Governments in the high-performing education systems of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore have been actively implementing a drastic and comprehensive school reform agenda to redress the inadequacies and biases of their traditional education systems, a new study has found.

The research, conducted by Mitchell Institute Professorial Fellow Yong Zhao, shows that despite their outstanding performance in international testing, these top four Asian systems have been working to create radically different public education models.

“Educational leaders in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore understand that to thrive in a globalised, technologically sophisticated economy, students need much more than what can be measured with test scores in a few academic subjects”, said Professor Zhao.

“While they are proud of their achievements, there is widespread rejection of traditional education policies and practices such as rote learning, narrow and standardised curricula, long hours, and harsh testing regimes.”

“What I have found is that these systems are prioritising twenty-first century skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration, and higher order thinking, as well as emphasising student social-emotional and physical health,” he said.

“They know they need highly skilled, independent and emotionally intelligent young people who are well prepared for the future.”

Western education reforms that play 'catch up’ with the Asian systems of the past are at risk of becoming obsolete in the very near future

Professor Yong Zhao, Lessons that matter: What should we learn from Asia’s school systems?

As part of his research, Professor Zhao analysed major reform documents and interviewed experienced education “insiders” working in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore who described how these systems are actively pursuing sweeping reforms that challenge the tradition of meritocracy and support localised curricula, educational autonomy, and de-centralisation – among many other initiatives.

In the report, Yong Zhao writes that those inside Asian education point to indicators such as a shortage of creative and entrepreneurial talents, high levels of student depression and anxiety, declining physical health, and excessive academic burden as reasons behind the reforms.

Professor Zhao, argues that in contrast to these leading systems, Western countries, including Australia, are narrowing their view of success and looking to emulate traditional models in an effort to improve performance rankings.

“Imitating traditional policies and practices that produce students who perform well in tests is very short sighted. Essentially, Western education reforms that play 'catch up’ with the Asian systems of the past are at risk of becoming obsolete in the very near future,” he said.

The report Lessons that matter: What should we learn from Asia's school systems? is being released by the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy, Victoria University on Thursday 28 May 2015 at the Country Education Partnership conference in Melbourne.

Mitchell Professorial Fellow Yong Zhao currently serves as the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the College of Education, University of Oregon, where he is also a Professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership.