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Some Surprising Findings About Learning in the Classroom

  • The quality of the teacher doesn't affect how much students learn (that doesn't mean it doesn't affect other factors — e.g., interest and motivation).
  • Low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences.
  • More able students learn more because they seek out other learning opportunities.
  • Tests, more than measuring a student’s learning, reflect the student’s motivation.

I want to talk to you this month about an educational project that’s been running for some years here in New Zealand. The Project on Learning spent three years (1998-2000) studying, in excruciating detail, the classroom experiences of 9-11 year olds. The study used miniature videocameras, individually worn microphones, as well as trained observers, to record every detail of the experiences of individual students during the course of particular science, maths, or social studies units. The students selected were a randomly chosen set of four, two girls, two boys, two above average ability, two below average ability. 16 different classrooms were involved in the study.

On the basis of this data, the researchers came to a number of startling conclusions. Here are some of them (as reported by Emeritus Professor Graham Nuthall on national radio):

* that students learn no more from experienced teachers than they learn from beginning teachers

* that students learn no more from award-winning teachers than teachers considered average

* that students already know 40-50% of what teachers are trying to teach them

* that there are enormous individual differences in what students learned from the same classroom experiences — indeed, hardly any two students learned the same things

* that low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences

This is amazing stuff!

We do have to be careful what lesson we draw from this. For example, I don’t think we should draw the conclusion that it doesn’t matter whether a teacher is any good or not. For a start, the study didn’t use bad teachers (personally, I had one university lecturer who actually put my knowledge of the subject into deficit — I started out knowing something about the subject (calculus), and by the time I’d spent several months listening to him, I was hopelessly confused). Secondly, there are lots of other aspects to the classroom experience than simply what the student learns from a particular study unit.

Nevertheless, the idea that a student learns as much from an okay teacher as from a great one, is startling. Here’s a quote from Professor Nuttall: “Teachers like the rest of us are concerned for student learning and assume that learning will flow naturally from interesting and engaging classroom activities. But it does not.” !

It’s not so surprising that different students learn different things from the same experiences — we all knew that — but we perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the degree to which that is true. But of course the most surprising thing is that low ability students learn just as much as high ability students when exposed to the same experiences. That, is no doubt the finding that most people will find hardest to believe. Clearly the more able students are learning more than the less able, so how does that work?

According to the researchers, “a significant proportion of the critical learning experiences for the more able students were those that they created for themselves, with their peers, or on their own. The least able students relied much more on the teacher for creating effective learning opportunities.”

This does in fact fit in with my own experiences: marveling at my son’s knowledge of various subjects, on a number of occasions I have questioned him about the origins of such knowledge. Invariably, it turns out that his knowledge came from books he had read at home, rather than anything he was taught at school. (And please believe I am not knocking my son’s schools or his teachers; I have been reasonably happy, most of the time, with these).

In this interview, Professor Nuthall mentioned another finding that has come out of the research — that tests, more than measuring a student’s learning, reflect the student’s motivation. “When a student is highly motivated to do the best they can on a test, then that test will measure what they know or can do. When that motivation is not there (as it is not for most students most of the time) then the test only measures what they can be bothered to do.”


Professor Nuthall’s research studies were cited in the 3rd edition of the Handbook of Research on Teaching (the “bible” for teaching research) as one of the five or six most significant research projects in the world. The research team of Professor Nuthall and Dr Adrienne Alton-Lee (who invented the techniques used in the Project on Learning) was cited in the most recent edition as one of the leading research teams in the history of research on teaching.

[see below for some of the academic publications that report the findings of the Project on Learning (plus an early article on the techniques used in the Project)]

The wider picture

An OECD report on learning cites that, for more than a century, one in six have reported that they hate/hated school, and a similar number failed to achieve sufficient literacy and numeracy skills to be securely employable. The report asks the question: “Maybe traditional education as we know it inevitably offends one in six pupils?”

In a recent special report on education put out by CNN, it is claimed that, in the U.S., charter schools (publicly financed schools that operate largely independent of government regulation) now count nearly 700,000 students. And, most tellingly, recent figures put the number of children taught at home at more than a million, a 29% jump from 1999. (To put this in context, there are apparently some 54 million students in the U.S.).

One could argue that the rise in people seeking alternatives to a traditional education is a direct response to the (many) failings of public education, but this is assuredly a simplistic answer. Public education has always had major problems. At different times and places, these problems have been different, but a mass education system will never be suitable for every child. Nor can it ever, by its nature (basically a factory system, designed to instil required skills in as many children as possible), be the best for anyone.

Indeed, we are closer to a system that endeavors to approach students as individuals than we have ever been (we still have a long way to go, of course).

I believe the increased popularity of alternatives to public education reflects many factors, but most particularly, the simple awareness that there ARE alternatives, and the increased lack of faith in professionals and experts.

Impaired reading skills are found in some 20% of children. No educational system in the world has mastered the problem of literacy; every existing system produces an unacceptably high level of failures. So, we cannot point to a particular program of instruction and say, this is the answer. Indeed, I am certain that such an aim would be foredoomed to failure - given the differences between individuals, how can anyone believe that there is some magic bullet that will work on everyone?

Having said that, we have a far greater idea now of the requirements of an effective literacy program. [see Reading and Research from the National Reading Panel]

These articles originally appeared in the August and September 2004 newsletters.


Project on Learning references

  • Nuthall, G. A. & Alton-Lee, A. G. 1993. Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: A theory of student knowledge acquisition in classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 30 (4), 799-840.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 1999. Learning how to learn: the evolution of students’ minds through the social processes and culture of the classroom. International Journal of Educational Research, 31 (3), 139 – 256.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 1999. The way students learn: Acquiring knowledge from an integrated science and social studies unit. Elementary School Journal, 99, 303-341.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 2000. How children remember what they learn in school. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.
  • Nuthall, G. A. 2001. Understanding how classroom experiences shape students’ minds. Unterrichtswissenschaft: Zeitschrift für Lernforschung, 29 (3), 224-267.

Homework revisited

At the same time as a group of French parents and teachers have called for a two-week boycott of homework (despite the fact that homework is officially banned in French primary schools), and just after the British government scrapped homework guidelines, a large long-running British study came out in support of homework.

The study has followed some 3000 children from preschool through (so far) to age 14 (a subset of around 300 children didn’t attend preschool but were picked up when they started school). The latest report from the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE), which has a much more complete database to call on than previous studies, has concluded that, for those aged 11-14, time spent on homework was a strong predictor of academic achievement (in three core subjects).

While any time spent on homework was helpful, the strongest effects were seen in those doing homework for 2-3 hours daily. This remained true even after prior self-regulation was taken into account.

Of course, even with such a database as this, it is difficult to disentangle other positive factors that are likely to correlate with homework time — factors such as school policies, teacher expectations, parental expectations. Still, this study gives us a lot of data we can mull over and speculate about.

For example, somewhat depressingly, only a quarter of students (28%) said they were sometimes given individualized work, and many weren’t impressed by the time it took some teachers to mark and return their homework (only 68% of girls, and 75% of boys, agreed that ‘Most teachers mark and return my homework promptly’), or with the standards of the work required (49% of those whose family had no educational qualifications, 34% of those whose family had school or vocational qualifications, and 30% of those whose family had higher qualifications, agreed with the statement that ‘teachers are easily satisfied’ — suggesting among other things that teachers of less privileged students markedly underestimate their students’ abilities). Also depressingly, over a third (36%) agreed with the statement that ‘pupils who work hard are given a hard time by others’ (again, this breaks down into quite different proportions depending on the student’s background, with 46% of those in the lowest ‘Home Learning Environment’ agreeing with the statement, decreasing steadily through the ranks to finally reach 27% (still too high!) among those in the highest HLE).

One supposed benefit of homework that has been much touted, especially by those who are in the ‘homework for the sake of homework’ camp, is that of teaching self-regulation (although it can, and has, be equally argued that, by setting useless homework, teachers weaken self-regulation). While the present study did find social-behavioral benefits associated with homework, which would seem to support the former view, these benefits were only seen in relation to behavior at age 14, not to any changes between 11 and 14. In other words, homework wasn’t affecting change over time. This would seem to argue against the idea that doing homework teaches children how to manage their own learning.

Another interesting (of the many) key findings of the report concerns children who ‘succeed against the odds’ — that is, they do better than expected considering their socioeconomic or personal circumstances. Parents of these children tend to engage in ‘active cultivation’ — reading and talking to them when young, providing them with many and wide-ranging learning experiences throughout their childhood, supporting and encouraging their learning. Such support tended to be lacking for those children who did not transcend their circumstances, whose parents often felt helpless about parenting and about education.

In view of my last blog post, I would also like to particularly note that ‘good’ students tended to have a strong internal locus of control, while ‘poor’ students tended to feel helplessness, and had the belief that the ability to learn was an inborn talent (that they didn’t possess).

But education providers shouldn’t simply blame the parents! Teachers, too, are important, and those students who succeeded against the odds also attributed part of their success to supportive and empowering teachers, while those disadvantaged students who didn’t succeed mentioned the high number of supply teachers and disorganized lessons.

There is also a role for peers, and for extracurricular activities — families with academically successful children tended to value extracurricular activities, while those with less successful students viewed them, dismissively, as ‘fun’, rather than of any educational value.

You can download the full report at  or see the summary at

There’s a lot of controversy about the value of homework, for understandable reasons. And the inconsistent findings of homework research point to the fact that we can’t say, simplistically, that all children of [whatever age] should do [so many] hours of homework. Because it rests on the quality and context of the homework, and the interaction with the individual. Homework may be an effective strategy, but it is one that is all too often carried out ineffectively.

Homework for the sake of homework is always a bad idea, and if the teacher can’t articulate what the purpose of the homework is (or that purpose isn’t a good one!), then they shouldn’t set it.

So what are good purposes for homework?

The most obvious is to perform tasks that can’t, for reasons of time or resources, be accomplished in the classroom. But this, of course, is less straightforward than it appears. Practice, for example, would seem to be a clear contender, but optimally distributed retrieval practice (i.e., testing — see also this news report and this) is usually best done in the classroom. Projects generally require time and resources beyond the classroom, but parts of the project may well require school resources or group activity or teacher feedback.

Maybe we should turn this question around: what are classrooms good for?

Contrary to popular practice, the simple regurgitation of information, from teacher to student, is not what classrooms are best used for. Such information is more efficiently absorbed from texts or videos or podcasts — which students can read/watch/listen to as often as they need to. No, there are five main activities for which classrooms are best suited:

  • Group activities (including class discussion)
  • Activities involving school resources (such as science experiments — I am using ‘classroom’ broadly)
  • Praxis (as seen in the apprenticeship model — a skill or activity is modeled by a skilled practitioner for students to imitate; the practitioner provides feedback)
  • Motivation (the teacher engages and enthuses the students; teacher and peer feedback provides on-going help to stay on-task)
  • Testing (not to put students under pressure to perform on tests that will decide their future, but because retrieval practice is the best strategy for learning there is — that is, testing needs to be done in a completely different way, and with students and teachers understanding that these tests are for the purposes of learning, not as a judgment on ability)

All of this is why the flipped classroom model is becoming so popular. I’m a great fan of this, although of course it needs to be done well. Here’s some links for those who want to learn more about this:

An article on flipped classrooms, what they are and some teachers’ and students’ experiences.

A case study of ‘flipped classroom’ use at Byron High School, where math mastery has jumped from 30% in 2006 to 74% in 2011 according to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

A brief interview with high school chemistry teacher Jonathan Bergmann, who now helps other teachers ‘flip’ their classrooms, and is co-author of a forthcoming book on the subject.

But there's one reason for all the argument on the homework issue that doesn't get a lot of airtime, and that is that there is no clear consensus on what school is for and what students should be getting out of it. And maybe part of the reason for that is that, for some people (some teachers, some education providers and officials), they don’t want to articulate what they believe school is all about, because they know many people would be outraged by their opinions. But if you think some people are going to be appalled, maybe you should rethink your thoughts!

Now of course different individuals are going to want different things from education, but until all parties can front up and lay out clearly exactly what they think school is for, then we’re not going to be able to construct a system and a curriculum that teaches effectively and reliably across the board.

Which is not to say I think we'd all agree. But if people openly and honestly put their agenda on the table, then we could openly state what particular schools are for, and different guidelines and assessment tools could be used appropriately.

But first and and most important: everyone (students, teachers, and parents) needs to realize that, notwithstanding the role of genes, intelligence and learning ‘talents’ are far from fixed. ((I’ve talked about this on a number of occasions, but if you want to read more about this, and the importance of self-regulation, from another source, check out this blog post at Scientific American.) If a child is not learning, it is a failure of a number of aspects of their situation, but it is not (absent severe brain damage), because the child is too stupid or lazy. (On which subject, you might like to read a great article in the Guardian about 'Poor economics'.)

What I think about homework is that we should get away completely from this homework/classwork divide. What we need to do is decide what work the student needs to do (to fulfil the articulate purpose), and then divide that into work that is most effectively (given the student's circumstances) done in the classroom and work that is best done in the student's own time and at their own pace.

So what do you think?

Maybe it has nothing to do with self-control

A Scientific American article talks about a finding that refines a widely-reported association between self-regulation and academic achievement. This association relates to the famous ‘marshmallow test’, in which young children were left alone with a marshmallow, having been told that if they could hold off eating it until the researcher returns, they would get two marshmallows. The ability of the young pre-school children to wait has been linked to subsequent achievement at school, and indeed has been said to be as important as IQ.

The finding relates to other factors that might be involved in a child’s decision not to wait — specifically, children who live in an environment where anything they had could be taken away at any time, make a completely rational choice by not waiting.

Another recent study makes a wider point: the children in the classical paradigm don’t know how long they will have to wait. This, the researchers say, changes everything.

A survey of adults asked to imagine themselves in a variety of scenarios, in which they were told the amount of time they had been at an activity such as watching a movie, practicing the piano, or trying to lose weight, were asked how long they thought it would be until they reached their goal or the end. There were marked differences in responses depending on whether the scenario had a relatively well-defined length or was more ambiguous.

Now, this in itself is no surprise. What is a surprise is that, rather than the usual feeling that the longer you’ve waited the closer you are to the end, when you don’t know anything about when the outcome will occur, the reverse occurs: the longer you wait the more you think you’re getting farther and farther away from that outcome.

The researchers suggest that this changes the interpretation of the marshmallow test — not in terms of predicting ability to delay gratification, but in terms of the mechanism behind it. Rather than reflecting two opposing systems fighting it out (your passionate id at war with your calculating super-ego), waiting for a while then giving in may be perfectly rational behavior. It may not be about ‘running out’ of will-power at all.

According to this model, which fits the observed behavior, and which I have to say makes perfect sense to me, there are three factors that influence persistence:

  • beliefs about time — which in this context has to do with how the predicted delay changes over time, i.e., do you believe that the remaining length of time is likely to be the same, shorter, or longer;
  • perceived reward magnitude — how much more valuable the delayed reward is to you than the immediate reward;
  • temporal discount rate — how much shorter time is valued.

A crucial point about temporal beliefs is that they can change as time passes. So, if you’re waiting for a bus, then the reasonable thing to believe is that, the longer you wait, the less time you will have left to wait. But what about if you’re waiting at a stop very late at night? In that case, the longer you wait, the more certain you might become that a bus will not in fact be coming for many hours. How about when you text someone? You probably start off expecting a reply right away, but the longer you wait the longer you expect to wait (if they’re not answering right away, it might be hours; they might not even see your text at all).

Another important aspect of these factors is that they are subjective (especially the last two), and will vary with an individual. This places ‘failures’ on differences in an individual’s temporal discount rate and perceived reward magnitude, rather than on poor self-control.

But what about the evidence that performance on this test correlates with later academic achievement? Well, temporal discount rate also appears to show ‘trait-like stability over time’, and has also been found to correlate with cognitive ability. Temporal discount rate, it seems to me, has a clear connection to motivation, and I have talked before about the way motivation can make a significant impact to someone’s IQ score or exam performance.

So maybe we should move away from worries about ‘self-control’, and start thinking about why some people put a higher value on short waiting times than others — how much of this is due to early experiences? what can we do about it?

We also need to think very hard about the common belief that persistence is always a virtue. If you’re waiting for a bus that hasn’t come after an hour, and it’s now one in the morning, your best choice is probably to give up and find some other means home.

