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Comparing international education systems

Written By: Lisa-Maria Muller
5 min read


This research summary presents findings from a study that compared instructional systems and intended curricula in six ‘high performing’ countries and two US states (Creese et al., 2016). Countries were chosen based on their performance on OECD’s 2009 PISA assessment and included Australia (New South Wales and Queensland), Canada (Alberta and Ontario), China (Hong Kong and Shanghai), Finland, Japan and Singapore. Massachusetts was included as an example of a high-performing jurisdiction and Florida as an example of a moderate performer. The study compared:

‚óè the aims of the education systems
‚óè the degree to which the education systems are managed centrally
‚óè their accountability systems
‚óè compulsory and optional subjects
‚óè how the curriculum is organised
‚óè if the curriculum is differentiated
‚óè if and how ’21st century skills’ are embedded in the curriculum
‚óè secondary vocational pathways
‚óè the assessment systems.

The study also took a detailed look at the language of instruction, mathematics, sciences, social studies and vocational/applied subjects.

The researchers combined desk research (looking for information in publications rather than conducting a field study in the country of interest) and consultations with in-country experts to compare education systems across jurisdictions. The aim was to understand if the education systems of high-performing countries had any features in common that could help explain their high performance.

1. Goals of the education system

All nine jurisdictions had clearly formulated goals for their education system and aimed to balance the development of personal qualities with more instrumental aims. They focussed on literacy, numeracy, problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, citizenship and economic impacts. In Japan and Singapore, the education system was mainly seen as an economic driver. Finland was the most student-centred country with the most explicitly formulated social aspirations. The Australian and Canadian examples were most strongly dominated by the OECD’s vision of 21st century skills.

2. Management of the education system

There was considerable variation between countries regarding government prescription and control. For example, Australia has a national curriculum and cross-state exams that are linked to it. The Canadian system is centralised on the province-level. Finland, on the other hand, has a core curriculum that leaves room for local interpretation and school-based assessments, until the final year of education when the curriculum and exams are compulsory and determined by the government. Japan is moving towards a less centralised approach to education policy where schools can develop a local curriculum and choose their teaching methods within a national curriculum framework.

3. The accountability system

Many of the studied jurisdictions use national or regional assessment data to identify schools that may require additional support or to rank them (Singapore, Florida, Massachusetts). In Florida, a low school rating can result in school closure. In some countries, national exam results are combined with a national inspection system. Neither Japan nor Finland have such a system and rely on sample-based student assessments instead. Hong King, Singapore and Shanghai combine rigorous internal planning and external inspections.

4. Compulsory and optional subjects

Generally, jurisdictions provide regulatory requirements regarding the subjects to be taught and how much time should be dedicated to each of them but some jurisdictions allow more leeway for regional decisions. In fourth grade, students in all jurisdictions study language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, physical education and the arts. As students get older, the core subjects remain the same but variation between jurisdictions increases. Some jurisdictions include elective time (time during which students can choose what they want to study) in their upper secondary curricula and Finland and New South Wales allow schools a lot of flexibility in terms of how the time in school is spent. They have allocated times across age bands and schools can decide how to use this time.

5. Cross-disciplinary curriculum

Overall, there is a clear tendency across jurisdictions to move towards a more integrated approach to curriculum design. For example, Hong Kong integrates chemistry, physics and biology and has an Integrated Humanities curriculum that combines Chinese history, economic and public affairs and geography. Shanghai has integrated examination papers that ask students to apply their knowledge to real-life problems.

6. 21st century skills

Following a definition by the OECD, the authors define 21st century skills as: creativity and innovation, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, information literacy, personal and social responsibility and cultural awareness. Curricula in New South Wales, Queensland, Ontario, Alberta and Finland include the widest range of 21st century skills. Florida, in contrast, does not include these skills in its curriculum.

7. Secondary vocational pathways

All jurisdictions offer vocational pathways to students from around grade 10 onwards. Vocational education is generally seen as a good way to retain less engaged students in education. Some jurisdictions stream students into vocational pathways based on exams (e.g. Japan, Shanghai), in others this choice is up to the students (Finland).

8. Common or differentiated curriculum

Even though ability grouping is not uncontested, all jurisdictions use it in some form. However, the majority of jurisdictions encourage classes to stay together and to provide additional support for students who need it. Singapore is the only jurisdiction in this study that streams children by ability in primary school.

9. Assessment system

All jurisdictions use a combination of formative and summative assessments but the emphasis on each of them differs between jurisdictions. In Finland and Japan, for example, the emphasis lies on largely formative, in-school assessments while high-stakes tests dominate in Singapore and the US states. All jurisdictions but Japan and the US states use assessment for learning.

It needs to be considered that the study focussed on the intended curriculum rather than what each jurisdiction actually put into practice. It combined policy documents with expert opinion and findings from the academic literature but did not ask teachers or students about their experiences. It therefore cannot answer if policy intentions in the different jurisdictions actually reach the classroom. The research was conducted between 2013 and 2014, so some information might be out of date.

Key points to take away:

‚óè This study shows that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to successful curriculum planning. While these high-performing countries show similarities in some areas (e.g. the definition of clear aims), they differ in others (e.g. how students-centred their curricula are or how strongly 21st century skills are incorporated).
‚óè It is important to bear potential cultural differences and historic developments into account when comparing education systems internationally as they might influence how well an approach can be transferred to a different context.

Want to know more?

Alexander A, Hardman F, Hardman J et al. (2016) Changing Talk, Changing Thinking: Interim Report from the In-house Evaluation of the CPRT/UoY Dialogic Teaching Project. University of York and Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

Creese B, Gonzalez A and Isaacs T (2016) Comparing International Curriculum Systems: the international instructional systems study. The Curriculum Journal 27(1): 5-23.

Mercer N and Howe C (2012) Explaining the Dialogic Processes of Teaching and Learning: The Value and Potential of Sociocultural Theory. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 1(1): 12-21.

Vygotsky LS (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How do the examples here compare to policy and practice in your context?

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