Real Singaporean Lessons: Why do Singaporean Students perform so well in PISA?

In this latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Zongyi Deng and S. Gopinathan shine a spotlight on the success of Singapore’s school system and argue that the country’s success comes from educational policies and practices that have helped to develop social cohesion, economic development, and nation building. As Deng and Gopinathan suggest, reforms that aim to borrow “best practices” must consider the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part.

Singapore has been widely recognised as one of the world’s top-performing systems. Its extraordinary record of students’ performance in international comparative studies of achievement includes: first in problem-solving, second in mathematics, and third in science and reading (PISA 2012); second in mathematics, fourth in science and fifth in reading (PISA 2009); first in science (both primary 4 and secondary 2 levels) and second in mathematics (primary 4 level), and third in mathematics (secondary 2 level) (TIMSS 2007); and fourth among 45 education systems (PIRLS 2006). What explains the top rankings in the current PISA tests? What lessons, if any, could Singapore offer other countries who want to improve on their educational performances?

As with other high-performing countries, answers to these two questions can be found in a body of literature (reports, books and articles) written by international organizations like the OECD and the World Bank, consultancy firms like McKinsey and Grattan, and educational spokesmen and scholars like Pasi Sahlberg and Pat Tee Ng. Singapore is said to have a high- quality teaching force ensured and enhanced by high standards of teacher recruitment, effective teacher preparation and professional development. The school system is run by high-quality school leadership developed through careful selection, leadership experiences and professional development programmes. In addition, the country sets high academic expectations and standards for its students and monitors the performance of schools against those expectations and standards. Furthermore, Singapore is noted to have implemented educational reform to promote student-centric and ICT-enhanced pedagogy that encourages deep learning, critical thinking and creativity.

Overall, this body of literature adopts the “best practice” approach to explaining the educational success of a high-performing system wherein a set of particular characteristics are identified and translated into best practices for borrowing worldwide. However, whether the identified characteristics are causally linked to the system’s superior performance in PISA is an open question, with little or no empirical evidence to justify the identification. In addition, lacking in such explanation are those factors beyond school—educational history, family aspirations, parental involvement, private tuition, etc.—that could play a part in PISA success, particularly in Asian countries.

In our latest article (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016), we provide an alternative explanation for Singapore’s education success and, in so doing, question such an approach to explaining the education success of a high-performing country. From a historical perspective, education has played a vital role in the success story of Singapore—the remarkable transformation from a fishing village to a first world country over four decades.  Such a transformation has much to do with the effective implementation of a set of educational policies and reforms by a strong and competent government. Among these policies were the bilingual policy in the 1950s which encourages Singaporeans to be proficient in both the English language and in their respective ethnic mother tongues (Chinese Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil), and the streaming policy in the late 1970s which track primary and secondary students into various streams based on their examination results.  The implementation of the bilingual policy entails a commitment to equality with respect to language rights of the three main ethic groups and a recognition of the necessity and value of English as an international language to Singapore.  The streaming policy, modified and adjusted over the years, has reduced attrition and early school leaving.  In addition, the government mandated and implemented a uniform and common curriculum (taught in English) centered on the study of mathematics, science and languages, with technical subjects as a supplement, and made a firm commitment to the principle of meritocracy.  Universal free primary education and curriculum standardization were achieved by the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively. In short, educational policy and practice in Singapore has functioned as a means for social cohesion, a vehicle for economic development, and for nation building.

While it has been sometimes fashionable to decry the significance of school education in the West, and indeed be skeptical about the role schools can play in social, civic, and even economic functions, in Singapore there are few such doubts (Gopinathan, 2007). This leads to our questioning of the employment of PISA results as the prime yardstick of the educational performance of an education system. The primary function of school education as conceived in PISA is economic—developing competencies for the economy in the 21st century. Such a conception entails a narrowing of the function of education, thus reducing the social and civic significance of an education system.

The historical perspective also brings to light two basic features of the system that may better help explain Singapore’s high rankings in PISA:

First, the national curriculum stresses the development of students’ competences in mathematics, science and languages – the three subjects tested in PISA.  Second, a commitment to academic rigour and standards, underpinned by the principle of meritocracy and enforced by a system of national high-stakes examinations (PSLE [Primary School Leaving Examination], ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels), has lifted the floor under the quality of teaching and learning for all student groups throughout the school years (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016).