Although persistence is often regarded as a virtue, misguided persistence can waste time and resources and can therefore defeat one's chances of success at superordinate goals . . . Rather than assuming that persistence is generally adaptive, the issue should be conceptualized as making judgments about when persistence will be effective and when it will be useless or even self-defeating. (Baumeister & Scher, 1988, pp. 12–13)

All of which is to say that, as with all human behavior, persistence (sometimes equated to ‘will-power’; sometimes to 'self-regulation') is a product of both the individual and the environment. If some children are doing well and others are not, perhaps you shouldn’t be attributing this to stable traits of the children, but to the way different children perceive the situation.

Nor is it only in the academic environment that these things matter. Our ability to delay gratification and our motivation are attributes that underlie our behavior and our success across our lives. If we turn these ‘attributes’ around and, instead of seeing them as personal traits, rather see them as dynamic attributes that reflect situational factors that interact with personal attributes, then we have a better chance of getting the results we want. If we can pinpoint perceived reward and temporal discount rate as critical factors in this individual — environment interaction, we know exactly what variables to consider and manipulate.

We are built to like simple solutions — a number, a label that we can pin on ourselves or another — but surely we have become sufficiently sophisticated that we can now handle more complex information? We need to move from considering people, whether ourselves or others, as independent agents acting in a vacuum, to considering them as part of an indissoluble organism — environment interacting unit. Let’s get away from a fixation on IQ scores, or SAT scores, or even complex multi-factorial scores, and realize those, even the most predictive ones, are only ever one part of the story. No one is the same person at every moment, and it’s time we took that point more seriously.


McGuire, J. T., & Kable, J. W. (2013). Rational Temporal Predictions Can Underlie Apparent Failures to Delay Gratification. Psychological Review, 120(2), 395–410. doi:10.1037/a0031910

Baumeister, R. F., & Scher, S. J. (1988). Self-defeating behavior patterns among normal individuals: Review and analysis of common self-destructive tendencies. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 3–22. doi:10.1037/ 0033-2909.104.1.3

Have benefits of a growth mindset been overstated?

  • A review of growth mind-set research has found the correlation between growth mind-set and academic achievement was very weak, and may be restricted to some groups of students.

In the education world, fixed mind-set is usually contrasted with growth mind-set. In this context, fixed mind-set refers to students holding the idea that their cognitive abilities, including their intelligence, are set at birth, and they just have to accept their limitations. With a growth mind-set, however, the student recognizes that, although it might be difficult, they can grow their abilities.

A growth mind-set has been associated with a much better approach to learning and improved academic achievement, but new research suggests that this difference has been over-stated.

A recent meta-analysis of growth mind-set research found that

  • over half the effect sizes weren't significantly different from zero (157 of 273 effect sizes),
  • a small number (16) actually found a negative association between growth mind-set and academic achievement, and
  • a little over a third (100) were significant and positive.

Overall, the study found the correlation between growth mind-set and academic achievement was very weak.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one important factor was age — children and teenagers showed significant effects, while adults did not. Interestingly, neither academic risk status nor socioeconomic status was a significant factor, although various studies have suggested that growth mind-set is much more important for at-risk students.

A second, smaller meta-analysis was carried out to investigate whether growth-set interventions made a significant impact on academic achievement. Such interventions are designed to increase students' belief that intelligence (or some other attribute) can be improved with effort.

The study found that

  • 37 of the 43 effect sizes (86%) were not significantly different from zero,
  • one effect size was negative, and
  • five were positive.

Age was not a factor, nor was at-risk status. However, socioeconomic status was important, in that students from low-SES households were significantly impacted by a growth mind-set intervention, while those from higher-SES households were not.

The type of intervention was important: just reading about growth mind-set didn't help; doing something more interactive, such as writing a reflection, did. The number of sessions didn't have an effect. Oddly, the way the intervention was presented made a difference, with materials presented by computer or by a person not being effective, while print materials were. Interventions administered during regular classroom activities were not effective, but interventions that occurred outside regular activities did have a significant effect.

Taken overall, the depressing conclusion is that mind-set interventions are not the revolution some have touted them as. The researchers point out that previous research (Hattie et al 1996) found that the meta-analytic average effect size for a typical educational intervention on academic performance is 0.57, and all the meta-analytic effects of mind-set interventions in this study were smaller than 0.35 (and most were null).

All this is to say, not that mind-set theory is rubbish, but that it is not as straightforward and miraculous as it first appeared. Mind-set itself is more nuanced than has been presented. For example, do we really have a definite fixed mind-set or growth mind-set? Or is it that we have different mind-sets for different spheres? Perhaps we believe that our math ability is fixed, but our musical ability is something that can be developed. That we can develop our problem-solving ability, but our intelligence is set in stone. That our 'natural talents' can be grown, but our 'innate weaknesses' cannot.

Why would low-SES and high-risk students benefit from a growth mind-set intervention, while higher-SES students did not? An obvious answer lies in the beliefs held by such students. For example, it may be that many higher-SES students are challenged by the idea of a growth mind-set, because they're invested in the idea of their own natural abilities. It is their confidence in their own abilities that enables them to do well, just as other students are undermined by their lack of confidence. Given this different starting point, it would not be in any way surprising if such students responded differently to mind-set interventions.


Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549–571.

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie, N. (1996). Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 66, 99–136.


International Comparisons

Compulsory Education: When it starts and how long it lasts

Around the world, for the most part, compulsory schooling starts at 6, although some start at 7, and a very few at 5 or even younger. There is less consensus about how long compulsory education should last, but 9 years is the most common length, with 10 years running a close second.

Although most countries are at least consistent within their own borders, a few countries have no national policy, but instead operate at a state/provincial level. Thus, in the United States, commencement age ranges from 5-7, depending on state, and length of compulsory education varies from 9 years to 13. Similarly, in Canada, commencement age is either 6 or 7, and students are required to attend school for 10 to 13 years. Australia and Germany likewise show variability between states/Länder, but not to the same extent.

International Comparisons

  Commencement of compulsory schooling No. of years compulsory education
Australia 6 9-101
Austria 6 9
Belgium 6 12
Canada 6/71 10-131
Czech Republic 6 9
Denmark 7 9
Finland 7 9
France 6 10
Germany 6 9-10 full-time + 3 part-time1
Greece 6 9
Hungary 6 12
Iceland 6 10
Ireland 6 9
Italy 6 9
Japan 6 9
Korea 6 9
Luxembourg 6 10
Netherlands 5 12 + 1 part-time
New Zealand 62 10
Norway 6 10
Poland 7 12
Portugal 6 8
Singapore 6/7 104
Spain 6 10
Sweden 7 9
Switzerland 6 9
United Kingdom 53; 4 in Nth Ireland 11
United States 5/6/71 (most commonly 6) 9-131
  1. varies between states/provinces
  2. 6 is compulsory, but 5 is universal
  3. 5 is compulsory, but many children start at 4
  4. 6 years are compulsory; an extra 4 is universal but not compulsory

United States: Variation between States


Compulsory Education






6-16 (or completion of grade 10)











District of Columbia










































New Hampshire


New Jersey


New Mexico


New York


North Carolina


North Dakota










Rhode Island


South Carolina


South Dakota









6-16 (or completion of grade 10)





West Virginia





7-16 (or completion of grade 10)

[information taken from]

Canada: Variation between Provinces/Territories


Compulsory Education



British Columbia








Northwest Territories




New Brunswick


Nova Scotia


Prince Edward Island






[information taken from ]

School structure: Segregating by ability

This refers to the custom in some countries of having completely separate schools for students of different academic ability (generally an "academic" school versus a "vocational" or "technical" school), rather than to the practice of streaming within schools.

No country that I know of segregates children at primary level, but a number choose to do so at secondary level. Germany and Hungary do so at a younger age than most, although England, the Netherlands and Switzerland also offer the option of attending a school that caters only for academic or non-academic students (as opposed to enforced segregation). The practice of separate schools is a little more common at upper secondary level: France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Switzerland join the ranks of those enforcing a choice, and Spain provides the option. Australia, Canada, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States don't have the practice of having separate schools for those of different ability, although Canada did to some extent, and some of these schools still exist.

