Andreas Schleicher: on how to reform Lithuanian education system

A school in Finland
DELFI / Ugnė Karaliūnaitė

What the country’s education is today, such is the state economy tomorrow. Based on this axiom, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), prior to accepting Lithuania into its ranks, performed an analysis of education conditions and presented recommendations.

What should Lithuania do so that its education (and at the same time itself) would not be stuck in mediocrity, Lietuvos Žinios discussed this with the OECD Education and Skills Directorate director, international student achievement research PISA creator Andreas Schleicher, who is seen as one of the foremost education experts in the world and who presented the OECD recommendations in Vilnius.

Score five out of ten

The expert notes that while some believe that crude oil is the basis of economic success, it is clear that human talent is becoming the most significant value because companies need talented employees.

While A. Schleicher states that Lithuania has made strides in the education sector over the past ten years, society is developing much faster than developments in the education system can keep up. Namely this expanding gap is what demands change.

When asked how he would score Lithuania on a ten point scale, he gave the country a five. He points out that while it is good that mandatory education will be begun earlier, from the age of six, it is important to ensure the connection between pre-school education and school, particularly when children in rural areas may have limited access to pre-school education which can cause difficulties in terms of not only knowledge, but also social and emotional capacities when first coming to school.

Another problem identified by the expert was that there is too little investment into the professional development of educators and increased professional cooperation between educators, which is what he believes would raise the prestige of the profession.

Regarding the university system, A. Schleicher points out that the system is too fragmented, with too many minor universities which will struggle to survive. Nevertheless he admits that it is difficult to optimise the network and quips that “frogs will never drain the swamp.” Finally in terms of vocational education, he states that it needs better integration with the secondary education system, something that should not require much financial investment, but would bring the public much benefit.

Attention to pre-schoolers, rural children and boys

While the European leader in education, Finland, actually has a shorter school year and children begin school from the age of seven, the expert points out that this can work if quality education can be achieved over this shorter period and that is something to work toward.

“The OECD highlights rural children: how to improve their achievements, whether it is necessary to invest in rural school or close them and take the children to the cities. Lithuania has already done much in consolidation the school network, closing small schools in rural areas. Perhaps even more need to be closed, but now the main challenge is to attract highly qualified teachers to rural areas,” A. Schleicher states, emphasising that other countries have managed this, such as China where talented teachers wish to work in the challenging environment of rural schools, where they can aim to push the school to a higher quality level, becoming education stars.

In terms of further issues within the education system in Lithuania, A. Schleicher states that there is significant proof that the practice of teaching several grades together at once, as is done in some small schools, is ineffective. “A class needs to have not only a critical mass of students, but also of teachers. If a school only has a few teachers, that means there are no professional communities and opportunities to exchange professional experience. Thus many things which are very important to a teacher’s work simply cannot occur in such small schools,” he states.

With Lithuanian boys being behind girls according to the PISA research, particularly in reading, A. Schleicher explains that Lithuanian education is being done by women for girls, with it being very important to realise how different children are and how different their learning processes are. As such he stresses that it is important to ensure that everyone is involved and interested in their learning, everyone is granted help.

When asked how to overcome the difficulty of both lacking equal learning opportunities and at the same time lacking children with the highest achievement levels and whether prestige schools for the best are a solution, the expert notes that it is a mistaken view that some are talented and others not, but instead that teachers need to reveal what talents individual students have and help nurture them, the Finnish case being a success story in that, with teachers dedicating much attention to revealing and nurturing students’ talents. In the end elite schools are not a solution because they too have the same problems as regular schools, considering that all students’ levels will not be equal anyway.

While A. Schleicher finds the Lithuanian exam system to be good, he finds that schools rarely use the exam results to improve the teaching process, rather viewing exams as a burden which take away from teaching, not the opposite.

Education quality – teacher quality

“Lithuania’s problem is that attention is too focused on the studies of future teachers, but too little attention is dedicated to their further professional development,” A. Schleicher states, pointing to the development of technologies and how 20 years ago it was impossible to predict how schools and teaching would change, while teachers could not use the technologies when they were studying themselves. As such the key issue is how to ensure they become good teachers, how they communicate experience and how educator communities gather.

The expert uses the example of Shanghai in China where teachers have an internet platform where they share lesson plans, to point to the benefits of modern technologies. In the long run this is linked to the reputation of teachers – the more other teachers download one’s lesson plans, read, use and evaluate them, the higher the authority of this teacher becomes in the broader education community. At the end of the year what becomes visible is not just how students see their teacher in helping them learn, but also how other teachers do, how much help they received in developing professionally.

In this regard A. Schleicher believes Lithuania is doing too little, with pedagogical students being sent immediately to teach, but there is little help to actually develop professionally. In order to ensure the best individuals go to schools, the expert states, it is necessary to grant them career, professional and intellectual development opportunities. He points to the example of Singapore where teachers begin teaching with a bachelor’s degree, but during work also earn master’s degrees and some – doctorates and perform pedagogics research. “Theory and practice are not different worlds, it is crucial to build bridges between them,” he emphasises.

In terms of funding, the expert notes that it is not just wages that can be used to encourage young teachers. Luxembourg may have high teacher wages, but also struggles to attract talented youth to the education sector. Instead, he says, it is important to make teaching work more intellectually appealing. As for the Lithuanian government plan to implement the class “basket” system of funding, A. Schleicher believes that this only encourages to keep as many small classes as possible and discourages making teaching more effective, competing for students.

Good systems are those that “learn”

The expert outlines that there are things to learn from a variety of countries. “For example Singapore has excellent teaching programmes, Finland – excellent teachers. The best are those education systems where teachers are prepared to learn from other teachers, schools – from other schools and systems from the best education systems in the world,” he says, reminding that the 2012 invitation of the UK minister of education for several tens of teachers from Shanghai to visit was initially received with scepticism, but several years later Shanghai became the most popular destination for British teachers to raise their qualifications at.

The countries to have made the greatest strides since 2001, when the PISA research was begun, were Portugal in Europe, Columbia in South America and practically all countries in Asia evenly. When asked about the success of the Estonian education system in the evaluations, A. Schleicher notes that a great deal of attention was dedicated to teaching quality, with much work also being done in attracting talented individuals to teach, with them being granted opportunities for professional development. “Teaching quality cannot not depend on teacher quality. As teacher, as school,” he says.

Lithuania’s results in the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement TIMSS research are better than in the OECD’s PISA. The expert explains that the TIMMS puts more emphasis on learning retention, something the PISA does not emphasise. “Are we made successful in life by how much we recall from our school learning or to what extent we can creatively use that knowledge in new circumstances?” he asks.

A. Schleicher points out that what the country’s education is today, such is the state economy tomorrow, the two being strongly linked. And while some may say that oil is the basis of economic success, it is clear that human talent is increasingly becoming the more significant value because companies need talented employees.

The idea of organising the PISA research itself was born from education representatives from numerous countries boasting that their education is the best, with few problems left to resolve. PISA was created as a mirror which would allow countries to self-reflect and compare with others, a platform was needed to learn from the best.

The research itself is also being adapted to better reflect contemporary circumstances, observations are made on what competences rise in prominence. In 2015 the tests were made to include tasks that involve cooperation skills, in 2018 testing will include tasks that require viewing the world from various perspectives, working in multicultural contexts. In 2021 emphasis will be made on creativity. “The world is changing and PISA has to change,” A. Schleicher concludes.

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