It is all about PISA?

When the latest PISA tests came out, the Estonians were definitely thrilled. Our students ranked third in the whole wide world, compared to the 6th place last year. In natural sciences Estonia is the best in Europe, third in the world. In math, third in Europe, 7-8th globally. These are results that we can, and maybe should, be proud of. Or?

Well, of course. Being at the very top is truly amazing. But as in sport, good results call for sacrifice. Estonian students are generally reported to be rather unhappy at school, they feel that they are overworked, there is way too much homework and they say it is too fact-based, rather than practical for life.

Several questions arise. We may start with the teenagers’ general restless, rebellious and troubled minds, as they definitely can be. Teenage years are confusing at best, brutal for some, with all the changes in the body and mind. Adolescents have a very strong sense of right and wrong, but it might be a little too black and white, and oftentimes they have not yet developed the quality of empathy and willingness to understand that there may be more than one right way to do things and it is not only their way things can be done. Considering all that, are the teenagers really the best decision-makers of what is practical and what not? Without life expericence, they cannot really know, can they? And sometimes, they are just lazy.

Having said that, we may consider Japan. They ranked 6th in the overall PISA result table. They have homework every day, including school holidays, something that the Estonian students would hate and if it were to be made a general rule, all hell would be set loose. There would be no end to complaining, probably parents’ board will start a process to cancel the project etc etc etc. Yet, the Japanese have long schooldays, they go home and continue with homework and as I said, they work even during holidays. How does it make them feel? Well, let me quote a couple of points from

  • Students in Japan have a strong sense of belonging in school, they don’t feel like  outsiders, nor do they feel left out.
  • Students in Japan actually feel happy in school (85 percent of them).
  • Around 91 percent of Japanese students reported that they never, or only in some classes, ignored what the teacher lectured.

I believe that in many schools, Estonian students also have a sense of belonging, my own school among them. I am also pretty sure that not all of them are miserable because I certainly see many happy faces in my classes, even in the middle school grades. But generally I think these are the points we could work on as there have been numerous articles complaining about our students being miserable and constantly tired at school.

I am not saying that it is only the schools’ fault. Japanese culture is probably very much different, the notion of respect to teachers and school as a whole is definitely not the same there. Everything starts from home and until there are parents who do not have a positive attitude about schools and teachers, how can their children have it? So it is kind of a two-way, even a four-way street. Schools, teachers, parents and the students themselves all need to do something to raise not only the quality of the grades but also a more positive outlook.

If you ask me which is more important – good academic results or happy children – I could not answer. Of course it is absolutely crucial that students feel comfortable at school and it should be a place they want to come and which they see as a place to learn, not as a place of torture. But I do not think that it is the schools or even the present system (that, of course, needs to be changed as I discussed in my previous post) are the only things to blame. It is like a relationship status on Facebook – “it is complicated”.


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