School structure: Progression between classes

There is no strong majority in favor of either allowing students to automatically move on to the next class or requiring them to reach a certain standard. Australia, England, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Wales automatically move their students on, Canada does at the primary level and sometimes does at the secondary level, and Italy generally does at the primary level but mostly doesn't at the secondary level. France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Switzerland require their students to reach a certain standard. And Sweden and the United States sometimes do and sometimes don't.

Textbook selection

There's an interesting range among countries as regards school textbooks. In some cases, it's entirely up to the teacher. In other cases, school boards or other official bodies determine what will be used. Some Governments supply a list of "approved" textbooks, from which texts must be chosen.

Teachers have free choice in Australia, Canada, England & Wales, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and some American States. Recommended lists are provided in Canada, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland. An official list of approved texts is provided in France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and in about half of American States.


More details comparing different countries' educational systems can be found at:

International Curricula

A number of countries have national curricula: France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom. Most States in the U.S. follow common guidelines for a core curriculum, although there is no national curriculum as such.

Around the world, there is general agreement that primary/elementary schools must cover the national language, mathematics, science, history, geography, and social studies/civics. Most countries agree that the arts, physical education, health, ethics, life skills should also be covered.

The most obvious source of variation between countries at the elementary/primary level lies in the teaching of languages other than the national language. (In those cases where there is more than one national language, it is generally the case that the student has the option of selecting their native language). Despite the fact that it is generally recognized that languages are best learned young, and that there is no evidence that learning a second language impairs understanding of the child's native language, few countries require their young children to learn a second language, or even offer them the chance to do so.

Below are details of some national curricula:

England France Iceland Japan New Zealand Spain


Compulsory education is divided into four key stages:

  • Key stage 1 covers ages 5-7 (primary school)
  • Key stage 2 covers ages 7+-11 (primary school)
  • Key stage 3 covers ages 11-14 (lower secondary)
  • Key stage 4 covers ages 14-16 (lower secondary)

Students take national tests called SATs or Key Stage tests at the end of the first 3 key stages (at 7, 11 and 14).

At primary level (Key Stages 1 and 2), students study:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Design and technology
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • History
  • Geography
  • Art and design
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Religious education

Schools are advised to teach personal, social and health education, citizenship and at least one modern foreign language, but these are not compulsory. In the first phase of the lower secondary level (Key Stage 3), students study:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • Design and technology
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern foreign languages
  • Art and design
  • Music
  • Citizenship
  • Physical education
  • Religious education, Personal, social and health education (PSHE), Careers education (compulsory, but not part of the National Curriculum)

Opportunity for optional subjects begins at Key Stage 4. The compulsory subjects are:

  • English
  • Maths
  • Science
  • Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
  • Physical education
  • Citizenship
  • Religious education, careers education and sex education (compulsory, but not part of the National Curriculum)

You can read more about the English National Curriculum at:


In France, primary schools cover the first 5 years of formal education. Primary education is divided into three "cours":

  • cours préparatoire (CP)
  • cours élementaire 1 and 2 (CEl/CE2)
  • cours moyen 1 and 2 (CM1/CM2)

The first two occur in the first three years; the cours moyen cover the last two years.

Secondary schooling is divided into two successive stages, known as cycles. Collège goes from form 6 (sixième) to form 3 (troisième), covering ages 11-15. This last year at collège is the first point at which students have a choice regarding some of the subjects they wish to study. After collège, students move onto a general, technical or vocational lycée.

The 1990 primary level curriculum alloted French and social studies between 10 and 13 hours weekly; mathematics, science, and technology 6 to 10 hours; and physical and artistic education 6 to 8 hours. At collège, the national curriculum prescribes French, mathematics, a foreign language, history/geography/economics, civics, biology, plastic arts, music, technology, and physical education; physics and chemistry are added in the last two years. There is a choice between Latin, Greek, a second foreign language and extra classes in the first foreign language. In the final two years, there is a choice between different branches of technology.

Although students attend differently oriented lycée, the core subjects remain the same for all students (French, mathematics, a foreign language, history/geography/economics, civics, biology, physics, chemistry, technology, and physical education).


Compulsory school is divided into ten grades. Usually, schools either include all ten grades, or they cover grades one to seven or grades eight to ten. All compulsory schools are co-educational. Grades 1-4 (6 to 9 years) have 30 lessons a week, Grades 5-7 (10-12 years) have 35 lessons, and Grades 8-10 (13-15) have 37 lessons.

The National Curriculum specifies that over the course of these ten years, school time should be divided among the subjects in the following approximate ratios:

  • Icelandic 19%
  • Mathematics 17%
  • Natural sciences 9%
  • Social and religious studies 10%
  • Physical education 10%
  • Arts and crafts 11%
  • Modern languages 11%
  • Home economics 4%
  • ICT 6%
  • Life skills 2%

The first five are subjects which all pupils study from grade 1 through grade 9. Instruction in other subjects starts later. Both Danish and English become compulsory at later levels. In the 10th and final grade all pupils study Icelandic, mathematics, English, Danish, natural sciences, social studies, life skills and physical education, while other subjects and electives vary.

Upper secondary schools (not compulsory) come in four types:

  • grammar schools that offer four-year academic programmes of study;
  • industrial-vocational schools, which offer theoretical and practical programmes of study in skilled and some non-skilled trades;
  • comprehensive schools that provide academic programmes comparable to those of the grammar schools and vocational programmes similar to those offered by the industrial-vocational schools, as well as other specialised vocational training programmes;
  • specialised vocational schools which offer programmes of study in preparation for specialised employment.

For a more detailed discussion of the Icelandic system:  [updated link]


The Japanese education system consists of three years of pre-compulsory education (Kindergarten) (3- to 6-year-olds), six years of primary (elementary) education (6-12 years), three years of lower secondary (junior high school) education (aged 12-15) and three years of upper secondary education (senior high school) (15- to 18-year-olds). Some schools are being introduced combining lower and upper secondary education within one institution.

For elementary and secondary schools, the Ministry specifies how many hours (an "hour" is a class period of 45 minutes) per week must be spent on each subject at each year level. This is the prescription for elementary schools:

  1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year 5th year 6th year


306 315 280 280 210 210
Social studies     105 105 105 105


136 175 175 175 175 175
Science     105 105 105 105

Life Environment studies

102 105        


68 70 70 70 70 70

Drawing & Handicrafts

68 70 70 70 70 70
Homemaking         70 70

Physical education

102 105 105 105 105 105

Moral education

34 35 35 35 35 35
Class/school activities 34 35 35 70 70 70


850 910 980 1015 1015 1015

Here is the prescription for lower secondary schools (note that an "hour" is now defined as a period of 50 minutes):

  1st year 2nd year 3rd year


175 140 140
Social studies 140 140 70-105


105 140 140
Science 105 105 105-140


70 35-70 35

Fine Arts

70 35-70 35

Health & Physical education

105 105 105-140
Industrial Arts & Homemaking 70 70 70-105
Moral education 35 35 35
Class/school activities 35-70 35-70 35-70
Elective subjects 105-140 105-210 140-280


1050 1050 1050

For more details on the Japanese educational system, go to:

New Zealand

The New Zealand school system is divided into primary and secondary. Primary schooling covers the years from 5 to 12 (the compulsory starting age is 6, but it is the custom for children to begin at 5); secondary from 13-18. There are also schools known as intermediates, which cover Year 7 and 8 students (11-12 years). Some primary schools finish at Year 6, and their students go on to an intermediate; other primaries go up to Year 8, but their students may choose to go to an intermediate.

The New Zealand curriculum for primary and secondary school students includes seven essential learning areas: Language and Languages, Mathematics, Science, Technology, Social Sciences, The Arts, Health and Physical Well-being. The New Zealand Curriculum Framework also includes eight groups of essential skills to be developed by all students across the whole curriculum: communication, numeracy, information, problem-solving, self-management, social, physical, and work and study.

You can find more about the New Zealand educational system at:


Three major sections comprise the compulsory Spanish curriculum - Infant education (0 to 6 years), Primary education (6 to 12 years), and Secondary education (12 to 16 years). Fifty-five percent of the curriculum is compulsory, and the remaining forty-five percent is the responsibility of the Spanish territories.

