Best Practices from Asia’s Best School Systems


There can be no denying that education is one of the most important fundamentals for development and growth. Countries that have invested in capable and competitive education systems reap the benefits – in various forms such as, say, innovations in fields like healthcare or technology, or on a broader level, an efficient public administration and healthy private sector growth.

If one has a look at OECD’s PISA results that measure educational outcomes, one can’t help but notice how some Asian countries rapidly improved their scores during the past 15 or so years and  to what extent Asia dominates the rankings in the latest study. At the turn of the millennium, Hong Kong ranked 17th in the assessment of reading literacy, Singapore performed only slightly better at position 15th. In the latest study they occupy the top spots, with Singapore’s students now even being the overall top performers in all categories assessed by OECD’s study. Japan, Taiwan and China perform well, too. Here are three ways Asian top performers have used to improve their school systems.

Teacher education and sustained professional development

The best-performing Asian countries have introduced various measures in order to ensure that teachers and the quality of their education and training meet high quality standards. Schools in Shanghai, for example, require that all their teachers take part in a mentoring system where new teachers have several mentors who provide guidance in class room management and content-related matters. They also have to take part in professional work groups that continuously develop and evaluate innovative teaching. In addition, Shanghai teachers are required to publish a peer-reviewed paper in order to qualify for advanced teacher status. Singapore has put in place a comparable program: It ensures that in each of the city state’s schools at least one teacher has the qualifications and capacity to undertake evidence-based research in order to develop their fellow teachers’ research skills. An extensive performance management system supplements this. It guides teachers in the planning of their activities, provides frequent coaching and mentoring, and offers opportunities for advanced training.

Shift away from “traditional” learning

Education reform efforts in states and territories such as Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong have in the past couple of years moved away from traditional education practices and policies and started to focus on teaching and supporting things like creativity, communication and collaboration, and critical thinking in their school systems. State control of curricula and classroom education has been loosened in favor of more local autonomy for schools and districts. This has resulted in a reduction of obligatory core content and skills taught to students and a pedagogic shift away from simple knowledge transmission between teachers and students to a more inquiry-based acquisition of knowledge and skills on the part of the students. Reforms such as these have been successful in equipping pupils and students with “twentyfirst-century skills” necessary for successfully competing in a more integrated world.

Use of technology

In as much as we can witness changes in the way how knowledge and skills are imparted in schools across some Asian countries (i.e. the moving away from “traditional” curricula and teaching methods) it is also noticeable that to an increasing extent technology plays an important role in educational matters. A case in point is Japan: Technology is deployed heavily in Japanese schools, giving students access to resources that their fellow pupils in most other countries don’t enjoy. Many Japanese schools provide access to personal devices for their students. Enabling them to use technology as a supplementary tool in their school education not only aims at introducing a sound level of technological awareness at a young age but also helps fostering soft skills such as communication and collaboration, team building and independent problem solving.

It goes without saying that these measures are only part of a bigger picture. In order to ensure the quality and competitiveness of schools systems, it is of course necessary that governments make available proper funding for their education systems and implement sound policies as regards research and innovation. But the above-mentioned practices show that the consideration of additional supporting measures can undoubtedly also contribute to improving school systems. It is worth taking these lessons on board as these changes are often very difficult: education bureaucracies and political leaders usually tend to exert more control over teaching and don’t like more autonomy for schools; teachers are often a politically influential group and are able to resist reforms that make them more accountable and require them to update their skills continuously; and societies that prize conformity find it difficult to re-orient schools towards allowing more creativity and critical inquiry. But these traits are indispensable for a future that is ever more knowledge-based, and seeing how societies such as China and Japan accept this challenge should be an eye-opener for many others in the region and around the world.