However, the national curriculum, together with the high-stakes examination system, has steered classroom practice towards a kind that is still largely traditional and didactic in nature, directed towards the transmission of curriculum content and examination performance. Since the mid-1980s the government has attempted to alter such a traditional practice through educational reform.  The most progressive and radical reform came in 1997 when then Prime Minister Goh introduced the framework of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation (TSLN). Subsequently, a plethora of reform initiatives have been rolled out in schools, which aim at producing pedagogical changes characterized by: (1) more opportunities for constructing knowledge, higher-order thinking, and innovation; (2) more meaningful use of ICT for teaching and learning;  (3) more time on interdisciplinary learning and a greater emphasis on knowledge application.

What has been the impact of reform initiatives on conventional classroom practice? What is the present nature of pedagogy in Singapore’s classrooms? According to the findings of Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice (CRPP) in the National Institute of Education (NIE),

Notwithstanding multiple reform initiatives to encourage the TSLN’s pedagogical vision, pedagogical practice in Singapore’s classrooms has remained largely traditional, directed towards curriculum content delivery and examination performance. There is very little evidence of sustained teaching for higher order thinking, meaningful use of ICT, students’ constructing knowledge, and interdisciplinary learning (Deng & Gopinathan, 2016)

This finding, in fact, is consistent with what is found in the international literature about the inability of reform to alter conventional classroom practice.

It is therefore questionable that the success of Singapore in PISA can be attributable to the government’s implementation of educational reforms aimed at transforming classroom pedagogy. In fact, if TSLN’s reform initiatives had an impact on classroom practice, it would probably have led to a fall in students’ performance in PISA. There is empirical evidence in Finland and Canada (Quebec) confirming that when the traditional and teacher-centred pedagogy is replaced by a student-centric, constructivist one, the PISA results of a system decline (Sahlgren, 2015).

The CRPP’s empirical findings reveal a distinct kind of ‘hybrid pedagogy’ that serves to explain in part Singaporean students’ success in PISA:

  • Classroom teaching is largely driven by content coverage and preparing students for semester-end and high-stakes examinations, with the primary focus on the transmission of knowledge and skills contained in the national curriculum (represented by teaching and examination syllabi).
  • Accordingly, classroom teachers tend, to a large degree, to rely on whole-class forms of lesson organisation, with whole-class lectures and question-and-answer sequences (IRE) as the dominant methods. They also depend heavily on textbooks and instructional materials and provide students with a significant amount of worksheets and homework, with a special focus on their mastery of specific procedures and problem-solving skills.
  • When teachers do make limited use of constructivist pedagogical methods – such as checking prior knowledge, monitoring understanding and providing formative feedback – they largely do so for the purpose of getting students to know the correct answers rather than developing their conceptual understanding and higher order thinking. Classroom talk, largely dominated by teachers and used mostly for checking content mastery, does not lead to extended conversation and critical thinking on the part of the students (Deng & Gopinathan, 2006; also see Hogan, 2014).

And, this pedagogy is regulated and shaped by a centralized education system, with a national curriculum that prescribes what is to be learnt and taught. It is also powerfully driven by high stakes examinations which stream students into various school types and curriculum tracks based on their examination performances.

In view of such pedagogy and its underpinning cultural and institutional arrangements, Singapore’s superior performance in PISA no longer appears to be a miracle.  Here comes a paradox. Singapore’s pedagogy is still largely conservative, directed toward the transmission of predetermined content and examination performance. Yet PISA is strongly forward-looking and future-oriented, with the ambition of testing skill in authentic contexts deemed essential for the 21st century. If this is true, then Singapore’s pedagogy must be seen as functioning well in preparing students for the 21st century. However, it has been widely recognized that such pedagogy is ineffective in developing individual talents, critical and innovative thinkers for the knowledge-based economy.

The paradox exists because of the uncritical acceptance of PISA by many politicians and policy-makers.  PISA tests, framed by the test taking situation and in the form of paper-and pencil items, do not live up to its promise of testing real-life skills and competencies in authentic contexts. Furthermore, the claim that PISA measures the competencies needed for 21st century, Stefan Hopmann argues, is unwanted and questionable; OECD provides neither sufficient justifications nor systemic research evidence for it.

