Today’s Guardian has some new notes on the ongoing scandal that is the British education system. This time it’s a new OECD report ranking countries by numeracy and literacy, and the United Kingdom has fallen near the bottom. Worse still, the study finds that on average 16-24 year old Britons perform worse on both numeracy and literacy than do 16-55 year olds – that is, educational achievement has gone backwards in recent times. The depth of failure is also astounding:

a quarter of adults in England have maths skills no better than a 10-year-old, a conclusion that also prompted a political row in which the Conservatives attacked Labour’s record in government.

That means an estimated 8.5 million adults are only able to manage one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers or reading graphs. The same body also concluded that one in six adults could only just decipher sentences and read a paragraph of text – the literacy level of a child in their final year of primary education.

This is a pretty disturbing indictment of the British education system. The rankings also show it is under-performing relative to other English-speaking nations, with Australia and Canada out-performing the UK on every measure and the US close behind the UK. South Korea is top in numeracy and Japan top in literacy, which finding is particularly staggering given that literacy in Japanese requires a huge commitment of time and effort just to learn the vocabulary in comparison with English. The UK government is trying to blame Labour, pointing out that a 24 year old tested by this report would have spent their entire education under Labour, but I think that’s a little simplistic – education systems are slow to shift, and education methods, infrastructure and workforce obviously have legacy affects that would strongly influence outcomes long after the government that set them has disappeared into the trash bin of history. The Guardian is taking a more nuanced approach, attempting to understand what it is about education policy in Japan that makes Japanese students so good. It makes the good and obviously alarming point about differences in attitude towards education between the countries:

Japanese senior high school teachers, and their pupils, are often incredulous when they learn that 16- to 18-year-olds in England can drop maths and literature and study just three A-level subjects of their choice.

Add me to the ranks of the incredulous. When I was finishing high school you had to do five subjects. What else would be reasonable? And to the best of my knowledge I could only drop maths in my final year, and had to do one science and one humanities amongst my five subjects. What do English students do with their time?

This article, however, also brings up the common criticism of Japan’s education system – in fact it brings it up twice – and presents this criticism as some kind of counter-balance to the system’s strong focus on rote learning and hard work. The article states:

Japan’s state education system is often criticised for quashing original thought among pupils in favour of rote learning, and for placing an emphasis on theory rather than practical skills …
The stress on memorising information and passing exams, which begins in primary school and continues through to senior high, has been blamed for stifling critical, independent thought

This is a personal bug bear of mine, and something I find really frustrating about western coverage of Japan in particular and of Asia generally, for two reasons: it exaggerates the extent to which western students learn “critical thought” and it valorizes western “critical thought” as something that somehow counter-balances ignorance, or has some kind of value separate from the basic knowledge and skills required to inform critical analysis.

In terms of exaggeration, I remember growing up in the Australian school system, entering university, and interacting with peers during that period, and I can’t say that between us we had a shred of critical thought. We all failed essays at university and had to be taught a whole bunch of things about analysis and critical thinking skills, and university tutors in the humanities will often talk about how the students they get in first year are just repeating rote what they learnt from parents and peers. So the idea that western schools are a haven of critical thinking strikes me as a little exaggerated. Yes, high school students in the west spend more time spouting their opinions in essays than Japanese students, but so what? I’m sure that lots of British students have spent time in the library photocopying their arsehole, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at art.

But more importantly – and the reason this annoys me – critical thinking is a complete waste of time, and can even be counter-productive, if it is alloyed with ignorance and an inability to read. Let’s review the facts about one in six adults in the UK, who could “only just read a paragraph of text.” Why don’t we slap down the IPCC summary for policy makers in front of one of these adults and ask them to critically analyse it. Are they going to produce an analysis with any critical value, no matter how well they learnt to spray their opinions at school? I don’t think so – especially if they have maths skills no better than a 10-year-old. Perhaps it might be better if these adults were first able to understand the IPCC summary, before they embarked on a critique. Indeed, it might be better if these adults refrained from criticizing things they can’t read, because if you don’t understand something it’s likely your critical thinking about it is going to be of little value. You cannot present “independent, critical thought” as a boon independent of the skills that underlie basic comprehension, because one depends on the other. This isn’t to say that both can’t be taught in school, but it’s clear that the UK and US are not doing that. If you teach “critical thought” without teaching the skills it depends on, what you are actually teaching is rhetoric: the ability to bend facts to support your pre-conceived ideological goals. That this is taught in UK schools is not a positive thing.

Critical, independent thinking is not actually a hallmark of western culture: spouting opinions is. If we are such good critical independent thinkers, how come we got lied into a war in Iraq, participated in the massive con that was the housing bubble and the GFC, still haven’t come up with a solution to global warming, and managed to wage the biggest and most disastrous war in human history (WW2). Is it possible that what we see is a virtue is actually a flaw? Or, more likely, we aren’t doing it at all? After all, the land of limited independent thought, Japan, has a low crime rate, high employment, little inequality, and has a strong opposition to engaging in any form of war. They have an economy much larger than their population would be expected to have, exert a significant positive influence in the world, and make all the stuff you use even though they have no resources to speak of. Perhaps an education system that doesn’t focus on “independent, critical thinking” is more beneficial to society than one that does? Or perhaps the West is so full of its own opinions that it mistakes ranting for thinking?

This article’s platitudes about critical thought might go down well with educated British readers, but to me they’re just another example of the standard rhetorical footwork employed by journalists about Japan: on the one hand, a weak and stereotypical assessment of Japanese as conformist; and on the other, a triumphalist reassurance that westerners are all free-thinking individuals. Both of these two steps in the movement are wrong, and the underlying assumptions about the value of critical thinking to a functioning society, as well as the facts about how prepared western school leavers are to engage in such thought processes are also deeply flawed. A little more nuance would be nice.

Also of passing interest in this debate that the UK will now have with itself over its education policies is the role of inequality, and the relative benefits of development compared to birthrates in preparing for the future. How can the education levels of young adults in the UK be going backwards at the same time as average GCSE scores are going up? One answer, readily deployed by conservatives, is “grade inflation.” The other answer is inequality: that if you looked into the background of that “one in six adults” you would find they were much more likely to be poor and from certain areas. Japan, of course, has very little inequality compared to the US and the UK, and Australia and Canada are much more equal than the US and the UK. Interesting how the rankings seem to reflect the inequality within these countries. Also, if one in six of your young adults lack basic literacy and one in four of your adults lack basic numeracy, I think it’s safe to say that you have a problem with your workforce, and no industrialized, developed nation can hope to maintain its economic and cultural development with this kind of lack of investment in its workforce. Although England has a higher birthrate than Japan or South Korea, which country has the larger number of suitable new entrants to its workforce? Who is better placed to maintain a high-skilled pool of workers? The UK with something like 20% of its workers incapable of even basic office duties, or Japan and South Korea? Maintaining birth rates is not the be-all and end-all of maintaining a sustainable social order, especially if a large minority of all those born are going to grow up to be completely unable to contribute to the economy. British policy-makers need to be looking at the long-term implications of their education and industrial strategies (such as they have any) if they want to maintain anything resembling the quality of life that modern industrialized economies have come to expect.

Perhaps they could start by reassessing what they consider to be educational priorities, and trying to look beyond party-political point-scoring. “It’s Labour’s fault” is hardly a sterling example of the “critical thought” that UK policy-makers supposedly learnt at school. But then, maybe it’s an alternative when you don’t have the skills to read the report …