Tradition and modernity in eastern education
Primary and secondary education in Asia has undergone a major transformation in the recent years. The pandemic has reinforced ’existing’ trends, in particular digitalisation, and recent innovations in education are expected to continue in the longer term.
Tradition and modernity in eastern education
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

Tradition and modernity in eastern education

Photo: iStock
Sándor Balogh 06/03/2023 16:00

Primary and secondary education in Asia has undergone a major transformation in the recent years. The pandemic has reinforced ’existing’ trends, in particular digitalisation, and recent innovations in education are expected to continue in the longer term, evolving further in the post-pandemic period. Asian countries are consistently at the top of international student performance measures.

Three major factors and their interaction are currently shaping the new developments in education: global challenges, technological advances and the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue of education is constantly on the agenda of the major international organisations. Quality education has been included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. UNESCO’s ‘Futures of Education’ initiative calls for a major transformation, with the aim and principle of ensuring the lifelong right to quality education. The aim is to create a single educational space that is modern and inclusive, able to meet the challenges of the digital and green transition.

Losses during the pandemic

Technical and technological developments also have a strong impact on education. On the one hand, the incredible amount of data that is constantly being generated is transforming the range of knowledge and skills required, and on the other hand, it is developing and making available new tools and solutions for education.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken up education worldwide. Around one and a half billion pupils have been forced to leave their schools because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The closure of schools, the sudden shift to online learning, has highlighted the weaknesses of existing education systems. The recent epidemic has resulted in “educational losses” everywhere, with long-term repercussions. The global pandemic has thus made more visible than ever the already existing fault lines in learning and education and the fragility of the formal school system.

The economic successes of Asia’s emerging economies over the past 60 years can be attributed in large part to their education systems.

There is good reason to believe that by the end of the coronavirus pandemic, the countries of the world will essentially fall into two groups: some will seek to restore their pre-pandemic situation, the ’normal’ conditions, and to strengthen their schools. Others are mobilising huge investments in educational technologies to make learning areas more effective and diverse.

Asian students lead the way

Efficiency is increasingly needed for a number of reasons. A series of surveys confirms the shocking figure that 40per cent of the adult population in the European Union and 40per cent of primary school pupils are functionally illiterate, i.e. they cannot interpret the texts they read. But this is not the case everywhere in the world. Just a reminder: in international student performance tests, which have been held since 2000, Asian countries have consistently been at the top. The reading literacy rate for people aged 15 and over is high, and 95per cent of the total population can read. For example, the OECD’s Text Comprehension Assessment (PLAAC) shows that Japan has the highest level of text comprehension among the population aged 16-65 (OECD, 2013).

It is also a well-known fact that in Asian countries with strong economic success, it is very difficult to imagine an existence without a degree, so knowledge is a key asset. The East has a long tradition of respect for knowledge, and for centuries the elite of society have been selected through extremely rigorous examinations. Many therefore believe that this tradition is the main reason for success. In the Asian tradition of education, external factors are less important for children than the progress made in the school system and the academic achievements and examinations taken, which later lay the foundations for the young adult’s social status and individual excellence.

The move to digitalisation is now the order of the era. For this reason, schools in Singapore and Hong Kong are constantly upgrading to provide students with the latest technology.

The emphasis on academic achievement means that in Asian countries children spend almost all day in school, from 7–8 a.m. to 4–5 p.m., followed by extra-curricular education, clubs and private lessons. It is also a peculiarity of the East that teachers are highly prestigious, respected and accepted by society. The teachers are well-dressed, well-paid, exemplary people who devote their whole life to teaching. Teachers are also highly valued members of society, with teaching being one of the highest paid professions. The schools are well-equipped and well-provided with infrastructure, and both traditional and digital tools have their place in Asian schools. Education experts agree that the economic successes of Asia’s emerging economies over the past 60 years can be attributed in large part to their education systems, high education spending relative to GDP and education reforms.

