Three surprises in the world’s top education systems

Written on 02 May 18 by
Conditions of employment for teachers
Teacher improvement
Cross-national studies


UK educator Lucy Crehan embarked on a global voyage to the world’s top education systems. In the last IIEP Strategic Debate she shared her top three surprises. 

“I’m Lucy, I’m a teacher from England, and I’d love to learn about what you’re doing. I can come teach for free, and can I stay with you?”


This was the opening line that Lucy Crehan, a former science teacher in southwest London, used to call up teachers in some of the world’s top performing education systems. 

“Remarkably educators all around the world are pretty generous people, and they said yes,” Crehan said to a full audience at IIEP’s Strategic Debate on 19 April.

This set Crehan on what she calls her “personal educational odyssey”, a two-year itinerary covering two provinces in Canada, Finland, Japan, Shanghai, China, and Singapore. Diverse in location, these countries are all consistently high in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings.

“I was in the classroom, the staff room, chatting with teachers,” Crehan says. She was not just a fly on the wall, but fully immersed into the cultural context behind the education policies and practices that were making airwaves around the world. This adventure also laid the foundation for what would become her popular book ‘Cleverlands.’

But first, a little more context. The idea for her trip coincided with UK government implementing a raft of new policies that aimed to replicate successful education policies from abroad. There was a lot of, “we’re going to do this because that is what Finland does, or what Singapore does,” says Crehan.

However, it was hard for her to get a sense of what a policy actually looked like in a classroom and what it meant in regards to teaching practices, student involvement, and overall performance. “No one policy works in isolation, they relate to each other and work in a particular cultural context as well,” she says. This sparked her intrigue, and Crehan started to contact, via email and social media, teachers to ask whether she could come and see these policies in action.

For the IIEP Strategic Debate, Crehan shared several surprises relating to pedagogy, professionalism, and underlying philosophies found in these top-performing systems.

1.    Pedagogy: “it’s all about the sweet spot”

Crehan found that the best classrooms combine student-oriented instruction with teacher-directed lessons. While there is a bit more of the latter, Crehan says that it is all about finding the right balance and an approach that really encourages individual thinking and problem solving. She found that not only the five countries she visited, but also eight out of eleven countries that do well in both math and problem-solving fall within the same narrow range of teaching style (see image below in English only).

Maths and problem solving

2.    Professionalism: a true professional doesn’t have to do it alone 

What does it mean to be a professional teacher? For many, Crehan says, this means doing everything from scratch, from course planning to teaching, with no guidance or input from other teachers. However, Crehan found that teachers in the most successful classrooms are not afraid to call upon more experienced teachers or use well-designed textbooks in course lessons (see image below only in English).

When teachers feel that they need to do everything on their own it can actually have a negative impact on the coursework, and ultimately student outcomes. Crehan believes that all teachers should have a basis on which to expand their lessons and by shifting some of the preparation to teachers that are more experienced - or a group of teachers - the workload can be lessened and the quality improved. Teacher reported textbook use

3.    Philosophy: genuine high expectations for everyone 

The third big surprise was that teachers in these high performing systems generally had higher expectations for all students. Some of the teachers Crehan met had spent time teaching abroad in the UK or the US. They observed that teachers often gave poorly performing students much easier work. However, they wondered, how can they possibly catch up with their peers if they are not given the same level of work?

In fact, Crehan found out through her research that the top five systems were not tracking students until much later, nor separating students into different tracks based on academic ability until the age of 15 or 16 years old. Overall, she found that in the top classrooms teachers had genuine high expectations for everyone. This meant more equity and higher learning outcomes. The teachers planned together, taught with clarity, and all students mastered the subject matter before moving on. When there was a risk for falling behind, teachers provided additional support.Setting or streaming


Find out more about Lucy Crehan’s adventures and findings on her website

View her whole presentation here