In conclusion, the social, cultural and institutional contexts of schools in Singapore, and the kind of pedagogy regulated, supported, and constrained in such contexts, are vital in understanding Singapore’s top rankings in the current PISA tests. It is therefore questionable that one can borrow “best practices” from a system without a careful consideration of the social, cultural and institutional contexts of which they are a part. Furthermore, the OECD’s claims that PISA results provide the prime indicator of the educational performance of a country and that PISA measures skills needed for life in the 21st century are questionable and contested.

Notes on Authors

Zongyi Deng is an associate professor at National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

S. Gopinathan is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.


Headlines Around the World TIMSS 2015 Edition

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Generating a cascade of headlines, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released this week. As in the past, Asian countries dominated the rankings.  The press release noted:

“Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan continue outperforming all participating countries in mathematics at the fourth and eighth grades, maintaining a 20 year edge according to results released today from TIMSS”

For the most part, headlines highlighted whether a particular country did well or poorly, often with a particular focus on mathematics performance.  The headlines in Australia were especially gloomy, describing the country’s results as “flatlining” (Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine), “embarrassing” (Australian maths results embarrass minister, 9 News), and as a “wake-up call” (‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England Financial Review). Finland accustomed to more positive news also did not fare so well.  While google translate left much to be desired, the general tenor of the article in Helsingin Uutiset seemed clear: “the results of the boys have deteriorated, and the girls have to wedge the boys over in all the studied areas.”

Occasionally, headlines did not mention the outcomes in Asian countries and instead reported on performance related to closer neighbors (Aftenposten in Norway for example noting Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics while the BBC pointed out Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests).  In some cases, sources reported on conflicting aspects of a country’s performance. In South Africa, for example, allAfrica emphasized the positive (South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study), while News24 did not (SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science).  In the United States, the Wall Street Journal provided the positive spin (U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test); the Washington Post highlighted the negative (U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam); and the Christian Science Monitor covered both sides (US students gain a bit on math, but science scores still lag Asia).

Only in a few cases did headlines point to some of the other information available in the results (such as news on gender gaps, homework, and students’ confidence like those reported on by TES: Timss: England’s pupils do less homework and seven other things we learned from today’s study). The journal Science, however, focused on a new development in TIMSS 2015 by highlighting the overall poor performance of “advanced” high school students taking the most challenging math and science classes.  In Are the best students really that advanced? Science reported that with the exception of Russian students and some Slovenian students these “advanced” students in the nine countries “performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school.”  Notably that article also pointed out that “The East Asian students did not participate in the TIMSS Advanced (assessment) because it was seen as conflicting with the high-stakes final exam that determines university placement in those countries. So the TIMSS sheds no light on their performance across their entire school careers.” With such poor results and limited participation on the new test but a trend toward overall improvements on the more familiar tests, questions about teaching to the test are likely to be asked.  Further questions may come with the release of the results of the latest round of PISA tests on “PISA Day”, next Tuesday, December 6th (and I’ll share a scan of the PISA headlines next week both here and on

Thomas Hatch


A sampling of TIMSS results headlines:


Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine,

Aust maths results embarrass minister, 9 News

‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England
Financial Review


English pupils improve results in international maths and science exams, The Guardian


Tytöt menivät poikien ohi jo matikassakin – 4.-luokkalaisten taidot heikkenevät Suomessa, Helsingin Uutiset


French students rank last in EU for maths, study finds, France24


Study: German students’ mathematics achievement declines


Ireland ranks 15th in global league table for maths, science, Irish Times

GDP would be boosted by 2.3 per cent if universal basic skill levels were achieved


Japanese students’ average scores rise in global math, science tests, The Mainichi


Moroccan Math and Science Education Struggling, But Improving: Survey, Morocco World News

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests, BBC


Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics, Aftenposten

New Zealand

New Zealand pupils below average in maths results – TIMSS, New Zealand Herald


Singapore students top global achievement test in mathematics and science, Straits Times