Photo: iStock

Teaching on a project basis

In the period of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was also shocking to see the school improvements made in recent decades on the basis of the major international measures of knowledge (PISA, TIMMS), the huge amounts of public money spent on IT, the huge and expensive pool of equipment was immediately crippled when schools were closed, and education was saved by the own IT tools of pupils, and the families more broadly, and the apps and cloud services of internet giants. The pandemic has shown that education can be done differently. It’s no longer just about raising test scores, motivating students and reducing the number of school drop-outs that education reformers are talking about. They are more explicit: “the world has changed”, “the future is unpredictable”, “a new economic era has begun”, “students are not thinking in terms of jobs and positions”. The reformers of this era focus on innovation and the learning process, which is based on three conditions. On the one hand, students are active learners, on the other hand, learning is based on experience, so it is important to gain it, and thirdly, every person is different, so alternative learning methods should be provided for students.

One of the most effective methods of educating the current generations is project-based pedagogy, which is complemented by a varied assessment system and can produce results that students can also use in the world of work. The use of multidisciplinary approaches, creative pedagogy and “gamification” strategies is becoming more and more common. Project-based teaching is based on the idea that students can set their own goals and decide what they will do to achieve them, either in groups or individually. This is worth highlighting, not least because project-based learning was a key aspect of Hong Kong’s recent education reform. In Singapore, special technologies are used to help students collaborate in group work. In South Korea, students have to design and implement their own learning programme in a test-free school year.

Signals from the world of work

The shift to digital has become the order of the era. In Singapore and Hong Kong, schools are constantly being upgraded to provide students with the latest technology. Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea are working to integrate the achievements of the 21st century. Until the turn of the millennium, neither globalisation nor digital communication technologies had reached a stage where the traditional way of running education could be reorganised and operated at relatively low transaction costs. In the 21st century, however, with the fourth industrial revolution, there are more and more signals to education from the world of work and from society that the future workforce will also need to develop thinking skills and digital competence.

Smart, interactive projectors that can be easily connected to teaching tools are now essential tools for the modern classroom. In many cases, this facilitates or even enables teamwork. Virtual classroom solutions are part of the modern digital school environment, facilitating online learning. Digitally advanced schools were already using these systems before the pandemic, and they have now become essential. Modern solutions also allow for the sharing of curricula, the definition and monitoring of learning pathways, the support of group work, the combination of assessment and feedback methods, administrative tasks and contact with parents. The digital applications supporting education are also diverse. What they have in common is that the most successful applications are also the most up-to-date methodological trends. Educational robots are still relatively expensive, but the future is pointing in this direction.

Research, analysis, interpretation

Originally, the concept of formal-non-formal-informal learning was coined by Philip H. Coombs in the 1970s, the idea being that only part of the learning process takes place in formal education systems. In this approach, formal education is essentially the same as regular academic education in the traditional sense. The coronavirus epidemic, and consequently the immediate shift to online learning, eliminated some of the more important tasks (childcare and social care) of formal, school-based education. By non-formal education, Coombs means forms of learning that take place outside the school system, in an organised framework, with a specific purpose. The most studied form of community learning in the literature is shadow education, the world of “afternoon schools”, which complement schools and provide services to the competitive education systems and societies of East Asia. Informal learning takes place in a variety of settings, ie. in the family, at community level, in an informal way, and is about acquiring information and developing skills.

What do students know? What can they do with their existing knowledge? From an educational perspective, these are the questions of the 21st century. Whoever provides the best answers and is the first to develop the right method will lead the world of the future. However, three conditions are essential for the success, for “overtaking while in the bend”. On the one hand, traditional subjects and skills. At the same time, a balance between traditional and new methods and tools needs to be created to ensure that the knowledge is “future-proof”. On the other hand, students should develop the skills needed to research, analyse and interpret data/information. Thirdly, a rethinking of the role of teachers is inevitable. Just to end on a trivial note: they need to catch up with their students in digital literacy.

The author is a project adviser to the Magyar Nemzeti Bank, Hungary’s central bank

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022

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