Parents can be forgiven for being stymied by the conflicting advice about how to give our children their best schooling experience. They need to play in the snow like the Finnish kids, experience early discipline as per Singapore, take responsibility for their school like they do in Japan, work all hours to mimic South Korean students, mastering another language like the International Baccalaureate kids of the world, and do it while learning to code and making it to Saturday sport like all the other Aussie kids. So, what’s worth your attention and what’s educational poppycock?
Accept that different advice works for different children
Every child is unique so different ideas will stand out as valuable or laughable at various times. The key is to find what actually fosters enjoyment in your child. Cross reference your child’s face against the emojis on your phone and you’ll be sure what educational practices they enjoy and which can be recycled back into the world Marie Kondo-style with gratitude and relief.
Be aware when discussing these things, though, that the idea you couldn’t drop fast enough might be a life saver for the parent next to you at swimming lessons. Let’s embrace (and then privately edit) each other’s ideas — there’s no one true path, nor indeed is there an educational utopia!
Educational advice isn’t black and white
If we’re talking about learning in different countries, we have to avoid the trap of imagining that any nation has a consistent cohort of students. We can identify nations with their reputed practices and say things like, ‘Finnish kids don’t do homework’ or ‘South Korean kids go to hagwons all night’, but what does that mean? It means that some students in the political entities of Finland and South Korea have engaged in this practice, which is different from many other practices and is therefore noteworthy.
Every teacher in the world is different — some set homework, some just set leftover classwork, and others will do a mix through the year. Some kids will choose to work on their own projects after school, practice at all hours, and get ahead of the textbook. Generalisations are handy for politicians and dinner conversations, but let’s not undermine the complexity of any other nation’s system in our efforts to improve our own.
So, what’s worth taking home, and what should we leave at the airport?
Play is at the heart of learning but you still need to figure out what works for your child. Some kids might well thrive in the Nordic snow. Other times play looks like imitating older siblings, rolling around libraries, coding, watching bugs, or even sitting quietly alone. If you’re prioritising play, remember to check what your child is enjoying because a dream play session for one child might be a living nightmare for another. Play is defined by its ultimate enjoyment, so we don’t get to decide what constitutes play to our kids.
Respect for teachers produces the best results
The nations consistently topping the PISA rankings — Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Finland — all report that their teachers are respected, their schools are immaculate and their students take personal responsibility for their learning. This reflects a fundamental respect for the power of education to change lives and generate opportunities — something that those of us in systems that have provided free and accessible education for several generations have a tendency to forget.
If you want to take something from international education, make it respect — for your child’s capacity to learn, their school’s dedication to helping them and their teachers’ lifelong commitment to providing students with opportunities to change their lives for the better.
But what about specific learning practices, like homework?
Learning is a responsive, individual and complex process. The most effective learning is about articulating the student’s needs, goals and strengths, charting a course forward, and then applying the best known methods to help them move forward.
Australian teachers are some of the most rigorously-trained in the world. On average, they work 44.8 hours each week while being paid for 35. That’s the equivalent of an average Australian worker donating their entire year’s leave to their boss. Their professional choices are recorded, monitored and reviewed at every turn, so it’s worth trusting their responses, building a relationship with them and working together to help your child over time.
The one factor that unifies the disparate and often contradictory international research, puffery and branding, is that we all want our kids to be happy. Humans are predisposed to learn — we can hardly stop ourselves. So the way to raise your education system’s international standing is to show off how happy your young people are, while they’re doing what they were going to do anyway. We don’t have measures for happiness, but we do have measures for unhappiness (sadly, the nations with the highest ranking education systems also have the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world).
Equally, we can’t award ATARs based on how much joy a child took from their education. All we can do is try to minimise opportunities to stamp out the joy in education. Here are a few things to try.
Instead of structuring your child’s after school reading, ask them what they want to do. If they volunteer to read to you, great! Let them choose the book and be ready to help with tricky words. If they want you to read to them, also fantastic! Get caught up in the story and they will too. And they’ll remember the character voices for the rest of their lives! If some siblings are making fun of how one still has to practise reading, challenge them to act things out as the story’s read. Even if you only get through a page where you’d normally get through a chapter, a single smile (or a whole set of them) will bring your child back to the book on another occasion and that’s where the learning happens.
Instead of practising the times tables all in a row, ask your child to show you maths in your home. You might find yourself counting the bathroom tiles, trying to remember what Fibonacci means while looking at a pineapple, upending the spare change jar, or analysing the nutrition information on the cereal box in greater depth than you’d ever imagined. A reliable shortcut to finding the joy in education is giving children supported agency!
Rather than measuring language success by progress through a workbook, ask your child what they’d like to be able to do in another language. You might have to hunt through the TV guide and record SBS, but maybe you can measure success via a new ability to decode the news in the target language. Maybe it’s time to go deep into the Eurovision archives of YouTube and learn a whole song in another language, complete with dance moves. Be prepared to get involved — you can’t have a family song-off without parental participation!
Instead of asking your child how their day was, ask how their teacher’s day was. The first time you do this you may not get an answer, but the second time you’ll learn a lot. Even if they don’t remember the names of all the research stations in Antarctica, children do notice what’s going on in the classroom and if you ask them to notice, they’ll up their game. They might tell you that the teacher had to deal with someone else being too silly, a medical emergency, a terrifying insect or respond flexibly when the whole class was too excited to work after assembly. Asking kids to tune in to their teachers will humanise them, build respect and help them to control their relationship with their school.
Once you pop, you’ll struggle to stop. These four experiments make use of international research in a way that promotes joy, respect and bonding in learning. If we can stop fixating on what’s giving that collectively imagined happy, clever, Finnish child the competitive edge over our own real, complex, ever-changing children, we just might make enough room in our hectic afternoon schedules for world-leading, playful, joyful education.