Learning by heart may not be best for your mind

by Alfonso Echazarra

Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

PISA 2012 Released Mathematics Item (Proficiency Level 6)

Some of the greatest geniuses had remarkable memories. Mozart, according to legend, sat and listened to Allegri’s “Miserere”, then transcribed the piece of music, entirely from memory, later in the day. Kim Peek, the savant who was the inspiration for the blockbuster film, Rain Man, memorised as many as 12 000 books. But unlike Mozart, who composed more than 600 works during his brief life, Peek was unable to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant, or discover hidden meanings and metaphors in the texts he had committed to memory.

What do these stories have to do with learning mathematics? Or, put another way: in light of these stories, how would you encourage students to learn mathematics? By understanding what mathematics concepts, procedures and formulae mean and applying them to a lot of different maths problems set in a lot of different contexts? Or by learning them by heart and applying them to a lot of similar maths problems? Sooner or later, the method matters. Students who avoid making an effort to understand mathematics concepts may succeed in some school environments; but a lack of deep, critical and creative thinking may seriously penalise these students later in life when confronted with real, complex problems. As Albert Einstein provocatively said: “Any fool can know; the point is to understand”.
A similar message is relayed in this month’s PISA in Focus and a new OECD paper on education, “How teachers teach and students learn: Successful strategies for school”. The analyses show that students who mainly use memorisation when they study do well on easy questions. For example, “CHARTS Q1”, a multiple-choice question from the PISA 2012 test, refers to a simple bar chart and is considered one of the easiest questions in the mathematics assessment. Some 87% of students answered this question correctly. Students who reported that they use some type of memorisation strategy when they study mathematics, such as learning by heart, recalling work already done or going through examples again and again, had about the same success rate on this easy item as students who reported using other learning strategies.
But complex problems are a different matter; they require more than a good memory. For the most challenging question from the PISA 2012 mathematics test, “REVOLVING DOOR Q2”, students who reported using mainly memorisation strategies were much less likely than students using other strategies, such as connecting ideas or working out exactly what is important to learn, to answer correctly. Answering “REVOLVING DOOR Q2” correctly requires substantial geometric reasoning and creativity, involves multiple steps, and draws heavily on students’ ability to translate a real situation into a mathematical problem. Only 3% of participants answered this question correctly.
The findings also show that, contrary to received wisdom, East Asian students are not necessarily the ones who use memorisation strategies the most. Memorisation is used almost everywhere, but fewer 15-year-olds in Hong Kong-China, Japan, Korea, Macao-China, Shanghai-China, Chinese Taipei and Viet Nam reported using it than students in, let’s say, English-speaking countries to whom they are often compared. For instance, 5% of students in Viet Nam, 12% of students in Japan and 17% of students in Korea reported that they learn as much as they can by heart when they study mathematics, compared to 26% of students in Canada, 28% in Ireland, 29% in the United States, 35% in Australia and New Zealand, and 37% in the United Kingdom.
In some situations, memorisation is useful, even necessary. It can give students enough concrete facts on which to reflect; it can limit anxiety by reducing mathematics to a set of simple facts, rules and procedures; and it can help to develop fluency with numbers early in a child’s development, before the child is asked to tackle more complex problems. But to perform at the very top, 15-year-olds need to learn mathematics in a more reflective, ambitious and creative way – one that involves exploring alternative ways of finding solutions, making connections, adopting different perspectives and looking for meaning. So yes, you can use your memory; just use it strategically, lest Einstein call you a fool.

PISA in Focus No. 61: Is memorisation a good strategy for learning mathematics? by Alfonso Echazarra
PISA á la loupe No. 61: La mémorisation : Une stratégie payante pour l’apprentissage des mathématiques?
How teachers teach and students learn: Successful strategies for school.
PISA Try the Test: Explore PISA 2012 Mathematics, problem solving and financial literacy test question
Source: PISA 2012 Released Mathematics Items

Is international academic migration stimulating scientific research and innovation?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Higher education and academic research are among the most rapidly globalising systems. Today, around 5 million students study and do research in a country other than their own, attracted by the quality of overseas universities and willing to complement their education portfolio with international experience. Employers generally value the impact international education has on the skills and mind-set of graduates, and see international experience as indispensable for future global leaders.

