Educating for the future: The case of East Asia

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Photo by World/Bank

The purpose of any education system is to equip learners with the ability to live a fulfilling and productive life. Currently, East Asia is home to seven of the top ten education systems in the world. Despite impressive achievements, these above-average performing systems are not resting on their accomplishments—they continue to deepen the quality of education, tying learning to new and emerging needs. Central to the region’s curriculum reform is a focus on teaching and measuring 21st century skills.

Among countries with the strongest education systems, attention is shifting from a uniform, teacher-centered, exam-oriented pedagogy towards diverse, student-centered learning pathways that aim to instill capabilities for lifelong learning. This shift represents an increased focus on 21st century skills under three categories: 1) Learning and Innovation, 2) Digital Literacies, and 3) Life and Career Skills.
In short, East Asia aspires for its students to know themselves, relate well with others and be worldly as well as think creatively and independently with a sea of ubiquitous knowledge at their fingertips.
Learning to learn: Curriculum for the 21st century
In Singapore, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Hong Kong (China), 21st century curricular reforms are about doing education differently. Recognizing the fast-changing and increasingly knowledge-based global economy, they are placing more curricular emphasis on “learning to learn” so students can develop the flexibility and adaptability to keep pace with dynamic labor market demands.
Specifically, they have set forth new target goals, a new format for the curriculum, and different preferred pedagogies. Countries are reducing the set curriculum. In Hong Kong, for example, it was decreased to four key learning areas. In Japan, 30 percent of its formal curriculum has been reduced, and in Singapore, one third of the formal curriculum has been cut.
Among the leading education systems in the region, there is also a common shift away from knowledge acquisition (historically based on rote memorization) toward development of competencies (or skills). In Japan, for example, the change is manifested and framed away from “what do students know” towards “what can they do with what they know.” Examples of how this is demonstrated in classrooms include project-based activities, problem- and theme-based integrated learning, experiential learning, and activities that involve group-based research, debate, discussions and presentations.
Towards student-centered assessments
In several countries in East Asia, there is recognition that assessment formats should move away from summative functions to performance-based, formative functions, enhancing curricular emphasis on learning to learn. By doing so, the goal is to create assessments that empower learners to conduct self-directed learning activities, and teachers to abandon teaching-to-the-test and mere transmission of information.
Recently, some countries in the region with historically high scores on PISA and TIMSS have made efforts to reduce high stakes testing, introducing more student-centered, process-oriented assessments. In 2014, Japan proposed an alternative examination to be implemented starting in 2019, which will deemphasize rote memorization while prioritizing students’ critical thinking, reasoning, and expression skills. In a similar effort, South Korea has implemented an exam-free semester (introduced in 2013, pilot-tested for two years, and implemented nationwide in 2016), which allows teachers to make flexible use of the curriculum for a period of one semester, encouraging student participation through discussion and practice.
While the need for 21st century skills is well recognized across the region, understanding, defining and changing teaching and assessment practices to better support learning and measurement of these skills remains a challenge. 
There is now more demand and expectation of teachers and they are responding by working longer hours. Assessments have also become more complex now that students are learning to learn rather than simply memorizing information. Evaluating learning that is inherently process-based, such as reasoning or interpersonal skills, is challenging and difficult to define. This approach also requires deeper engagement from parents and communities to understand and support this change – a shift from emphasizing content-based to competency-based learning. These challenges signal a continued work ahead and the need for sharing of best practices among countries.
Thus far, the process of 21st century curriculum reform in East Asia has made three things clear:
1. Socioemotional skills reinforce cognitive skills
Across the region, attainment of basic competencies in literacy and numeracy, particularly in the less-developed countries of the region, remains a concern. International assessments, such as TIMSS and PISA, reveal that while the region has some of the highest performing education systems, it also has some of the lowest. Cognitive (reading, writing, arithmetic, etc.) and socioemotional skills (conscientiousness, teamwork, empathy, etc.) reinforce one another. Individuals with characteristics such as drive, diligence, perseverance, or good social skills are more likely to apply themselves to acquiring cognitive skills, as well as to have positive relationships with others. Acquiring an early solid base of both is critical because together, they set the course of our life trajectories.
2. Assess students to inform learning
Even the best teachers cannot teach around the test. A much stronger focus on competency-based assessment is needed, so that cram schools, widespread extracurricular tutoring, and teaching-to-the-test can truly become things of the past. 
3. Select and support teachers throughout their careers
To help teachers become more efficient in implementing 21st century curricular reform, more and better pre- and in-service teacher training and development are needed. In Japan, there are schools whose teachers succeed in linking learning to daily life experiences by closely collaborating with the community. In Indonesia, a movement is underway towards using active learning methods in various subjects.
Several countries in East Asia have already begun transforming learning for the 21st century. In order for this transformation to fully take place, sustained political commitment, institutional alignment, continuous professional support for teachers – including strategies to reduce their working hours, and stronger capacity development in competency-based teaching and testing are needed.

At the time the research was being conducted and the blog being written, both Raja and May worked in the East Asia and Pacific region at the World Bank. They now both work in the Middle East and North Africa Region.


Raja Bentaouet Kattan

Advisor to the Education Global Practice

May Bend

Senior Consultant

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