The recently released PISA results have many Asian countries scoring substantially higher than the US, UK, and Canada on math, reading, and science. Some people are saying this shows that the latter countries need to place more emphasis on “the basics” (such as times tables, formulas, spelling, etc.) rather than problem solving and relevance. My response is threefold:
· Part of the disparity in scores is due to typical features of Asian schooling that I don’t think are desirable: high-stakes national exams, cram schools, and enormous pressure on students to learn the basics at any cost. I rarely meet people from Asia who are glad they experienced this kind of schooling.
· Part of it is because we’ve asked teachers to teach for meaning and relevance without showing them how. In math, for example, we give them an 36 hour math methods course in teacher education and send them out to reverse a lifetime of experience and cultural initiation.
· Clearly, teachers need to do BOTH – teach the basics AND meaning, relevance, etc. And I believe this is entirely possible. But we need to figure out how to do it and systematically teach and model it in pre-service and in-service (in the context of the various subjects), rather than just making general pronouncements about constructivism, discovery learning, and teaching for understanding.