Is PISA meaningless? (or Do schools really kill creativity?)

The belief that the teacher (at any level) should be a guide on the side (GOTS) rather than a sage on the stage (SOTS) is widespread and it forms part of what seems to be the dominant philosophy (constructivism) of education these days.

I find it puzzling that so many science and engineering educators, most of whom have been educated using the traditional teacher-led approach, should be so convinced that the GOTS approach represents the future of education.

Because, anytime I ask my colleagues what motivated them to become scientists or engineers, they mention an inspirational teacher or teachers. They never mention pedagogy. As my colleague, Enda McGlynn (Prof, physics) said recently:

The biggest lucky break of my life in science was that I had 3 wonderful teachers for physics (Seamus O’Miochain), maths (Brian Finn) and chemistry (Fr. Declan Timmons). They were very different characters but all had in common a real love for their subjects and great depth of knowledge, which allowed them to show how all the pieces fit together, beyond the textbook syllabus. I only realise in hindsight how incredibly lucky I was to have 3 teachers of this calibre

So what is driving this move towards so-called ‘student-centred’ learning? Why do those who clearly benefited from the traditional SOTS form of teaching feel that a very different approach is now required? Do they feel that they were outliers – mavericks – who had the talent and the enthusiasm to overcome the limitations of the traditional model? Or is it a simple case of wanting to improve upon an already effective approach? Or does it reflect something of an air of desperation, a belief that the modern student will only learn if sufficiently engaged by ‘authentic’ experiences, even if that means acquiring far less actual knowledge? Or is it the belief that the 21st century is somehow different and requires a different approach to learning?

You see, I can’t help but think about this quote from the PISA 2015 report:

PISA results show that when teachers frequently explain and demonstrate scientific ideas, and discuss students’ questions (known collectively as teacher-directed instruction), students score higher in science, they have stronger beliefs in the value of scientific enquiry and are more likely to expect to work in a science-related occupation later on. Adapting to students’ needs, such as by providing individual help to struggling students or changing the structure of a lesson on a topic that most students find difficult to understand is also related to higher scores in science and stronger epistemic beliefs.

Perhaps surprisingly, in almost no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to hands-on enquiry-based instruction score higher in science. After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profiles, in 56 economies and countries, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is associated with lower scores in science.

Of course, the argument is bound to be made that PISA only measures a narrow range of attributes and we should not get too hung up on scores and rankings. Maybe PISA scores are not a good indicator of creativity or innovation, for example? Maybe PISA scores even correlate negatively with innovation?

Well, it doesn’t look like it because 15 of the top 25 most innovative countries have average PISA scores that are at or above the OECD average. The exceptions are the US, Luxembourg, Iceland, Czech Republic and  Israel (see table below)

So while nobody would be so naïve as to suggest that PISA score is a good predictor of innovation ranking (innovation is probably strongly correlated with GDP per capita and all sorts of social and cultural issues), it would also be very wrong to suggest that traditional teacher-led education (which leads to high PISA scores) somehow kills creativity, as Ken Robinson would claim. The evidence just isn’t there.

Innovation League Table Average PISA Score* (OECD average = 492)
Switzerland 506
Sweden 496
Netherlands 508
US 488
UK 500
Denmark 504
Singapore 552
Finland 523
Germany 508
Ireland 509
South Korea 519
Luxembourg 483
Iceland 481
Japan 529
France 496
Hong Kong 533
Israel 472
Canada 524
Norway 504
Austria 492
New Zealand 506
China 514
Australia 502
Czech Republic 491
Estonia 524


*Average of maths, science and reading.


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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