But in an age when governments are increasingly concerned about rising levels of migration and are making their migration policies more stringent, international student mobility is also being scrutinised. Some countries impose stricter visa requirements or limitations on the time for international students to stay in the country. Others make it more difficult for graduates to stay and work in the country where they have studied. The prospect of losing the economic returns from international students and the income provided by fee-paying students does not seem to dissuade some governments from imposing stricter regulations on international students.

The recent Education Indicators in Focus brief looks in more detail at the international mobility of master’s and doctoral students. The mobility of doctoral students is of special concern because of its relevance to research policy. The chart above illustrates the close relationship between the number of international doctoral students in a country and the country’s commitment to research, as measured by spending on R&D in tertiary education. Countries with a large share of international doctoral students are also countries that invest a lot in research.

The chart does not suggest any causality. In fact, there are two ways to interpret the relationship. Countries with relatively high levels of investment in university research are probably well-integrated in global research networks. International collaboration naturally leads to an exchange of researchers. Favourable research climates, high levels of investment and the prospect of collaborating with researchers working at the cutting edge in their fields offer attractive opportunities for young doctoral researchers.

The global research landscape is diversifying. Next to the academic centres in the United States and the United Kingdom, new strongholds of global academic research are emerging in countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. These countries have opened up their universities for international researchers, and now 30%, 40% or even more than 50% of the doctoral students in these countries are of foreign origin.

But it could very well be that the causality also works in the other direction. Higher numbers of international researchers probably contribute to the global competiveness of academic research by strengthening integration in research networks or by facilitating international knowledge transfer. We can find support for this hypothesis in comparing our data on the percentage of international doctoral students with OECD data on the share of publications in the top 10% academic journals. The strong country-level correlation between both sets of data suggests that doctoral students have a positive impact on the quantity and quality of scientific research in the host country. In turn, this could prompt governments to increase their R&D spending on universities. Indirectly, international students then contribute to the innovation process and the development of a research-intensive knowledge economy in the host country.

The case of Switzerland is telling. A small country in the heart of Europe that is now fiercely debating migration policy, Switzerland has opened up its universities to international researchers and doctoral students, while at the same time increasing its R&D investment. Anyone who looks at international rankings has noticed that Switzerland is rising rapidly up the global academic hierarchy. Sweden and the Netherlands are close behind. This is no coincidence.

Current debates about international student mobility tend to overemphasise the benefits for the individual student or the financial returns for the host institution or host country. But it is also important to look into the wider benefits of academic migration. Laboratories and research centres at the frontier of their fields cannot do without strong integration in global networks and without international researchers. Progress in scientific research happens by sharing and confronting ideas, questioning established wisdom and looking at the world from different perspectives. International exchange and mobility of doctoral researchers is absolutely critical to this. Countries that curtail academic mobility risk paying a high price.

The internationalisation of doctoral and master's studies, Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 39, by Gabriele Marconi.
L’internationalisation des études de doctorat et de master, Les indicateurs de l'éducation à la loupe, issue No. 39 (French Version).

Graph sources: OECD Education Database, http://stats.oecd.org/, (accessed 21 January 2016), and OECD (2015a), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2015-en, Table B1.2.

