Book title: Cleverlands
Author: Lucy Crehan
Publication date: 2016
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
Cleverlands is a page-turning account of one teacher’s quest to find out the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ of education systems at the top of the PISA rankings: Finland, Japan, Singapore, Shanghai, and Canada. The book falls somewhere between travelogue, pedagogical philosophy guide and research review, with a healthy dose of the adorable anecdotes from real classrooms that make good education books engaging for teachers like me.
It is divided into sections about each country, with different issues and questions – such as exam pressure, the Confucian growth-mindset, or the importance of play-based learning in the early years – explored in detail in each.
Cleverlands is both amusing and deeply interesting. It deals head-on with stereotypes about each system and challenges the reader to explore their own culture and their biases surrounding education and what we believe it is for. Like all books on travel, it brings a breath of fresh air to the mind and makes you think about our own country in a new way once the back cover is closed.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
Crehan is careful to establish that this is not a how-to, top tips book for chalkface practitioners. That said, frontline teachers will get a lot out of the book – I certainly found my curiosity assuaged as we often hear about the miracles happening in Finland etc.
Crehan directs her appeals to policymakers and school managers, teacher training providers and others at the very top of the system. She is careful to point out that there is no one aspect of Finnish or Singaporean pedagogy that can be lifted wholesale from their culture or system, and implemented successfully in our classrooms. She emphasises, very sensibly, that building a top-performing system takes years of work, money and cross-party agreement – and that the benefits may not be felt for a generation.
In the last chapter, Crehan lays out her ‘Five Principles for High-Performing, Equitable Education Systems’. Her ideal is a structure where all children are given the opportunity to achieve as highly as the best in Singapore, while their background and parental level of education matters as little as possible. Frustratingly, she relates an anecdote where a friend who works in educational policymaking asked, ‘What did you learn on your travels? What should we be doing?’ Then immediately dismissed her first recommendation.
I would be surprised if someone has not sent a copy of this book to the education secretary, Justine Greening, already. Whether or not any of the recommended principles will be implemented, or even appeal, is difficult to guess.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
The book is written very much as a personal, first-person account of a sabbatical. As Crehan is at pains to point out, there is already a wealth of formal research and data about what is happening in the countries she visited; her aim was to meet and present the teachers implementing that pedagogy and living in that system, and the children affected by it.
She succeeds in this, writing engaging pen-portraits of the families she stays with and the professionals she meets, quoting the adults and children verbatim. The interesting turns of phrase in their excellent English lend journalistic realism to the work, and you really feel as though you, too, have met these people and have a good idea of what it would be like to work with them.
The changes of register and tone can be jarring in places as Crehan switches from her experiences of strange new customs (during a long Japanese graduation ceremony ‘I got pins and needles in one bum cheek’) to discussing the latest research (the difference between learning to teach mathematics and didactique). In general, however, the formal ideas are put across clearly while being written engagingly enough to make the book hard to put down.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
Lucy Crehan has a strong authorial voice and begins each section with her first impressions of the people and systems in the country she is visiting. These first impressions are interrogated, fleshed out and explored well throughout each chapter. She spent at least a week in each of the schools she visited, and at least three weeks in each country, speaking to people at all levels of the system and observing large numbers of lessons and meetings.
These personal impressions are only one view, but she is careful to triangulate her own experiences with independent studies – all from educational journals of the last decade and a half, the majority very recent. Overall I was left with a favourable impression of Lucy herself and her ability to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of each of the approaches she looked at.
There is a good balance of ‘anecdata’ and clearly footnoted references to pertinent research, as well as discussion of relevant studies in more detail, which she returns to throughout the book. These do not only relate specifically to education but also the psychology of motivation and decision-making (with reference to motivating teachers), how people deal with stress and discussions of government policy.
There are also potted histories of education policy in each country at the beginning of each section, which inform the reader about the context.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
As previously stated, there are not really any top tips for teachers in the book but there are a couple of principles which Crehan’s work suggested.
The first is that mixed-ability teaching may be the way forward, and that setting is anathema. Each of the systems explored uses whole-class, mixed-ability teaching of the same ambitious curriculum as the base for all lessons. Almost all the children (excepting SEN) are expected to complete the same work. Those who are struggling, however, are given additional support from the teacher both within and outside lessons. Those who find the work less challenging are often left to get on with it – Crehan suggests that enrichment activities and clubs may help these kids to enjoy being stretched while staying in the mainstream classroom.
The second is that teacher impressions of children’s potential have a huge impact. If we are told, before working with a child, that they are ‘low ability’, then we will expect less from them, and they will achieve less than if we are told that they have a high IQ or are expected to do well. I have often marked end-of-year writing assessments ‘blind’ (ie without looking at children’s previous marks) to avoid being biased like this – but had never thought to apply it more widely. As the new year approaches I am now wary of looking too hard at the Target Tracker sheet for my new class. Could I doom my low-achievers to remaining so, simply by knowing how they have been getting on and allowing assumptions to fester in my subconscious?
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
I highlighted dozens of quotes as I read which resonated with me very strongly. Here are a few:
‘Most countries have this trade-off between class size and teaching time, with either larger classes but fewer lessons, or smaller classes but more lessons. Primary school teachers in the UK unfortunately have neither fewer lessons nor smaller classes, due to student-teacher ratios [21:1] being substantially higher than average [for the OECD at 15:1].’
'[In Finland] we are five million, we can't afford to drop anyone. In here, everyone counts.'
'Offering teachers sabbaticals in which they work in the civil service designing curricula... is also a [Singaporean] idea that might transfer well....and ensure that such programmes are workable and beneficial.'
‘“You think Singapore has the world's best education system? No lah, we put too much pressure on kids too young." Stereotypes: 1 Suprises: 0'
7. Please add any additional comments.
This book was recommended to me by Tim Oates, Group Director for Assessment Research at Cambridge Assessment, after we spoke at a Chartered College event. I would encourage all members of the book club and of the Chartered College to talk to each other about their favourite books, as it could work as an excellent stimulus for discussions on policy and pedagogy at future events. I would like to thank Mr. Oates for the good read and the intellectual conversations I have had thanks to Cleverlands.