Can we create a clever culture?

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the ResearchEd national conference in London. I have spent the last week mulling over the sessions I attended and writing up my notes. Any errors are most certainly my own but this is what I took away from my day. 


Lucy Crehan’s wonderful book CleverLands

Lucy Crehan

The Role of Culture in Education Systems

I thought Lucy’s opening point on her talk on the role of culture was very important. There is sometimes an assumption that any differences in education systems around the world are driven by some kind of organically grown culture that has developed over the generations. Lucy pointed out that this is not always the case.

Some things that we think of as “part of a country’s culture” are driven by government policy. There is no greater “respect for teachers” in East Asia – this has been deliberately cultivated in recent years by:

  1. Different routes in to teaching to meet different needs
  2. Made desirable with competitive levels of pay
  3. Clear careers structures.

Other aspects of success in an education system can more clearly be put down to a difference in culture with the key being work ethic.

Key differences between high performing cultures (such as those in East Asia) and lower performing ones (such as the UK) include how pupils work.

  • Students in Japan are far better as self-regulation and selecting strategies that work for learning. They are more likely to use techniques such as self-testing whereas American and British pupils are more likely to report looking over their notes or highlighting as a favoured strategy.
  • They are also more likely to persevere in face of failure. Heine et al (2001) found that Japanese students were more likely to work at something they had failed at whereas American students were more likely to work at something they already felt they were successful at and give up on tasks they had previously performed badly at.
  • 55% of pupils in East Asian countries believe that ability is primarily down to effort rather than being innate. 36% of pupils in western countries believe the same.

Culture not genetic but is created from an early age.

  • Hard work features as the key message in stories form an early age.
  • Growth mindset is found in the aphorisms of Confucianism such as “The clumsy bird that flies first gets to the forest earlier.”
  • Exploring a person’s weakness is not seen as problematic and support is offered to address it.

Teaching makes a difference and there are clear differences in the way schools operate in high performing culture.

  • Pupils are not set by ability.
  • There is little/no differentiation by activity but only by support.
  • Teacher training is a priority
  • Teachers plan together and make use of each other’s strengths.
  • A mastery approach is common – a class moves on once a concept is grasped but not before. They have less content to cover. Especially in earlier years.
  • Additional 1-2-1 or small group support is provided by specialist teachers rather than TAs.


These are the thoughts I took away from the session.

  1. Whilst the idea of Growth Mindset seems critical it is worth keeping in mind that no one has been able to replicate Dweck’s work in changing mindsets.
  2. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that a person who comes from a fixed mindset culture will develop a growth mindset just because they are placed into that new culture.
  3. However this doesn’t mean that out pupils can’t learn from those in other parts of the world or that we shouldn’t adjust our teaching strategies to ones that seem to be more effective.
  4. Do our pupils fully understand how they learn best? Does metacognition need to play a greater role?
  5. Do lower attaining pupils end up simply completing work they can already do rather than work that challenges them to catch up with their peers?
  6. Can pupils be offered intensive 1-2-1 and small group intervention sessions with a specialist teacher with the current budget constraints?

I have read Lucy Crehan’s book a few times in the last year and always find myself taking something new from it. She is always very clear that we cannot simply impose an education system that has worked in another culture wholesale onto our own but there do seem to be lessons that we can take. As she pointed out in a Chartered College of Teaching book club chat the following week, the biggest lesson we can learn is to make sure we are setting a high level of challenge. They will rise to meet it and surprise us all.


One thought on “Can we create a clever culture?

  1. Pingback: rED17 Blogs, presentations, video links | A Roller In The Ocean

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