South Africa

South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study, allAfrica

SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science,  News24


UAE pupils improve maths and science skills, global study shows, The National

United States

U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam, Washington Post

U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test, Students in some Asian nations excel; U.S. students improve

 Wall Street Journal

US students gain a bit on math, science scores but still lag Asia, Christian Science Monitor

The problem and possibilities of improvement and “innovation” in education (Singapore and Malaysia edition)

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The first problem with innovation is that it is hard to define. It is one of those, “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things.  As a consequence, almost any “new” practice, program, resource, or idea that departs from convention may appear “innovative” to some.  Yet for others, only the most revolutionary, transformative, or disruptive practices or materials deserve to be called “innovative.”  A shift from thinking of “innovations” as a singular category –  something is either “innovative” or it’s not – to thinking about the “symptoms” of innovation provides one way to address this definitional ambiguity.  (The philosopher Nelson Goodman, one of Noam Chomsky’s teachers, took this approach when discussing the definition of “art.”)  Symptoms of innovation include the extent to which something departs from convention as well as the extent to which it changes or transforms related activities. For example, even “smart” phones still retain some of the features of the land-lines that preceded them, but their mobility and wireless connectivity are new and make possible all kinds of activities (texting, surfing the internet, using apps etc.) that have changed the ways people behave and interact.  Other symptoms might include the extent to which something is viewed as innovative within a particular context (a region or industry) or as cutting across contexts.  From this perspective, mobile phones appear to be quite innovative as they have spread and contributed to changes in behaviors and activity across international contexts.  At the same time, technologies like whiteboards that seem commonplace in classrooms in many countries nowadays may still seem innovative in parts of the world where they are just being introduced.  In either case, the extent to which these new technologies have or might change behaviors and activities remains to be debated.

In education, many different practices, programs, and school models have been hailed as “innovative” in different times.  Nonetheless, substantial departures from conventional classroom practices and activities rarely seem to take hold across schools and contexts (as Larry Cuban continues to examine when it comes to technology and computer use in the classroom). In order to explore some of these “issues of innovation” and the challenges and possibilities for improving conventional educational practices, I am working with colleagues Deirdre Faughey, Jordan Carson, and Sarah van den Berg to look at what educators consider “innovative” both inside conventional school systems as well as outside (in alternative schools, after school programs, tutoring programs, museums, online activities etc.); and I’m looking at what’s “innovative” in both developed and developing education systems (such as those in New York City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Johannesburg). Theoretically these different educational settings should create different opportunities for, and perhaps different kinds of, innovations. Ideally, looking at how innovative efforts evolve in different contexts will provide some clues about what it really takes to transform conventional learning opportunities so that all students, from all backgrounds can be successful.  (For a look at some initial descriptions of efforts to improve different aspects of education, see posts on Citizen Schools, New Visions, the iZone, the Millennium Villages Project in Africa, and the India School Leadership Institute.)

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on what I learned when I visited and talked with colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia about recent efforts to improve their educational systems and what might be “innovative” in education in each context. The education systems in Singapore and Malaysia are particularly interesting because they are geographic neighbors with some shared history and culture.  Education systems in both countries are quite centralized, and both have introduced a number of initiatives to change and improve their performance.  Nonetheless, their education systems are at very different stages of development. Singapore continues to be at the top or near the top on comparative tests like PISA and TIMMS, while Malaysia ranks below more than fifty other countries in reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, while Malaysia has substantially increased enrollment rates at every level of schooling, it is in the midst of increasing compulsory schooling from six to eleven years, and it is still working to increase enrollments in upper secondary education which stood at 82% in 2011.

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

What struck me most, however, in my visits, were the differences in where efforts to produce more innovative learning opportunities are taking place.  What I found in Malaysia, for example, reminded me in some ways of what I see in New York City: the growth of alternative schools, after school programs, and other educational opportunities created by independent groups and individuals operating outside the public school system. Those I talked to about innovation in Kuala Lumpur pointed to a number of for-profit and not-for-profit efforts to create private schools and to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day. Among private schools, the alternatives to government-run public schools include international schools often connected to or resembling those operating in the US and elsewhere and some newer international schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University. There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  Outside the school day, organizations and collaborative like Edunation, Arus Academy, Tandemic, and EnglishJer have sprouted to address what their members see as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system.

