Thursday, 14 May 2015


The National 15 May 2015-05

Singapore has emerged top in mathematics and science among 76 countries in what is being touted as the most comprehensive picture possible of countries’ skill levels.

And analysis of 40 years of data in this Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development has highlighted the correlation between cognitive skills and economic growth.

The ranking pulls together the latest test scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment for 15 year olds and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study for 14 year olds in 2012 1nd 2011.

The end result has put Asia on top. Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan’s Taipei city ranked right after Singapore. Ghana and South Africa took the last two spots.
Japan and Taiwan both ranked fourth. Vietnam was the next highest at 12th place ahead of Germany and Australia. The United Kingdom was ranked 20th while the United States was ranked 28th.

Comment: Times have changed over the last 60 years. There was a time when the United States was horrified that USSR had the technology to put a satellite into outer space. It was assumed that the US led the world in science and technology.

In the post war period, the US spent much money in aid to the developing nations of Asia to stem the forecast expansion of Communist China. Australia offered scholarships to Asian nations under the Colombo Plan for students to study in Australia. Times are changing.

Over the last two decades, Asian nations developed extensive computer technology which would have required a high level of Mathematics and Science among the new generations of workers.

As developing countries, the Asian nations did not have the broad scope of study that other nations had with a sector that required a wide range of skills in humanity studies.

Japan is ahead in Mathematics and Science but also allows wholesale killing of whales and dolphins.

Those countries with mainly an urban sector found it necessary to focus on high technology as the primary secondary industry for a relatively narrow sector of workers.

Competition in Asian high technology nations is fierce with children having to study from kindergarten and return for coaching in the school holidays. We regularly read of suicide among children who did not succeed in study.

It is certain that the standard of Mathematics and Science is high in these Asian countries combined with a strong family work ethic.

But it would be interesting to examine the process by which the above survey was carried out. Are the 14 and 15 year olds in each country all from the same grade and studying the same Mathematics and Science?

In Papua New Guinea, 15 year old students are usually in grade 8. In Australia, with the starting age at 5 years old, the 15 year old is in grade 10. What of the other countries? Was the Mathematics and Science at the same level in all countries?

Were all students in all countries familiar with the topics tested? Was the same test given to all students in all countries? Or were there a number of tests?

Were all students in all countries at the same standard of schools? There is no value in comparing results from a top school in Singapore with a technical school in a poor suburb of Australia. Was the curriculum of the test passed to all nations?

There is nothing more certain that the standard of teaching and curriculum has dropped in Australia and the United States.

There has been over the last 50 years, a progressive “dumbing down” of Education as teachers simplified the teaching of mathematics and writing skills.

Students were to learn to read by reading. They were to learn to write by writing. Mathematics and science curriculum may not have changed since the 1950s.

A lower standard may be blamed on out-of-date curriculum in nations with no high technological focus. Do every nation focus on the same mathematics and science? It has to equate with the levels of development of the nations.

The key problem in the 1950s was that the USSR had put the satellite Sputnik into outer space. So the US was believed by US experts to be no longer the world leader in technology. Today it no longer seems relevant.

But we need to remember that curriculum and learning are more than mathematics and science. There are the humanity subjects of history, economics, geography, biology which gives us a basis of learning about our place in the world.

Mathematics and science are important but are also the subjects of totalitarian regimes starting with Joseph Stalin. It keeps the students' minds off politics. Mathematics and science students may end up more like the school nerds rather than political activists.

Students must not be mere cogs in the national technological machinery. Education has a soul. It is supposed to teach students their worth as individuals and the place of the human race in the world. 

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