Primary Education (6-12 years) is organized into three two-year cycles (6-8, 8-10,10-12). The curriculum stipulates six compulsory areas of knowledge:

  • Spanish Language and Literature, and where appropriate, the Language and Literature in the respective Autonomous Community;
  • Mathematics;
  • Natural, Social and Cultural Environment (science, geography, history);
  • Artistic Education (art, music, drama);
  • Physical Education;
  • Foreign Languages (compulsory from age 8 -- the start of the second primary cycle).

The number of school hours per cycle is also stipulated:

  1st cycle 2nd & 3rd cycles
Spanish Language & Literature 350 275
Mathematics 175 170
Knowledge of the Environment 175 170
Artistic Education 140 105
Physical Education 140 105
Foreign language   170
Religion/Social-cultural activities 105 105


1085 1100

Lower secondary education (12-16 years) is organised into 2 two-year cycles.Each subject area is assigned a minimum number of class hours, which together must not account for over 55% of the school schedule in Autonomous Communities with a co-official language other than Spanish, or more than 65% in other areas.

  1st cycle 2nd cycle
Spanish Language & Literature 245 240
Foreign languages 210 240
Mathematics 175 160
Natural Science 140 90
Social Studies, Geography, History 140 160
Physical Education 70 70
Plastic & Visual Education 35 35
Music 35 35
Technology 125 70
Religion/Study Hall 105 105


1280 1205


More links

To find your national or State curriculum, or investigate others, go to EDinformatics

More details comparing different countries' educational systems including curriculum information can be found at:…;


International Comparisons of Achievement

Two large-scale international studies have become established to compare countries' performance in the core subjects of literacy, mathematics and science.

TIMSS: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

TIMSS is an international study involving 50 countries that assesses math and science achievement at four year intervals. It has been running since 1995. Students are assessed in the 4th and 8th years of school, and in their final year. The next assessment round will be in 2007.

The study uses four benchmarks (advanced, high, intermediate, low) to gather a more complete picture of trends within a country. Thus we can not only approve high performing countries like Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Hong Kong, for having about 1/3 or more of their 8th grade students reach the advanced benchmark in mathematics, and about 2/3 to 3/4 reaching the high benchmark, but we can also note, for example, that although the Netherlands doesn't have high numbers reaching the advanced level (some 10% of 8th graders and 5% of 4th graders), it does at least do an excellent job of educating all its students, since 97% of its 8th graders and 99% of its 4th graders reach the low benchmark. It also enables us to spot trends across time — for example, in general, countries have improved their levels at the lower end, but not at the high end.


Grade 8 Advanced Benchmark

Students can organize information, make generalizations, solve non-routine problems, and draw and justify conclusions from data. They can compute percent change and apply their knowledge of numeric and algebraic concepts and relationships to solve problems. Students can solve simultaneous linear equations and model simple situations algebraically. They can apply their knowledge of measurement and geometry in complex problem situations. They can interpret data from a variety of tables and graphs, including interpolation and extrapolation.

Grade 8 High Benchmark

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a wide variety of relatively complex situations. They can order, relate, and compute with fractions and decimals to solve word problems, operate with negative integers, and solve multi-step word problems involving proportions with whole numbers. Students can solve simple algebraic problems including evaluating expressions, solving simultaneous linear equations, and using a formula to determine the value of a variable. Students can find areas and volumes of simple geometric shapes and use knowledge of geometric properties to solve problems. They can solve probability problems and interpret data in a variety of graphs and tables.

Grade 8 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can add, subtract, or multiply to solve one-step word problems involving whole numbers and decimals. They can identify representations of common fractions and relative sizes of fractions. They understand simple algebraic relationships and solve linear equations with one variable. They demonstrate understanding of properties of triangles and basic geometric concepts including symmetry and rotation. They recognize basic notions of probability. They can read and interpret graphs, tables, maps, and scales.

Grade 8 Low Benchmark

Students have some basic mathematical knowledge. The few items at this level provide some evidence that students can do basic computations with whole numbers without a calculator. They can select the two-place decimal closest to a whole number. They can multiply two-place decimal numbers by three-place decimal numbers with calculators available. They recognize some basic terminology and read information from a line on a graph.

Grade 4 Advanced Benchmark

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a wide variety of relatively complex situations. They demonstrate a developing understanding of fractions and decimals and the relationship between them. They can select appropriate information to solve multi-step word problems involving proportions. They can formulate or select a rule for a relationship. They show understanding of area and can use measurement concepts to solve a variety of problems. They show some understanding of rotation. They can organize, interpret, and represent data to solve problems.

Grade 4 High Benchmark

Student can apply their knowledge and understanding to solve problems. Student can solve multistep word problems involving addition, multiplication, and division. They can use their understanding of place value and simple fractions to solve problems. They can identify a number sentence that represents situations. Students show understanding of three-dimensional objects, how shapes can make other shapes, and simple transformation in a plane. They demonstrate a variety of measurement skills and can interpret and use data in tables and graphs to solve problems.

Grade 4 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can read, interpret, and use different representations of numbers. They can perform operations with three and four-digit numbers and decimals. They can extend simple patterns. They are familiar with a range of two-dimensional shapes and read and interpret different representations of the same data.

Grade 4 Low Benchmark

Students have some basic mathematical knowledge. Students demonstrate an understanding of whole numbers and can do simple computations with them. They demonstrate familiarity with the basic properties of triangles and rectangles. They can read information from simple bar graphs.


2003 Performance

In 2003, the international averages were:

Benchmark Grade 4 Grade 8
advanced 9% 7%
high 33% 23%
intermediate 63% 49%
low 82% 74%

There is quite a wide variation around these means. For example, Singapore is head and shoulders above everyone, scoring 44% advanced, 77% high, 93% intermediate, 99% low at grade 8, and 38% advanced, 73% high, 91% intermediate, 97% low at grade 4. The only countries that come close are also Asian: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (for Grade 8; grade 4 figures weren't available). The highest of the remaining countries at grade 8 was Hungary at 11% advanced, 41% high, 75% intermediate, 95% low, and at grade 4 England at 14% advanced, 43% high, 75% intermediate, 93% low -- a substantial difference in results! But still a vast improvement over those at the bottom of the table. Here's 2 tables roughly grouping countries, using the top performing country in each group as a benchmark:

Grade 8 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 44% 77% 93% 99%
Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Japan        
above average countries (Hungary) 11% 41% 75% 95%
Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Slovak Republic, Australia, United States        
slightly below average countries (Malaysia) 6% 30% 66% 93%
Malaysia, Russian Federation, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, England, New Zealand, Scotland        
below average countries (Romania) 4% 21% 52% 79%
Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Slovenia, Italy, Bulgaria, Armenia        
really below average countries (Cyprus) 1% 13% 45% 77%
Cyprus, Moldova, Macedonia, Jordan, Indonesia, Egypt, Norway, Lebanon, Palestinian National Authority, Iran, Chile, Philippines, Bahrain, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Botswana, Saudi Arabia, Ghana        

note that the range at the bottom end is still very large; although most of the countries in the last category at least got over 50% to the low benchmark, 8 did not -- the worst only got 9% through.

Grade 4 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 38% 73% 91% 97%
Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Chinese Taipei        
above average countries (England) 14% 43% 75% 93%
England, Russian Federation, Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary        
slightly below average countries (Cyprus) 6% 30% 66% 93%
Cyprus, United States, Moldova, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand        
below average countries (Scotland) 4% 21% 52% 79%
Scotland, Slovenia, Armenia, Norway        
really below average countries (Philippines) 1% 13% 45% 77%
Philippines, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco        

note that there are substantially fewer countries' results available at grade 4

You can find out more about international comparisons of achievements in mathematics, science and reading at the official website for TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) & PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study):

The full 2003 Mathematics Report can be downloaded at:


Grade 8 Advanced Benchmark

Students demonstrate a grasp of some complex and abstract science concepts. They can apply knowledge of the solar system and of Earth features, processes, and conditions, and apply understanding of the complexity of living organisms and how they relate to their environment.

They show understanding of electricity, thermal expansion, and sound, as well as the structure of matter and physical and chemical properties and changes. They show understanding of environmental and resource issues. Students understand some fundamentals of scientific investigation and can apply basic physical principles to solve some quantitative problems. They can provide written explanations to communicate scientific knowledge.

