presented later in the day in Madrid, were a lot more troubling.  As shown in previous PISA assessments, Spanish students face challenges in math and science. However, there is bigger concern regarding their problem-solving skills. Spanish students performed significantly worse on tasks requiring creative problem-solving skills. The issue is not simply concerning poor kids in poor neighbourhoods, but is an issue that touches children from many regions of Spain. What’s more, these results do not correlate with the amount of money going into Spanish schools.

This is troubling because the dilemma for educators is that routine cognitive skills, the kind of things that are easy to teach and easy to test, are also the skills that are easiest to digitise, automate and outsource. There is no question that state-of-the-art knowledge in a discipline will always remain essential. Innovative or creative people generally have specialised skills in a field of knowledge or a practice. As much as ‘learning to learn’ skills are important, educational success is no longer about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge creatively.

Is that beyond what can be achieved in the Spanish education system? The PISA results show that school curricula – and teachers – make a difference in imparting creative problem-solving skills. Engagement with, and at, school is relatively high in Spain, and I witnessed this first hand at the Santa María La Blanca school, just half an hour by car from where I had presented the disappointing PISA results in the morning. Comparatively speaking, I was amazed at how much the school in Spain had in common with schools in Singapore. Structurally, there was nothing spectacular about the building. The school’s teachers hadn’t had more extensive training. Nor did the students come from more advantaged backgrounds. It was all about the learning environments and about learner ownership. The lessons weren’t one-size-fits all, but I witnessed students designing their own learning experiences on constant reviews and revisions of their learning goals. These students were able to explain to an outsider, like myself, what they were learning, how they were learning and why it mattered.

These students were experiencing the most rewarding kind of learning achievement: knowledge as a product of hard work versus knowledge as inherited intelligence or luck. The teachers I met embraced diversity through differentiated instructional practices, realising that ordinary students have extraordinary talents. Each students’ learning path is planned jointly, facilitated by the latest digital technology. And, as always, behind a great school is a great principal. Someone who supports teachers to make innovations in pedagogy, to improve their own performance and that of their colleagues. It is a team effort in constructing stronger pedagogical practice.

The PISA results show that school autonomy is still rare in Spain. Additionally, schools exercise even less autonomy than they actually have. However, Santa María La Blanca has moved beyond the paradigms of standardisation and compliance and enables their teachers to be inventive. The teachers are no longer looking upwards to bureaucracy, but look outwards to the next teacher and the next school to create a network of innovation.

If all Spaniards knew what some Spanish schools know, students would probably match their peers in the world’s top performing education systems. Having the belief in being able to achieve at high levels, and the ability and willingness to do what it takes, would equip Spanish students with the attributes to enable them to lead full lives, meet challenges and make the most of available opportunities along the way.

Perhaps there is not much we can find in Singapore that we can’t see somewhere in Spain too. But, what makes Singapore different is that it has made success systemic. They have aligned policies and practices across all aspects of the system to encourage ingenuity and entrepreneurship, made policies and practices coherent over sustained periods of time, and seen innovative practices that are consistently implemented.  In this way, Spain still has a long educational path ahead.

PISA 2012 Results, Volume V
Country note Spain (Problem Solving)
Country note Singapore (Problem Solving)
Photo credit: School girl drawing sketches with marker /@Shutterstock

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