We can do better on education reform

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would equip their students with the skills needed for the rest of their lives. Today, teachers need to prepare students for more change than ever before, for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve social problems that we just can’t imagine. And many of the world’s social and economic difficulties end up on the doorsteps of schools too.
So expectations for teachers are high. We expect them to have a deep understanding of what they teach; to be passionate, compassionate and thoughtful; to make learning central and encourage students’ engagement and responsibility; to respond effectively to students of different needs, backgrounds and mother tongues, and to promote tolerance and social cohesion; to provide continual assessments of students and feedback; and to ensure that students feel valued and included and that learning is collaborative. And we expect teachers themselves to collaborate and work in teams, and with other schools and parents, to set common goals, and plan and monitor the attainment of goals collaboratively.
That’s a long list. But it reflects the transition from an industrial work organisation towards a professional work organisation that many sectors of our economies went through a long time ago. People typically define professionalism as the level of autonomy and internal regulation that members of an occupation exercise. So they look to see whether people work mainly through external forces exerting pressure and influence on them, or whether the work is the outcome of advanced skills, internal motivation and the efforts of the members of the profession itself.
As OECD data show, when rated on their knowledge base for teaching, their decision-making power over their work and their opportunities for exchange and support, teachers still have significant challenges ahead of them. Rarely do teachers own their professional standards, and rarely do they work with the level of professional autonomy and in the collaborative work culture that we, in other knowledge-based professions, take for granted.
But our data also show that where teachers teach a class jointly, where they regularly observe other teachers’ classes, and where they take part in collaborative professional learning, they are more satisfied with their careers and feel more effective in their teaching.
It’s time for governments, teachers’ unions and professional bodies to redefine the role of teachers, and to create the support and collaborative work organisation that will help teachers grow in their careers and meet the needs of 21st-century students. And that’s precisely why ministers and union leaders from the world’s most advanced education systems are gathering in Berlin this week at the sixth International Summit on the Teaching Profession.They are well aware that education reform will always be difficult.
Everyone supports education reform – except when it may affect their own children. Everyone has participated in education and has an opinion about it. Reform is difficult to co-ordinate across an education system, and across multiple regional and local jurisdictions. And the fear of loss of privilege is particularly pervasive around education reform, simply because of the extent of vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
The summit will examine plenty of examples of successful reforms around the world that have already improved student learning outcomes. But education systems can and should be doing better. Both the lack of coherence in reform efforts across successive governments and the fact that just one in ten reforms is subject to any kind of evaluation of its impact or efficacy is inexcusable. It shows a lack of respect for both taxpayers and educators at the frontline. At the OECD, we’ve identified six crucial actions needed to make education reform happen.
The first is to strive for consensus about the aims of reform without compromising the drive for improvement. That means acknowledging divergent views and interests. Involving stakeholders cultivates a sense of joint ownership over policies, and helps build consensus on both the need for and the relevance of reform. Regular consultations help to develop trust among all parties, which, in turn, helps to build consensus.
The second lesson is to engage teachers not just in implementing reform but in designing it too. Policy can encourage that through leadership-development strategies that create and sustain learning communities, linking evidence of teachers’ commitment to professional learning to pay, providing seed money for self-learning in and among schools, or through professional self-regulation through processes and organisations that include teachers.
Third, experimenting with policies on a smaller scale first can help build consensus on implementation and, because of their limited scope, can help overcome fears and resistance to change.
Fourth, backing reforms with sustainable financing will always be central. This is not only about money; it’s first and foremost about building professional capacity and support.
Fifth, timing and sequencing are always critical. We need to acknowledge that it is rarely possible to predict clear, identifiable links between policies and outcomes, especially given the lag involved between the time at which the initial cost of reform is incurred, and the time when it is evident whether the intended benefits of reforms actually materialise. Everyone needs to develop realistic expectations about the pace and nature of reform – even in the heat of debate. Time is also needed to learn about and understand the impact of reform measures, build trust and develop the necessary capacity to move on to the next stage of policy development.
Last but not least, success is about building partnerships with education unions. Putting the teaching profession at the heart of education reform requires a fruitful dialogue between governments and unions. At the end of the day, different perspectives and positions are best addressed by strong social partnerships.