Grade 8 High Benchmark

Students demonstrate conceptual understanding of some science cycles, systems, and principles. They have some understanding of Earth’s processes and the solar system, biological systems, populations, reproduction and heredity, and structure and function of organisms. They show some understanding of physical and chemical changes, and the structure of matter. They solve some basic physics problems related to light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, and they demonstrate basic knowledge of major environmental issues. They demonstrate some scientific inquiry skills. They can combine information to draw conclusions; interpret information in diagrams, graphs and tables to solve problems; and provide short explanations conveying scientific knowledge and cause/effect relationships.

Grade 8 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can recognize and communicate basic scientific knowledge across a range of topics. They recognize some characteristics of the solar system, water cycle, animals, and human health. They are acquainted with some aspects of energy, force and motion, light reflection, and sound. Students demonstrate elementary knowledge of human impact on and changes in the environment. They can apply and briefly communicate knowledge, extract tabular information, extrapolate from data presented in a simple linear graph, and interpret pictorial diagrams.

Grade 8 Low Benchmark

Students recognize some basic facts from the life and physical sciences. They have some knowledge of the human body and heredity, and demonstrate familiarity with some everyday physical phenomena. Students can interpret some pictorial diagrams and apply knowledge of simple physical concepts to practical situations.

Grade 4 Advanced Benchmark

Students can apply knowledge and understanding in beginning scientific inquiry. Students demonstrate some understanding of Earth’s features and processes and the solar system. They can communicate their understanding of structure, function, and life processes in organisms and classify organisms according to major physical and behavioral features. They demonstrate some understanding of physical phenomena and properties of common materials. Students demonstrate beginning scientific inquiry knowledge and skills.

Grade 4 High Benchmark

Students can apply knowledge and understanding to explain everyday phenomena. Students demonstrate some knowledge of Earth structure and processes and the solar system and some understanding of plant structure, life processes, and human biology. They demonstrate some knowledge of physical states, common physical phenomena, and chemical changes. They provide brief descriptions and explanations of some everyday phenomena and compare, contrast, and draw conclusions.

Grade 4 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic knowledge and understanding to practical situations in the sciences. Students demonstrate knowledge of some basic facts about Earth’s features and processes and the solar system. They recognize some basic information about human biology and health and show some understanding of development and life cycles of organisms. They know some basic facts about familiar physical phenomena, states, and changes. They apply factual knowledge to practical situations, interpret pictorial diagrams, and combine information to draw conclusions.

Grade 4 Low Benchmark

Students have some elementary knowledge of the earth, life, and physical sciences. Students recognize simple facts presented in everyday language and context about Earth’s physical features, the seasons, the solar system, human biology, and the development and characteristics of animals and plants. They recognize facts about a range of familiar physical phenomena — rainbows, magnets, electricity, boiling, floating, and dissolving. They interpret labeled pictures and simple pictorial diagrams and provide short written responses to questions requiring factual information.


2003 Performance

In 2003, the international averages were:

Benchmark Grade 4 Grade 8
advanced 7% 6%
high 30% 25%
intermediate 63% 54%
low 82% 78%

There is, again, wide variation around these means. Singapore is again head and shoulders above everyone. The only countries that come close are also Asian: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (for Grade 8; grade 4 figures weren't available). The highest of the remaining countries at grade 8 was Hungary at 11% advanced, 41% high, 75% intermediate, 95% low, and at grade 4 England at 14% advanced, 43% high, 75% intermediate, 93% low — a substantial difference in results! But still a vast improvement over those at the bottom of the table. Here's 2 tables roughly grouping countries, using the top performing country in each group as a benchmark:

Grade 8 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 33% 66% 85% 95%
Singapore, Chinese Taipei        
above average countries (Republic of Korea) 17% 57% 88% 98%
Republic of Korea, Japan, Hungary, England, Hong Kong, Estonia        
slightly above average countries (United States) 11% 41% 75% 93%
United States, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Slovak Republic, Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovenia, Russian Federation, Scotland        
slightly below average countries (Israel) 5% 24% 57% 85%
Israel, Latvia, Malaysia, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Jordan, Norway        
below average countries (Serbia) 2% 16% 48% 79%
Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, Armenia, Palestinian National Authority, Egypt, Iran        
really below average countries (Chile) 1% 5% 24% 56%
Chile, South Africa, Cyprus, Bahrain, Indonesia, Lebanon, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Botswana, Ghana        

again the range at the bottom end is still very large; although many of the countries in the last category at least got over 50% to the low benchmark, 7 did not -- the worst only got 13% through.

Grade 4 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 25% 61% 86% 95%
Singapore, England, Chinese Taipei, United States, Japan        
above average countries (Russian Federation) 11% 39% 74% 93%
Russian Federation, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Latvia, Hong Kong        
slightly below average countries (Scotland) 5% 27% 66% 90%
Scotland, Moldova, Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovenia, Belgium        
really below average countries (Cyprus) 2% 17% 55% 86%
Cyprus, Norway, Armenia        
really below average countries (Philippines) 2% 6% 19% 34%
Philippines, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco        

note that there are substantially fewer countries' results available at grade 4

You can find out more about international comparisons of achievements in mathematics, science and reading at the official website for TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) & PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study):

The full 2003 Science Report can be downloaded at:


PIRLS is an international study of reading literacy involving 35 countries. It began in 2001, and is intended to take place every five years. It assesses performance at year 4 (around 10 years of age), although in a few cases the students are in their 3rd or 5th year of formal schooling. The PIRLS 2001 assessment was based on eight different texts of 400 to 700 words in length – four literary and four informational. Test items were designed to measure four major processes of reading comprehension:

  • Focus on and Retrieve Explicitly Stated Information.
    The student needed to recognize the relevance of the information or ideas presented in the text in relation to the information sought, but looking for specific information or ideas typically involved locating a sentence or phrase (approximately 20% of the assessment).
  • Make Straightforward Inferences.
    Based mostly on information contained in the texts, usually these types of questions required students to connect two ideas presented in adjacent sentences and fill in a “gap” in meaning. Skilled readers often make these kinds of inferences automatically, recognizing the relationship even though it is not stated in the text (approximately 40%).
  • Interpret and Integrate Ideas and Information.
    For these questions, students needed to process the text beyond the phrase or sentence level. Sometimes they were asked to make connections that were not only implicit, but needed to draw on their own knowledge and experiences (approximately 25%).
  • Examine and Evaluate Content, Language, and Textual Elements.
    These questions required students to draw on their knowledge of text genre and structure, as well as their understanding of language conventions and devices (approximately 15%).

23 of the 35 countries had average reading scores significantly above the international average of 500; the range was large, with the highest scoring country (Sweden) scoring 561, compared to the lowest scoring 327 (Belize). I've grouped them into five categories according to performance. As with the TIMSS results, the highest performing country in the group is the one whose average score is given:

  average range1
highest performing countries (Sweden) 561  
Sweden, Netherlands, England, Bulgaria, Latvia, Canada, Lithuania, Hungary, United States, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic   542-561
above average countries (New Zealand) 529  
New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore, Russian Federation, Hong Kong, France, Greece   524-529
average countries (Slovak Republic) 518  
Slovak Republic, Iceland, Romania, Israel, Slovenia, Norway   499-518
below average countries (Cyprus) 494  
Cyprus, Moldova, Turkey, Macedonia   442-494
really below average countries (Colombia) 422  
Colombia, Argentina, Iran, Kuwait, Morocco, Belize   327-422

1. the difference between the country with the lowest average and the one with the highest average

It should be noted that the range of difference between the highest 5% and lowest 5% of students in most countries was 200 to 300 points -- similar to the range in average performance across countries.

In all countries, girls had significantly higher achievement than boys. Italy had the smallest difference, with an 8-point difference compared an 11-point or greater difference for all other countries. The international average was 20 points. Countries with a difference of 25 points or more included Moldova, New Zealand, Iran, Belize and Kuwait.

For more details on countries' performance, see

Although the PIRLS, like the TIMSS, used benchmarks, the performance on the benchmarks as a whole for each country doesn't seem to be available. However, you can read about benchmark items and countries' achievements on particular ones at

The full 2001 Literacy Report can be downloaded at:

Alternatives to mainstream education

Montessori education

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician. After working with retarded children in a psychiatric clinic attached to the University of Rome, she applied the ideas she had developed to children in a slum district in Rome. This was the first Casa dei Bambini ("children's house"). It opened in 1907. Two years later she set out her methods and principles in a book, which was translated as The Montessori Method in 1912. With the success of her method, Dr Montessori opened more schools in Italy, in Spain, South Asia and the Netherlands. Today, schools based on her methods can be found around the world.