At the same time, the government in Malaysia has continued efforts to ensure all children have access to education while also launching a variety of initiatives to increase the quality of education. Recent initiatives have focused on integrating Higher Order Thinking Skills into the curriculum, establishing a technological infrastructure in all schools (including internet connectivity, computers/computer labs, and a virtual learning environment), and programs to establish “Trust Schools” (modeled after the academies in England or what those in the US would consider charter schools).  Often, the Ministry of Education, with limited resources, finds a contractor to lead these initiatives, but then these contractors have to find and develop the means themselves to roll their work out across large numbers of teachers and schools.



In contrast, when I asked about innovation in Singapore, those I talked to generally pointed to major initiatives launched by the government as part of continuing efforts to improve and change the education system. These include efforts to focus on the development of 21st Century skills amongst all students and to integrating technology productively into teaching (as part of Singapore’s Fourth Master Plan for technology integration). These efforts reflect what colleagues in Singapore have called a “centralized decentralized” approach to create opportunities for schools and teachers to develop innovative practices, which if effective, can then be scaled up across the system. This approach included the creation of a set of Future Schools in 2007 that experimented with different approaches to using technology and that could serve as models or prototypes that could inspire other schools to change their instructional practices. In addition, in 2011 the Ministry of Education established Edulab which now provides support for educators to develop new practices and resources and creates opportunities to share those practices and resources across teachers and schools.

There are numerous educational opportunities outside the regular school classroom in Singapore, but those generally connect to and complement the work going on in the government-run schools rather than serving as independent educational alternatives.  Educational programs established outside the public schools in Singapore include workshops and field trips organized by cultural institutions such as the Singapore Discovery Center and the National Gallery of Singapore.  These educational opportunities serve as “Learning Journeys” that schools are required to offer students as part of Singapore’s commitment to integrating National Education into the curriculum.  The opportunities for learning after school and on weekends are also dominated by tutoring offered by a host of individuals and “tuition centers”.  Despite the concerns of the Singaporean government and many educators and parents, tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  Tuition centers focus primarily on preparing students for the national exams that students in Singapore take at the end of primary  and upper secondary school and before admission to university; but some centers try to distinguish themselves with their own educational approaches and some aim to help students develop skills that go beyond those emphasized in the tests.

Singapore and Malaysia present very different contexts for developing new educational opportunities for students, but both have to contend with the challenges of figuring out which new practices and programs might work and what kinds of mechanisms will help educators and schools to build on any successes. In the next few weeks, I will be following up on these initial impressions with closer looks at the evolution of some of the programs and organizations that are working to improve the educational opportunities in each of these systems.

— Thomas Hatch


Lead the Change with Alfie Kohn

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-11-23-42-pmAlfie Kohn has been described by Time magazine as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.” He is an independent scholar who has written 14 books, and scores of articles, about education, human behavior, and social theory. Among those books: Punished by Rewards (1993), Beyond Discipline (1996), The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999), and, most recently, Schooling Beyond Measure (2015). Kohn’s essays, meanwhile, have appeared in publications ranging from the Review of Educational Research to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and from The Nation to the Harvard Business Review.

In this interview, which is part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Kohn shares his thoughts on the direction of educational change:

With respect to academic outcomes…discussions about “promising results” from various policies and practices are admirably precise about what produced them but swiftly pass over the fact that those results consist of nothing more than scores on standardized tests, often norm-referenced and multiple-choice versions. Thus, the putatively successful teaching strategy—and all the impressive sounding data that support it—are worthless because there’s no evidence that it improves learning. Just test scores. So my argument has been that if we’re going to dedicate ourselves to meaningful change, we need to shift our focus from details of implementation to underlying premises, and from how to why.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also published interviews with Diane Ravitch, and the contributors to Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013) edited by Helen Janc Malone, have participated in a series of blogs from Education Week.

Attempting change from within: Student-centered learning in Mexico

Is it possible to radically challenge education systems and alter them from inside those systems? That’s exactly what Delila López, director of community education and social inclusion for the National Council for Educational Development (CONAFE) says her organization is trying to do throughout Mexico.  Santiago Rincón-Gallardo discussed some of this work in an IEN interview  in 2014. In that interview, Rincón-Gallardo focused on the Learning Communities Project, which provides radically student-centered learning to students in rural Mexico.  This post takes a deeper look at the CONAFE organization. Drawing on an interview conducted with López and two of her colleagues, Gabriel Camara and Ernesto Ponce, we describe some of the history of CONAFE as well as their new program, Aprender con Base en la Comprension y el Dialogo (ABCD, or Learning Based on Dialogue and Understanding) that launched in July 2016.

Since 1971, the CONAFE has been dedicated to community education.  Due to its success, CONAFE has become part of Mexico’s ministry of education (called SEP), but operates semi-autonomously. Working from preschool through secondary school, they offer schools and programs for indigenous students and students who would not otherwise have access to schools throughout Mexico. In the process, CONAFE fits into Mexico’s overall education system by offering access to school in communities that SEP does not have the capacity to reach. Yet, CONAFE is more than a simple extension of SEP that provides access to schools in rural areas.

CONAFE’s central mission is to create community schools run by communities. To do so, they have developed a specific approach and recognizable model for schooling. Using this approach and model, CONAFE has reached hundreds of communities and created 9000 schools throughout Mexico, including 35 telesecundarias (distance learning schools). While CONAFE is now present throughout Mexico, Camara describes the push for this model of education as something that has developed little by little over the course of decades.

The CONAFE model is a loose structure of schools based on community engagement. In addition to starting new schools in indigenous communities, these schools reflect a pedagogical model deeply linked to the community in which the school exists. The CONAFE offers curricular materials and support such as Spanish language textbooks, but the organization’s design is to build schools that the community ultimately owns and directs. Furthermore, curriculum emerges based on students’ interests in subjects and themes.

This model may appear simple but it is also radically different than the dominant education model in Mexico. Given its intention to create schools that are spaces run by local communities, CONAFE takes steps to ensure that local cultural practices and beliefs drive the school’s structure. For instance, teachers must be able to teach in students’ first language, which is often an indigenous language. Deeply influenced by the work of Paulo Freire (in fact, Camara was a student of Freire), curriculum emerges through dialogue, problem-posing, investigation, and research. CONAFE schools may use some materials provided by SEP, but CONAFE schools have not traditionally used a set curriculum package. Instead, students and teachers are encouraged to use their interests to create and pursue learning experiences. In this way, CONAFE schools share much with approaches such as Colombia’s Escuela Nueva, but deviate from these initiatives in the individualizing approach of each school and each student’s experience.

While guided by these principles, CONAFE is not exclusively a cultural learning experience for students and community members. CONAFE presents specific organizational objectives of improving education levels and commitments to schooling from children and families in each community in which it works. A World Bank study found that the CONAFE improves outcomes in “traditional” measures such as primary school math schools and secondary school Spanish language scores on standardized tests. Furthermore, the organization aims to create conditions that allow students to undertake rigorous academic projects (or “journeys” to use Dr. López’s words) based on everyday problems they notice in their communities and schools. While we spoke of many ways in which CONAFE pursues these objectives, one particularly compelling example is its teacher education scholarship and program.

Some students in secondary CONAFE schools are eligible to become instructors in their or other CONAFE schools. Once they complete their secondary school, these teachers receive scholarships to go to a community to live and learn with that community while also learning how to teach. The scholarships typically cover 1 to 2 years of living in a community while training to teach. Dr. López points out that beyond the direct impact on these communities, the program also creates a way for students to continue their education after finishing secondary school. This program closely aligns with the CONAFE’s notion of reciprocal learning, where students, teachers, and communities in general all learn from and teach each other.

In addition to this type of initiative, CONAFE has just launched a new initiative for their schools. This approach extends CONAFE’s work by introducing a more explicit pedagogical model and approach to evaluation that aims to directly impact student learning outcomes. Learning Based in Understanding and Dialogue (Aprender con Base en la Comprension y el Dialogo, or ABCD, in Spanish) encourages children to be autonomous participants that develop their community and understand the broader, global community. ABCD stays true to CONAFE’s focus on increasing school access to those who might not otherwise have access to schools. The model also maintains CONAFE’s community-based approach, where those in the community own and direct the school’s structure and identity. Where ABCD extends previous work is in an explicit focus on building quality learning experiences that lead to more evident student learning outcomes. López provides an example of how ABCD intends to function. When a student demonstrates knowledge or understanding of a theme, a teacher acting as a facilitator asks this student to share their learning and process with other students. Through students developing interests in learning themes and teaching each other through dialogue and collaboration, López suggests that the school’s culture positively develops as well.

As the organization continues to grow with more schools and new programs, the CONAFE has expanded its presence throughout Mexico. With projects like ABCD program, they are also strengthening the work they do in existing schools. The CONAFE program of working within the existing education system might appear daunting. Yet, with thousands of schools, teachers, and students visibly engaged in problem-posing education and community-based education, it is difficult to deny the impact of the CONAFE approach.

Ten notes on systems for assessing learning processes

The International Bureau of Education (IBE) of UNESCO has published a series on current and critical issues in curriculum and learning. They have just released their fifth publication, entitled Ten Notes on Systems for Assessing Learning Processes, which was written by Professor Juan Carlos Tedesco of Argentina. The author shares his perspective on gauging and assessing learning.

Tedesco argues that assessments contribute to competition between schools and lead to increases in inequality, segmentation and inequity, particularly in compulsory education. Tedesco continues,

The measurements enabled us to ratify the existence of a powerful social determinism of the learning outcomes. Above and beyond statistically negligible differences, this is the strongest feature yielded by the measurements. But while the school is scarcely able to break the social determinism of learning outcomes, attention needs to be given to countries that improved social equity but failed to match this with more educational equity. In this respect, the two most interesting cases are those of Uruguay and Argentina. As we know, Uruguay is the country with the best social equity indicators of the region, and yet its results in education do not match these social advances. The high rates of failure at secondary school, where it has not proved possible to modify the traditional highly elitist design, is probably the most eloquent indicator of the difficulty that exists when it comes to reflecting social equity in educational equity. In Argentina, for its part, it is noteworthy that, despite the improved material living conditions of the population since the 2001 crisis, together with better material inputs for learning, no improvements have been recorded in learning outcomes.


By taking a close look at the history of assessment and discussing the strengths and weaknesses often associated with it, Tedesco envisions a more systematic approach to establishing procedures that promote higher levels of equality and social justice.

This fifth issue is currently available in FrenchSpanish, and English.

Click here for more information on the In-Progress Reflection Series.

#JourneystoScale: Documenting efforts to scale up education innovations

screen-shot-2016-10-16-at-3-34-26-pmOn October 10th, the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) and UNICEF published Journeys to Scale, a report that documents the innovative efforts of five organizations as they aim to increase their impact. The organizations profiled in the report include Accelerated School Readiness, Can’t Wait to Learn, EduTrac Peru, Lively Minds, and Palavra de Criança. These are organizations that have been identified as having “high disruption potential,” and the report describes the journey each has taken to scale up their programs.
As CEI and UNICEF explain, in May 2014 they began designing and testing strategies to systematically select and support innovative education models. They received over 150 nominations but selected only 5 finalists. The finalists received funding from UNICEF and support from CEI as they tested and strengthened their scale-up models while collecting evidence on effectivenes. The report, Journeys to Scale, describes the challenges and strategies of these innovations from Brazil, Ehtiopia, Ghana, Peru, and Sudan, and lays out clear recommendations for implementers, donors, policymakers and researchers who want to support innovation.
One category of key findings from the report points to the importance of defining what is meant by both “innovation” and “scaling up.”  As the report explains,
The five innovations challenged ideas about what it means to scale an innovation, highlighting the reality that scaling does not happen in a straightforward manner and that progress is often accompanied by setbacks. They revealed that the conventional idea of scaling as simply the process of reaching more beneficiaries does not account for steps like the inclusion of new services to an existing package of interventions, the formation of new alliances with government and donor partners, and team capacity building.
Therefore, the authors find that scaling is about more than simply increasing the numbers of beneficiaries, and innovation is about more than the intervention itself. Innovation is about a broader and deeper spread of new norms and beliefs.
In addition to the publication of this report, CEI and UNICEF hosted a Twitter chat (#JourneystoScale) to keep the conversation going. See below for a Storify recap of the conversation.