How the World Learns: Comparative Educational Systems

Course No. 2052
Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education Alexander W. Wiseman, Ph.D.
Lehigh University
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Course No. 2052
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Course Overview

The idea that everybody deserves a chance is at the heart of Horace Mann’s revolutionary belief that education is “the great equalizer.” U.S. schools—and national education systems around the world—today reflect the ideals that Mann was among the first to promote, including universal enrollment, compulsory attendance, and public funding.

Mann’s blueprint for mass education in America has since been followed across the globe—yet international student assessments show that achievement among countries varies sharply, with the United States and much of Europe typically scoring average, at best. Furthermore, educators, business leaders, and government officials cite a growing disconnect between what schools teach and the needs of a rapidly changing market.

This state of affairs has sparked anxieties about an educational crisis, yet the problem, if there is one, is highly complex. The key to making sense of this disparity and “fixing” education lies in taking a meaningful look at what’s happening internationally. Seeing what education looks like in other countries and contexts—how the model America innovated has been adapted and implemented elsewhere—helps us understand how other systems create success. Go on an educational trek around the world to better understand how other countries approach the same challenges we face, and grasp how culture and context shape local circumstances. For example:

  • In Japan, students remain in the same classroom all day, working in groups, while the teachers move around from class to class. Japanese schooling is characterized by strong institutional ties between schools and employers.
  • Finland does not have a formal evaluation process for teachers, merit pay, census-based standardized tests, or ranking of schools. Finnish teachers do have relative professional autonomy, competitive salaries, and less classroom time, with more time for reflection and preparation. From preschool through university, education is free of charge.
  • Indonesia is in the process of moving approximately five million secondary school children into vocational-education programs to help them prepare for jobs that government leaders hope will grow their economy.
  • Poland improved its average performance on international tests by targeting competency development, focusing particularly on girls and on the lowest-performing students.
  • Saudi Arabia mandates a religious curricular requirement, while China includes moral education as a required part of the curriculum.

In How the World Learns: Comparative Educational Systems, you’ll delve deeply into each of these cultures and more, led by Alexander W. Wiseman, Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University. In each of these 24 thought-provoking lectures, you’ll engage in a detailed comparison of teaching methods and student achievement in both primary and secondary schools, from the focus on STEM instruction and the intent of morals education to the role of preschool and the importance of creativity. You’ll discover why Finland and South Korea consistently rank as the two best educational systems despite having diametrically opposed approaches, and consider the unique cultural challenges facing schools from America to South Africa. As you embark on this educational odyssey around the world, you’ll examine schools as close as Tulsa, Oklahoma and as far-flung as Ghana, Japan, and Myanmar. You may be surprised to learn that for all their differences, approaches to teaching don’t vary as widely as one might expect.

With Professor Wiseman’s guidance, you’ll use internationally comparative data to identify strengths and weaknesses and to see how this information is used—and sometimes misused—to enact policies that shape what happens in classrooms. The data and systems are not studied in a vacuum, however. Instead, you’ll explore how cultural, religious, socioeconomic, and historical contexts may influence these methods, and whether one nation’s best practice could backfire in another.

The Big Three: Singapore, South Korea, and Finland

Singapore, South Korea, and Finland have each become famous for their educational systems, which policymakers, educational reformers, and media worldwide applaud. Intriguingly, Finland and South Korea have very different takes on schooling: Finnish children spend about the least amount of time in school and enjoy a relaxed atmosphere, while South Korean students endure long days and rigid pedagogical methods. All three systems, however, focus students on fewer topics more deeply, rather than skimming through many topics superficially.

How the World Learns analyzes these characteristics and the contexts in which they operate, and presents examples of attempts to replicate the success of Finland elsewhere—as in Abu Dhabi, where education officials imported 50 Finnish teachers to establish Finnish-style primary schools.

You’ll also gain insight into other highly ranked countries such as China and Japan, which use high-stakes testing to create a culture of fact-based achievement, yet produce students who struggle with unscripted problems and solutions.

Study the Role of Teachers and Schools Around the Globe

Along the way, you’ll contemplate a number of important questions about the goals of education and the ways teachers may help students reach them:

  • Are teachers responsible for academic content only, or are they also caregivers and counselors?
  • Is low student performance the fault of teachers?
  • Which is more important: gaining knowledge or learning new skills?
  • Is standardized testing the best way to measure what a person knows or is capable of?
  • Is the point of school to prepare kids for college or for a job?
  • Should there be a strong socialization component to school, with the goal of creating better citizens?

These lectures examine the topic of education in a multifaceted way, from the degree to which a country’s teachers regularly collaborate to parental involvement’s impact on achievement. As you investigate gender equity across cultures, you’ll consider the gender-segregated schools of Saudi Arabia, which are being embraced as a new way to create access and opportunity for girls where none may have previously existed.

The complex subject of technology in the developing world is viewed through an unflinching lens, with realistic discussion of its sustainability. The news is not all bad on this front, however, as you’ll witness in a remarkable story of children in an impoverished area of New Delhi who taught themselves to use a computer.

While this is an inquiry into schools the world over, this course also devotes significant attention to education in America. Yet rather than looking at the U.S. system as a monolith, it’s examined for what it truly is: an enormous entity comprised of 50 individual states with widely different educational systems, from the conservative to the experimental.

Learn from a Teacher Who’s Been There

Far from an ivory-tower academic, Professor Wiseman brings real-world classroom experience to this endeavor. Having been a teacher in America and Japan—where he taught English using Beatles lyrics—his practical understanding of the shared experience of teachers and his deep knowledge of international educational systems come across in every lecture.

Educators in particular will appreciate the professor’s ability to balance optimism with pragmatism. He makes clear that there is no magic bullet when it comes to education, and what works in one country may not be realistic for another.

How the World Learns goes beyond the rhetoric of crisis and prescriptions for quick fixes to reveal the fullest picture possible of the practices that produce results (or don’t), the external factors over which schools have little control, and the potential for success.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Global Challenge to Educate
    Borrowing or benchmarking one national education system against another is not necessarily a remedy or the most useful analytical tool for educational reform, yet these are among the most common approaches. Begin to understand why this approach falls short as Professor Wiseman lays out his general thesis for the course. x
  • 2
    Sputnik Launches the Science-Math Race
    Dating back to Sputnik in the 1950s, education culture has been driven by anxiety. Learn about the history of "crisis" in U.S. education before investigating how America's educational system compares with schools and students in other countries. Focus on TIMSS in particular, which tracks mathematics and science achievement in about 70 countries. x
  • 3
    Education Is Life
    Which is more important - gaining knowledge or new skills? Is standardized testing the best measure of what someone knows? What is the purpose of going to school - to prepare for college or a career? Address such questions as you probe Americans' views on education and how it can be improved using internationally comparable information. x
  • 4
    Evidence-Based Policy Making in Education
    Delve into the question of why evidence-based educational policymaking has become a global phenomenon by looking at the way data is used to shape what teachers and students do in the classroom. See how governing bodies can bureaucratize the ways data is collected, presented, and interpreted - or manipulated. x
  • 5
    What Should We Compare about Education?
    Do the achievement rankings paint an accurate picture of what's happening in schools, or is the crisis politically manufactured? Get answers as you analyze common criticisms of national education systems through the lens of three recurring phenomena - achievement envy, the accountability expectation, and access entitlement - and look at approaches to shifting school culture. x
  • 6
    The World Learns from Horace Mann
    Trace how the ideologies of mass education emerged in the U.S. and became central tenets of education around the world. Survey the ideas of key educational thinkers such as Horace Mann and James Bryant Conant, then consider why, despite its strengths, the U.S. might be ranked low relative to international standards. x
  • 7
    When Culture Invades the Classroom
    Investigate the idea that "non-school factors" such as student poverty are among the strongest predictors of learning. Examine how two of the largest of these factors - culture and economics - play out in South Africa, which is experiencing an HIV/AIDS crisis, and in China, where test scores and national economics are thought to go hand-in-hand. x
  • 8
    Germany and Japan's Shattered Expectations
    Thanks to the PISA and other internationally comparative data, each nation's policymakers, educators, and the public know exactly how well their students perform compared to their peers. Consider why Finland sits at the top of these rankings, and examine reforms countries such as Indonesia and Japan have implemented in response to their results x
  • 9
    Borrowing Foreign School Cultures
    Why are educational comparisons so popular? Should educational reform be driven by economic competition? Think critically about these questions as you examine which countries and cultures are and aren't comparable, and consider the United Arab Emirates' unique strategy of importing 50 Finnish teachers to reform two schools based on the Finnish model. x
  • 10
    The Value in Linking School to Jobs
    Many business and industry leaders say there is no connection between formal school education - which teaches information, but not skills - and what is needed in the world of work. Investigate renewed global efforts to test whether vocational training can better prepare youth to participate in the emerging technology-driven knowledge economy. x