The movement has been particularly successful in the United States. It would be hard to say how many Montessori schools there are (and the question of whether or not a school can be called a "Montessori" school is sometimes a difficult one, since there is no legal protection on the name, and any school may call itself "Montessori"), but in 2019 Forbes claimed there were some 5,000 Montessori programs, of which around 500 were in public schools.

An essential part of the Montessori approach is that of the 'prepared environment'. A Montessori preschool or primary/elementary classroom is immediately identifiable by its equipment, and by the fact that everything is scaled for the children. Children are given the opportunity to learn; teachers (known as directors/directresses, because they direct the children's learning) are facilitators of learning, not dictators.

Although it is the essence of the approach that children learn when they are ready, the design of the environment and the program is such that Montessori students usually learn skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, at an earlier age than usual.

>> More

For more about Montessori:

International Montessori Index

the official international Montessori site.

Montessori Online

LOTS of articles here.

American Montessori Society

the official site of the American Montessori Society. More for teachers and parents involved in setting up a Montessori school in the US.

Suzuki approach to music

Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898-1998) founded the Talent Education Institute in 1950. The son of a violin maker, and a violinist himself, his teaching methods were originally used to teach violin to children, and his name and method are still predominantly associated with the violin. However, the method has since been adapted to other instruments.

Although most people know the method by the name of the man who invented it, Suzuki himself called it Talent Education, and many of the institutions around the world bear this name. The term "Talent Education" reflects Suzuki's belief that

"Good talent always grows where good method and good efforts are present"

The Suzuki method has been extremely successful in teaching music to young children, and teachers can be found around the globe.

The Suzuki approach to music has some commonalities with the Montessori approach, and many Montessori parents are also Suzuki parents (like me!). For some comments on these, go to my article on Suzuki & Montessori

For more about Suzuki education:

Suzuki method

an article about the Suzuki method from the website of a Suzuki piano teacher

Suzuki Association of the Americas

mainly useful if you live in the American continent and wish to join the Association, but there is an article on the History of the Suzuki method which may be of interest.

European Suzuki Association

there are links here to individual European Suzuki associations

And here's an amazing thing: actual archival videos of the famous violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki giving lectures and master classes:


Waldorf or Steiner schools

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) opened the first "Steiner" school in 1919, in Stuttgart, Germany. This was a school for the children of employees of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory, hence the name "Waldorf" schools. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, there are now over 800 Waldorf schools in over 40 countries, and over 50 full-time Waldorf teacher-training institutes. (according to the Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001 there are "over 70" schools worldwide, but this seems to me a wild underestimate, since the AWSNA lists some 136 affiliated schools in the US alone).

Steiner was an Austrian philosopher. His career as a natural historian ended when he became involved with the theosophist movement. Eventually he broke with this movement and started his own school of "anthroposophy".

Theosophy ("divine wisdom") borrowed heavily from eastern religions, claiming man could only know God through direct experience, through mysticism, meditation, occult practices, etc.

Anthroposophy ("people wisdom") holds that the key to an understanding of the cosmos exists in man himself and that man's spiritual development has been held back by his too-deep focus on the material world.

Steiner schools aim to develop the child's whole personality. Like Montessori, Steiner education is "child-centered", but where Montessori places a deep emphasis on practical skills and concrete experience, Steiner emphasizes play and creative activity. The world of the imagination is very important in Steiner education, and stories, myth and folktales are an important part of the curriculum.

For more about Steiner education:


there's not a lot of content, but it does have links to affiliated schools in North America, and some brief articles about Waldorf education; I recommend going straight to the site map, navigation around the site isn't overly clear

Directory for Latin America

for a list of Waldorf schools in Latin America

Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship

for schools in the UK and Eire

Christchurch Rudolf Steiner School

has more detail on the Steiner program, as well as links to international directories, and a list of NZ Steiner schools

Steiner Schools in Australia

for more details on Steiner education (probably the best informational content of the Steiner websites I've seen), as well as a list of Steiner schools in Australia

An article about Waldorf education:…

"Alternative" schools

Montessori and Steiner are the two "alternative" educational philosophies that have achieved widespread success. Montessori in particular, has almost reached mainstream status in some countries. To look at some other "alternative" schools see the Indigo Schools site, and AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization), which has links to a number of "alternative" schools.


Growing numbers of parents all over the world are choosing to educate their children at home.

The National Home Education Research Institute is an American non-profit organization which exists to carry out and collect research into home education, and to educate the public about home schooling.


  • Poor readers may be divided into two groups: those whose problems stem primarily from an innate disruption in their neural systems, and those whose problems stem from deprivation.
  • In both cases, early intervention is very important.
  • In both cases, training specifically aimed at activating or strengthening specific neural circuitry is required.
  • Although individuals will have different impairments requiring instructional programs focusing on different skill components, an effective reading program will need to involve phonemic awareness training.
  • Encouragingly, there are now a number of training programs that have had positive results with retraining the brains of dyslexics.
  • Reading problems are more common in boys, and it appears that the genders develop different neural connections at different times. It may be that current reading programs favor the pattern of development in girls (I'm speculating here).

Types of reading disability

A longitudinal study that used imaging to compare brain activation patterns has identified two types of reading disability:

  • a primarily inherent type with higher cognitive ability (poor readers who compensate for disability), and
  • a more environmentally influenced type with lower cognitive skills and attendance at more disadvantaged schools (persistently poor readers).

It seems, compensated poor readers are able to overcome some of the disability, improving their ability to read words accurately and to understand what they read, while persistently poor readers continue to experience difficulties.Brain activation patterns showed a disruption in the neural systems for reading in compensated readers (specifically, a relative underactivation in posterior neural systems for reading located in left parietotemporal and occipitotemporal regions), while persistently poor readers had the neural circuitry for reading real words, but it had not been properly activated.These results point to the importance of providing early interventions aimed at stimulating both the ability to sound out words and to understand word meanings for children at risk for reading difficulties associated with disadvantage.

The importance of childhood environment is also emphasized by a study of older adults that found that the larger a person's head in adulthood, the less likely their cognitive abilities are to decline in later years. Head size in adulthood is determined in infancy: during the first year of life, babies' brains double in size, and by the time they are six, their brain weight has tripled. These, it appears, are the crucial years for laying down brain cells and neural connections — pointing to the importance of providing both proper nourishment and intellectual stimulation in these early years.

Impaired reading skills are found in some 20% of children - in boys, more than girls. Dyslexia - a disability which is found across all socioeconomic classes and all ethnicities - may be thought of as the low end of a continuum of reading ability. Training that helps dyslexics can also help those whose problems with reading are of lesser magnitude.

Gender differences

It has been suggested that the reason reading disabilities are more common among boys is that teachers simply tend to recognize the problem in boys more often, but it does now seem clear that boys really do have more reading difficulties than girls. Analysis of four large-scale studies of reading in children, involving some 9,800 children, found about 20% of the boys had reading disabilities compared with about 11% of the girls.

An EEG study of gender differences in the emerging connectivity of neural networks associated with phonological processing, verbal fluency, higher-level thinking and word retrieval (skills needed for beginning reading) in preschoolers confirms different patterns of growth in building connections between boys and girls. These differences point to the different advantages each gender brings to learning to read, and suggests the need for different emphases in teaching boys and girls to read. Boys favor vocabulary sub-skills needed for comprehension while girls favor fluency and phonic sub-skills needed for the mechanics of reading.

Reading programs

No educational system in the world has mastered the problem of literacy; every existing system produces an unacceptably high level of failures. So, we cannot point to a particular program of instruction and say, this is the answer. Indeed, I am certain that such an aim would be foredoomed to failure - given the differences between individuals, how can anyone believe that there is some magic bullet that will work on everyone?

Having said that, we have a far greater idea now of the requirements of an effective literacy program. One of the reasons for that is the work of the National Reading Panel in the United States, which spent some three years analyzing a huge number of studies into various aspects of reading instruction. I have summarized their findings here.

