How should we respond to PISA 2015?

The first media response to the recent PISA results was Breda O Brien’s article in the Irish Times. Unfortunately, her profile is such that many people will automatically dismiss her arguments, which are actually very well made, as just another example of right wing ideology.

Her main point, which I have made in this blog is that the PISA results state, pretty unequivocally, that inquiry-based approaches to teaching lead to inferior (in PISA tests) outcomes in comparison with traditional teacher-led approaches. Incidentally, teacher-led approaches do not involve teachers simply dictating to students and demanding that they rote learn facts; they are about expert teachers guiding their students through the course content, explaining key (threshold) concepts along the way, encouraging interaction, answering student questions and providing plenty of opportunities for students to practice and to deepen their understanding of the material by being challenged with problems and exercises of escalating difficulty: basically, what you and I would call good teaching.

Based on what has been going on in social media over the last few days, the main arguments against responding in any way to the PISA results seem to be the following:

  • Correlation is not causation and so there is no case to be answered.
  • PISA does not test many attributes and skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy etc., i.e., all of those skills that fall under the umbrella of ‘21st century skills’. Therefore PISA scores are essentially irrelevant and even if they were declining, we shouldn’t be all that bothered.

I think the core of this whole debate centres on the idea of student engagement. Many on the ‘progressive side’ see engagement as an end in itself. When students are engaged, it is presumed that they are learning and everyone is happy, including the teacher. I know this myself because I spend a lot of my ‘lecture’ time on ‘active learning’ (problem solving sessions) and it’s a lot more rewarding, and far easier, than busting a gut giving traditional lectures and hoping that the students will study and practice in their own time. But the thing is, engagement is not the same as learning and although I try to teach in a way that is as engaging as possible, I know for certain that my students do not learn as much in my courses as they used to. In other words, when you focus on engagement, your efficiency tends to tail off; students tend to end up knowing less and this has knock-on effects in subsequent years.

The problem is, though, that in the modern world, it is getting harder and harder to engage students and while it is almost a cliché to say that “engagement is not a good proxy for learning”, it is also true to say that “engagement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for learning”. So we have a dilemma. Given that most teachers are neither inept nor inspirational, how do we design our education system so that youngsters learn as much as possible? The likelihood is that in 2016 and beyond we will need to compromise and that might mean sometimes doing things that are good for engagement but not great for learning.

But, ultimately, education is about learning and advocates of an inquiry approach to education really need to be honest and ask themselves the hard questions, questions that have been posed repeatedly by people like E.D. Hirsch. Daniel Willingham, Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Daisy Christodoulou, Eric Kalenze and others who regularly cast serious doubts on the value of inquiry-based methods for actual learning, as opposed to engagement.

This is a time for people to put their ideologies aside and to really stand back and look at education with new eyes. Adopting a traditional perspective, one in which the teacher plays a central role, is not anti-children and certainly not elitist in any way. It is not ‘right wing’. It is based, fundamentally, on a view that knowledge is liberating and acquiring knowledge, and developing the ability to use that knowledge, is often hard, and demands effort. Likewise, we have to accept that in the era of the smartphone, we may have to sacrifice knowledge on the altar of engagement.

Fundamentally, and wearing my engineer’s hat, this is an optimization problem. What mix of teaching methods should we adopt to optimise student learning? The PISA results suggest that the the optimum should lie far closer to the teacher-led end of the spectrum than the inquiry-led end. Only a rational, ideology-free discussion will find that optimum.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to How should we respond to PISA 2015?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » How should we respond to PISA 2015?

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