  • 11
    Why Blame the Teacher?
    Is low student performance the fault of teachers? Consider this question as you study characteristics of students, teachers, curriculum, and culture in the "model" educational systems to see what makes them different (or not) from the U.S. and other middle- or low-performing countries. Look at the elusiveness of quality teachers in the Gulf region. x
  • 12
    Gender Pipeline Lifts Equality Dream
    The U.S. and other countries may not be able to replicate Finland's educational system, but they can level the playing field by making adjustments that contribute to equity in policies, curricula, and pedagogy. Focus on gender-based equity, looking at areas where real progress is being made as well as institutionalized gender inequalities masked by egalitarian values. x
  • 13
    Gulf Schools: The Non-National Advantage
    Look at the "insider" versus the "outsider" in national education systems such as Saudi Arabia to see how education bridges political citizenship, academic performance, and economic productivity. Examine how education is a means for producing citizens who reflect the desired image of a nation's population and its government. x
  • 14
    Who Is Accountable for Education?
    Accountability culture varies from country to country and region to region, but three common elements appear in most educational systems. Compare and contrast how access, achievement, and a combination of standards and assessments play out in the U.S. and Finland, and look at one notable exception - the consensus culture of Japan. x
  • 15
    How Parents Shape Student Outcomes
    Explore how parental involvement aligns with socioeconomic status and influences student achievement and education worldwide. See the role cram schools" in Korea and other private tutoring play in education and the importance of early childhood education on child literacy. Finally, learn how the Japanese system fosters ties between schools and employers. " x
  • 16
    Reading, Writing, and Religion
    Think about how educators and students in systems around the world decide what to teach and learn, and consider how this decision is largely a product of context. Start with an examination of national curricula around the world, where you'll find commonalities in content matter and cognitive skills, as well as key differences. x
  • 17
    International Test Scores: All and Nothing
    Most educational systems around the world have four general goals. Explore each of them here as you get a framework for finding what works to improve student achievement on standardized tests in countries worldwide. Also, look closely at some of the chief concerns regarding these tests. x
  • 18
    Turning a Good Teacher into a Great One
    Think about what constitutes good teaching, and look at the ways teachers teach in the U.S., Finland, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. Begin your comparison by looking at some of the school factors that influence teaching, including how teachers are trained and the degree to which they routinely collaborate. x
  • 19
    The Foundations of Civil Society
    Think critically about political socialization and why it plays such a large part in education worldwide by looking closely at the various ways students are politically socialized, the results of these efforts, and who realistically - rather than ideally - benefits. x
  • 20
    From National Student to Global Citizen
    Explore how education in countries around the world develops global citizens by imparting a combination of identity, knowledge, skills, and action - both explicitly and implicitly - to engender concern for making the world a better place. Examine curricula designed to focus on global citizenry, including the International Baccalaureate and instruction created by Oxfam. x
  • 21
    The Problem with Teaching's Best Practices
    Explore ways that teachers and students behave in classrooms across the globe, focusing on what seems to work in a few key systems. Discover why practices that produce a great outcome in one place - such as lengthening the school year - don't necessarily lead to success in another. x
  • 22
    A School inside Your Phone?
    New technologies are being implemented as teaching tools, combining traditional teaching methods with more self-directed learning. Consider efforts such as the One Laptop per Child organization, and see why even when such technology does exist, its use is not always sustainable. x
  • 23
    The Rich-and-Poor Learning Cycle
    How should we measure academic success? By standardized tests and school grades? By transition and mobility within an education system? See how true success in education is a delicate balance between school factors and non-school factors, which can look quite different depending on the context. x
  • 24
    How to Fix Education: Heart, Head, Hands
    Assuming something is "wrong" with schools, how might they be fixed? Analyze how the larger forces of imposition, invitation, and innovation can lead to change through examples from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Myanmar, where Buddhist monks have established non-religious schools at their monasteries to remedy the poor quality of government-provided education. x

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Your professor

Alexander W. Wiseman

About Your Professor

Alexander W. Wiseman, Ph.D.
Lehigh University
Professor Alexander W. Wiseman is an Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in both Comparative and International Education and Educational Theory and Policy from The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Wiseman has more than 19 years of professional experience, working worldwide with government education departments, university-based...
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How the World Learns: Comparative Educational Systems is rated 3.1 out of 5 by 13.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating Walk Through Educational Systems This comparative look provides deeper insight into our own very diverse education system. Context matters as well as an understanding educational goals.
Date published: 2020-09-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lesson 23: "Success is often left undefined but dramatically conveyed". I could apply this comment to much of this course. The lecturer often seems to be on the verge of making a point, then backs away. Early on, it is categorically stated socio-economic status (the mandatory TLA: SES) is the best predictor of education success. But this SES is never clearly explained. One anecdote suggests teachers able to afford 5-6 years of post-secondary school may not "engage" with poor students and parents very well. This course describes publicly funded, compulsory schooling. The lecturer differentiates school-based and non-school based factors. School factors as described all arise from budget decisions- completely political. Many political factors are not explored. For example, the lecturer fails to name countries where teachers buy their jobs and have no motivation to even show up for work. The Saudi single-sex education sounds suspiciously like "separate but equal" . The course is admitted to be US-centric and the term "American students" is routinely used. The US is reported to have 16,000 independent school districts. Other sources suggest Finland and Singapore have about 600,000 students each, while the US has close to 60 million students. Lectures 9 and 23 seem to be heading towards treating the US as 50 separate countries for apples to apples comparison, but then back away. Statistical Analysis: Several of the charts look to be two standard deviations from the mean with 95% confidence, but I'm not sure. While most of the statistics reported are based on sampling, there is no worthwhile discussion of methodology, whether sampling and results could be manipulated. Not until Lesson 17 is there anything resembling a serious discussion of validity and sample bias, and that is not carried through. The lecturer uses the word predictor and does not emphasize correlation vs causation. US Federal Funding: The US government reportedly contributes a lot of money in many different programs. At one point there is a hint federal funding is spent mainly on education bureaucracy, vested interests and political earmarks, but then backs away. Lecture 23 briefly mentions e-learning. Currently, the global education system has been shut down for months due to the COVID-19 panic. Depending how you interpret comments on South Africa, schools as vital baby-sitting services for working parents-generally agreed by both left- and right-wing critics- is not explored. I still don't know how to define education or whether I'm an educated person. Recommended, if you can accept more questions than answers.
Date published: 2020-08-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good topic, less informative than hoped This course was the most disappointing of the few dozen that I have done so far, although it is a topic I am keenly interested in. The overarching theme was: Everything depends on the cultural context... Therefore we cannot share best practices across cultures, or say some educational systems or practices are more effective than others. In addition, the professor spoke like too many of my long ago college professors: why use 2 good descriptive words when you could use 5 and be more thorough? The result is the message gets lost in the muddle.
Date published: 2019-04-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting comparison of education around world I found it gave a good history of educational goals in USA. It looked at how the school system interacts with the different cultures. It gave a good introduction to school factors and non-school factors affecting whether students learn or not. In the later lectures, I found it troubling that Wiseman emphasized social justice and Oxfam standards for globalization. I don't believe valid research supports what he recommends regarding social justice and globalization There is a vast corpus of research on gender differences which are not considered the so called disciplines of sociology, history, women's studies. See Passing on the Right The Oxfam guidelines are defective because they don't consider the latest research on the evolutionary basis for moral values. See Professor Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind. Also see William Easterly The Tyranny of Experts.
Date published: 2017-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course Loved the course. Although some concepts are contested in literature, the professor was great at both delivery and presenting the case. It is particularly US based, but still an enjoyable course.
Date published: 2017-01-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too academic for non-educators This course would be quite valuable to Educators of all levels. There is a lot of information that would help these people develop programs on how to teach, how to train teachers, and the value of, and interpretation testing. For the layperson and grandparents, there is too much depth and vocabulary for us to adequately follow the lectures. Because of this, we quit watching after about half way through the course.
Date published: 2016-07-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Well below Great Courses usual standard Regrettably, I have to say that this is one of the most unsatisfactory of the Great Courses that I have taken. The problem is in the course content. Professor Wiseman’s delivery is clear, if a little dull, but it cannot compensate for the paucity of what he has to say. The course is about K through 12 education in public schools. Post high-school education is not mentioned, nor are private schools, both of which seem to me to be major omissions when studying national educational systems. The course has little or no structure, thread or theme. It is a haphazard jumble of disconnected lectures with interminable repetitions. It contains little meaningful data and few logical arguments. There are many words in these lectures but very few insights. The second half of the course is better than the first, but it takes some determination to get to the half-way point. Professor Wiseman refers to two international tests: TIMSS and PISA. He does not explain how the tests are conducted or give examples of test questions. Nor does he quote any numerical scores. However, it is clear that he does not believe what the scores tell us. Much of the course comes across as an apologia for the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international tests and for the U.S. school system itself. He constantly reminds us of the importance of what he calls non-school factors, by which he means impacts on student performance that are not under the control of the education system, such as poverty or family issues. Because of this, he largely dismisses the significance of rankings on TIMSS and PISA. This seems to me to be a mistake: The rankings are a real measure of the relative performances, on these tests, of students from different countries; the results should be taken seriously regardless of whether they are determined in the educational system or not. Conversely, he gives us relatively little information on “school factors” and which of them are most significant in determining student performance. Nor does he present a cogent argument, one way or the other, about the value of standardized tests. It is hard to say who Professor Wiseman imagines to be in his audience: Fellow social scientists? Educational policy makers (who are referred to repeatedly)? Personally, I learned very little of value from this course.
Date published: 2016-03-17
Rated 1 out of 5 by from It was so promissing... I expected a lot of this course! I was sure from all the lessons' titles that it would be a travel around the world, learning the best and the worst ways of teaching! In fact, most of the time, the content didn't correspond to the lessons' titles. The teacher had a flat tone, speaking without passion, that didn't promote learning! Attending such lectures was like listening a civil servant or even worst, a technocrat.
Date published: 2016-02-11
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