Direct instruction in specific components of reading skills is clearly only part, albeit a major part, of improving literacy. There is also the role of providing a stimulating environment, most particularly in the very early years. Little is known about the precise nature of the stimulation that would be most productive for providing the foundation for later literacy, but we may speculate that, apart form the obvious (being read to, etc), music may also be beneficial. Although I am not aware of any studies specifically looking at the possible benefits of music training for developing reading skills in children, recent research does provide evidence that giving children music instruction benefits their verbal memory.


Dyslexics who are identified at a very early age (1st grade or earlier) have significantly fewer problems in learning to read than those who are not diagnosed until later. About 74%of the children with dyslexia who are poor readers in 3rd grade remain poor readers in the 9th grade, and often can’t read well as adults either. The earlier dyslexia is recognized and proper instruction given the better. Dyslexia tends to run in families.

Other research also points to the importance of early intervention.The brains of children with learning problems not only appear to develop more slowly than those of their unaffected counterparts but also actually may stop developing around the time of puberty's onset. In the study, children with impairments started out about three years behind, but their rate of improvement was very similar to that of the children without impairments — until around 10 years, when further development in the children with learning problems stopped.

What causes dyslexia?

We always want simple answers, but, as so often, it seems likely that there is no single, simple answer to the problem of dyslexia. Imaging studies have revealed that different phonological skills relate to activity in different parts of the brain when children read.There are probably several neurobiological profiles that correspond to different subtypes of dyslexia, each associated with varying deficits in different phonological skills.

For example, a key predictor of reading problems is lack of a skill called "rapid naming" - basically, being able to quickly retrieve the names of very familiar letters and numbers. It's been suggested that inability to rapidly name, and inability to differentiate between sounds, may be separate causes of dyslexia.

Interestingly, confirming a very old theory of dyslexia, it seems that normally developing readers learn to suppress the visual images reported by the right hemisphere of the brain - these images potentially interfere with input from the left. Dyslexic readers also appear to process auditory and visual sensory cues differently than do normal readers. During an auditory matching task, dyslexic readers showed increased activity in the visual pathway of the brain, while that same region deactivated in normal readers.

The tendency for dyslexia to run in families points to a genetic aspect. It has been found that brain images of people with a family history of dyslexia show significant reduction of gray matter in centers associated with language processing.

How to help dyslexics

A number of educational tools have been developed to teach people with dyslexia to read. Remembering that dyslexia is a label for a variety of different skill deficits, it is not surprising that an effective training program is not the same for everyone. The dyslexic person’s individual strengths and weaknesses must be assessed to find the program that will help best.

What is exciting is the converging evidence in recent years that it is indeed possible to re-train dyslexic brains. Clearly, the earlier the better, but one encouraging recent study found clear evidence for the benefits of a comprehensive reading program for dyslexic children aged 11-12 years. The study mapped the brain activation patterns of dyslexic children and good readers of the same age during two types of reading tests: phoneme mapping (which tests the ability to make correct associations between letters or letter combinations and sounds in nonsense words - e.g., if oa in ploat stands for the same sound as ow in crow) and morpheme mapping (having to decide if one word comes from another word - e.g., builder and build (yes); corner and corn (no)).

Both groups of children were found to use the same specific parts of their brains to perform the reading tasks, however, the activation of these regions was much weaker in the dyslexic children. The children with dyslexia then received a three-week training program based on principles outlined by the National Reading Panel Research findings of the NRP). After this program the levels of brain activation were found to be essentially the same in the two groups.The improvement in activation in the dyslexics was mirrored in improved reading scores.

Another recent study used an interactive computer game called MovingToRead (MTR) to significantly improve reading skills in poor second-grade readers within three months by practicing left-right movement discrimination for 5 to 10 minutes once or twice a week. It has been suggested that immature motion pathways — the circuit of neurons that helps readers determine the location of letters of a word and words on a page — may be related to reading problems in children. The therapy appears to be most effective with second-graders (age 7).

Other studies, such as Fast ForWord, and the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing program (LiPS), also appear to have had good results. The point is not so much that any one specific program is the answer. Remember that different dyslexics will have different impairments, and accordingly, different programs will be effective for different individuals. Having said that, there are some common aspects to these programs. In particular, any such program should emphasize phoneme awareness.

Class Size: Does it Matter?

  • Research into class size has been mixed partly because few studies have directly manipulated class size and successfully removed any other factors that could influence learning, and partly because of there has been no consistency in what constitutes a "small" or "reduced" class size.
  • Evidence points to a class size of 15 students or less being necessary to show clear benefits.
  • Small class size is more important in the early years.
  • Small class size may have greater benefit for disadvantaged students.

While parents and teachers have always strongly supported small class sizes, their belief has not always been supported by evidence. Part of the problem lies in that word “small” — what constitutes a small class? Different interventions have looked at reducing class sizes from 40 to 30, or 30 to 25. It may well be that such reductions are not sufficient to show clear benefits.

The STAR Project

The project everyone talks about, the STAR project (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), looked at class sizes well below these. The longitudinal study was undertaken in the American state of Tennessee and involved over 7000 students from 79 schools. For three years, from kindergarten through grade 3, students were placed either in small classes of 13-17 students; regular classes of 22-25 students; or regular classes with a teacher aide. Those in smaller classes performed significantly better on tests than those placed in regular classes. The largest gains occurred in inner-city schools.

Excitingly, the advantage was not only maintained in subsequent years but actually increased: in grade 4, students who had been in smaller classes were 6-9 months ahead of regular class students in reading, math, and science; by grade 8, they were a year ahead. Later, almost 44% of small class size students took college entrance exams, compared to 40% of regular class size students — the difference was greatest for African-Americans; 40.2% compared to 31.7%. 72% of small class students graduated from high school on schedule, compared to 65-6% of regular class students. They were also more likely to complete high school, to graduate with honors, to complete advanced math and English classes.

The SAGE Project

More recently, in Wisconsin, the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program has reduced the student-teacher ratioto 15:1 in K-3 classrooms in 30 schools, comparing their performance to 14-17 matched schools. The benefits seen were again particularly great for African-American students, who reduced the achievement gap with white students by 19% — in comparison schools, the achievement gap widened by 58%. Interestingly, the results of having 2 teachers in a class of 30 were the same as having 2 classes of 15.

Why have different studies found different results?

Let’s look a little further at why there has been confusion about what educational research has told us about class size, given that this is one of the most studied issues in education. Howard Blake in 1954 reviewed pre-1950 studies. He found 85 that were based on original research, and of these 35 found benefits of small classes, 18 found benefits to large classes, and 32 found no difference. But Blake analyzed the studies further, looking for scientific acceptability. He found only 22 studies that reached this standard (a not surprising result for educational research in this time period). Of the 22, 16 favored small classes, 3 favored large classes, and 3 were inconclusive.

A meta-analysis of 77 studies in 1978 (Glass, Cohen & Smith) concluded that the greatest benefits occurred when class sizes were reduced to 15 students or less. A follow-up study suggested that the benefits were greatest for those below the age of 12 (Smith et al, 1979).

Unfortunately, educational experiments such as STAR — where students are randomly assigned to different treatments — are rare. More usual are attempts at indirectly investigating class size by comparing different situations. This, obviously, has many problems. You can get a feeling for these by reading a British analysis at:… Apart from anything else, it shows you how one type of statistical analysis in studies of this nature can come up with no clear benefits of class size, while another type shows a very clear benefit.

It also seems that the principal benefit of reduced class size lies in its effect on the teacher; clearly some teachers will be more affected by this than others.

It is also worth noting the considerable international variation in class size -- a variation showing no correlation with performance -- indicating that class size cannot be considered out of the context of teaching method. The TIMSS international study, for example, found that although the average eighth-grade mathematics class was 31 students, there was considerable variation even among the higher-performing countries –- from 42 students in Korea to 19 in Belgium.


Many policy-makers argue that, while class size may be of value, the benefit doesn’t warrant the huge amount it would cost, given that there are other ways to spend the money — more and better trained teachers, for example. And, certainly, there would seem little benefit to reducing class size if you can’t put qualified teachers in the classes. Class size isn’t a factor that can be considered in a vacuum. But it does seem clear that:

  • class size can be an important factor in learning outcomes,
  • it is more important in the early years,
  • it is more important for disadvantaged students,
  • benefits may not be seen unless the class size is reduced to around 15.


The National Education Association (U.S.) has information about class size at:

TIMSS has an interesting international comparison of class size and math achievement at: