Students of Asian economies rank highest in maths, science and reading

The OECD PISA rankings place students of Asian economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea among the highest performing in mathematics, reading and science.

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March 27, 2022 8:42 pm

This is a very interesting topic to me. Since 1985, Kenya has been using the 8-4-4 curriculum. The 8-4-4 curriculum basically means that a student will have to pass 8 years of primary education, 4 years of secondary education and four years for college or university studies.

From 2003, the government introduced free primary school education to ensure all children get an education. Government high schools are divided into national, provincial and district schools. Students who achieve the highest marks in the national primary examination get accepted to government national schools. Students with average marks get admitted to provincial schools and the rest go to district secondary schools.

However, those who fail have the option to pursue any technical or vocational education. The government has continually been looking at ways to improve our country’s human capital. As from 2018, the government announced a new directive on implementing free day secondary education. This means costs will be also subsidized to high school boarders. There are more than 50 (public and private) universities in Kenya. Students with the highest grades in the final national secondary education exam will get 80% of their university cost funded by the government. The above-average students have the option to join campus or university if they are able to fully finance their university life costs.

A few years ago the government introduced a new 2-6-3-3 curriculum education system. It’s a new framework that will help students improve their numeracy, literacy and solid communication verbal and/or non-verbal skills. I have a keen interest in how other countries help their students specialize in specific areas regarding their personality, interest, ability and career choice. In Kenya, the curriculum is enabling students at the age bracket of 15-17 years to focus on their areas of specialization. There is ongoing debate if this is too late…

We look at foreign education systems to see how we can improve our own. I think it’s similar for most African countries. Low-income countries seem to be affected by a low-quality learning crisis. Even in Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa, the percentage of students in late primary who are proficient in reading and mathematics concepts is very low. The unemployment rate is 5.7% as reported by the World Bank. Things on the ground are very different. I would say 4-5 of every 10 graduates will not get employed. Universities and colleges churn out tens of thousands of graduates every year but companies cannot and will not hire the whole lot.

Some of the unemployed get access to capital and start their entrepreneurship journeys. Selling second-hand clothes, online businesses and setting up entertainment joints are among the favourite business choices. Some of the unemployed youth fly to the Middle East for job opportunities, mostly as domestic workers. The rest do anything they can to survive. Our African education systems need a complete overhaul process to come up with curriculums that serve the current market demands.

Tyler Mendoza
June 7, 2022 3:59 pm

The year is 2006. In the bodybuilding scene, a new name is appearing everywhere. He’s a kid. Only 21 years old. An impressive sight. 5’11 and 230 lbs of statuesque muscle. Despite his age, he is being hailed as the next Mr Olympia, the winner of the most prestigious annual bodybuilding competition in the world. He’s already secured a sponsorship from BSN, a reputable supplement company. The future looks bright for this kid. Move over everyone else. Trey Brewer is the one to watch out for.

What went wrong? Trey Brewer had all the potential in the world to be the next bodybuilding phenom. The high expectations everyone had of him contributed to his unraveling. At a 230 lbs contest weight, he looked phenomenal. In the off-season he ballooned up to a monstrous 350 lbs. There was no need for him to get that big, that quick. Taking the slow and steady road is difficult to take when everyone is watching your every move, expecting you to blast the competition out of the water. Brewer’s receptors were fried the serious weight gain didn’t allow him to come back down to the pristine condition he once had. His career was over.

So why this story of Trey Brewer’s journey from the next big thing to a forgotten chapter of bodybuilding history? Pressure up to an extent can produce superb results. Push the needle too far and things can go terribly wrong. Students of Asian economies do perform well in mathematics, science and reading. However this neglects the big picture. They are put under unhealthy levels of pressure. Also acing tests isn’t all that matters. A person’s contribution to society is much greater than your test-taking ability. The pressure of educational achievement in Asian societies has 2 main consequences.

  1. Too much focus on doing well in exams means you have little time to dedicate to other aspects of your life. I believe a well-rounded person contributes more to an economy and society than does a person who can ace tests and not much else.
  2. Burnout. Trey Brewer burnt out. So are millions of Asian students who feel their whole lives depend on exam success. Exam results define them. Is this what a country wants their next generation to believe? That their worth is defined by their test results?

The discrepancy in ability between Asian economies and other regions is something to keep an eye on. I don’t think it is a panic situation. We want students to perform well but not at the expense of their health and self-worth. Remember, Albert Einstein flunked the entrance examination for Zurich Polytechnic. He didn’t do too bad for himself.

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Jason Ng
March 28, 2022 4:09 pm

I think in some western countries there is a feeling that we’re starting to lag behind in academic performance compared to Asian countries like Japan, Singapore and South Korea even though the top 10 universities in the world are located either in Europe or in the USA. It’s when you look at the top 20 when you start seeing Asian institutions breaking through such as NUS (National University of Singapore) or Tsinghua University (Beijing, China). Even so, conversations I have with friends about this is that academic performance is just one component of success, and how you define success is another topic altogether. What’s the point of being a whizz kid in maths if you don’t have the social and collaborative skills to work well with your colleagues?

I remember at my school we had the opportunity to take personality tests (similar to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests) and then we’d have time to speak with a career consultant to talk about our interests, personality test results and potential career paths to pursue. In terms of ages 15-17 being the time for Kenyan students to focus on their areas of specialisation, I don’t think it’s too late at all. For me, I feel that sufficient time needs to be given to people to explore and determine over time where their passions lie. Interestingly some advise you to think about areas of specialisation during or even after university. Whilst some career paths do require a specialised degree, for example Medicine, there also tends to be a lot of flexibility between one’s degree subject and their place of work. You may hear, for example, a person who studied philosophy at university who ended up working for an investment bank or someone who studied literature and ended up working for local government.

Our media can be very self-deprecating and is acutely aware of how our academic performance compares to the best countries. Our problems may lie with our methods. Perhaps we’ve been too focused on memorization and not having students fully grasp the concepts of mathematical problems. On a positive note, it does seem that the curriculum in other subjects is changing with the times. I’ve heard that many schools now teach coding. Also back when I was at school I remember having to learn Latin and French as compulsory subjects. I hear now that many schools are teaching Arabic and Mandarin, which seems to be an acknowledgement of the changing times.

Anita Chan
July 31, 2022 6:21 pm

There are certain strategies Asian economies implement in order to keep their students among the best in the world at maths, science and reading. Take Japan, for example. The government ensures that schools in poorer areas have less students per classroom, providing a high teacher-to-student ratio. This is in stark contrast to other countries that try to cram in as many students into a classroom as possible, making it difficult to give individual attention to each student. The benefit of Japan having a higher teacher-to-student ratio in poorer areas of the country is that it helps socioeconomically disadvantaged students catch up with their more well-off counterparts.

We also cannot ignore the how intertwined education and status is in Asian economies. In South Korea, educational attainment is one of the most important things in the mind of a teenager and young adult. Status is dependent on educational attainment, less so on hereditary wealth. The United States serves as a counterexample as outlined in the books “The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges, And Who Gets Left Outside the Gates” by Daniel Golden and “Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal” by Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz.

The downside to such emphasis on educational attainment in Asian economies is the pressure that accompanies it. In a recent conversation with a Japanese friend, he recounted to me how he thought his life was over after getting average grades in high school. In other countries, we would surely be disappointed with getting grades below our expectations but I don’t think we would go as far as to think our lives were over. The price Asian economies have to pay to be among the best in the world at maths, science and reading can be heavy. In incredibly competitive societies such as South Korea, students will spend up to 13 or 14 hours a day studying for the College Scholastic Ability Test. Squid Game, when viewed as a symbolic representation of Korean society, isn’t so far-fetched after all.