Strict discipline and pressure to perform? Or a child-centred, individual approach?
The debate over the relative benefits of Eastern and Western styles of school education has been kicked off again by two new studies which find evidence that strict discipline in the classroom produces better academic outcomes and a stronger work ethic in students, in results that could have implications for Australia’s sliding academic performance internationally.
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The lead author of both studies, associate professor Chris Baumann from Macquarie University, said the findings suggest Australian classrooms should return to the more strict discipline approach that was pushed out by “permissive” education in the 1970s.
In the newest study, “School discipline, school uniforms and academic performance”, published in the International Journal of Educational Management, the researchers crunched OECD data on classroom discipline, finding that strict, high-discipline countries were the highest performing countries academically. They also found uniforms correlate with better discipline in the classroom.
“The argument does not mean that we have to be super strict, of course we have to care for our students and have a loving approach,” said professor Baumann, “but it does seem that discipline has been overlooked a bit.”
And the related study, “Work ethic formed by pedagogical approach”, published this year in the Asia Pacific Business Review found that in all the Asian countries studied, strict discipline was a statistically significant driver of a strong work ethic, defined as a positive attitude to work.
Most Western countries are falling behind East Asian countries in education outcomes. Australia’s performance in the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results means that an average 12-year-old Korean student’s maths and science problem-solving abilities are equivalent to that of an average Australian 15-year-old.
East Asian education systems are heavily influenced by the ancient Chinese tradition of Confucianism, with its emphasis on respect for elders, harmony and collective values.
In practice, this was likely to mean clear and enforced classroom rules, a focus on manners, punctuality, respect for teaching staff, consequences for poor performance or incomplete homework and an enforced dress code, professor Baumann said.
Western education, on the other hand, was less concerned with formalities, respect for teachers and collective discipline, instead focusing on the individual child.
The often-heard counter argument is that Western systems are better at promoting play, creativity, innovation and questioning authority, which might have harder-to-measure benefits. But professor Baumann is sceptical about this.
“The likely outlook is that Western countries may sooner or later aspire to a balanced pedagogic approach to education, where the playful elements remain, but discipline might be tightened up again since the successes in Asia suggest strict discipline and a focus on academic performance ‘pay off’, and the results of our study point in that direction.”
Dr Jennifer Buckingham, education researcher from the Centre for Independent Studies, said it was important to “be cautious in making those broad comparisons when the demographics and the context is really different – it’s so hard to ascribe cause and effect when there are so many other factors at play”.
She suggested a key overlooked factor may be the high use of private tutoring in countries like Korea and Singapore, which could have a bigger role than the school systems in driving student outcomes.
However, “there’s not much doubt that families’ cultural emphasis on education is really important in terms of academic success”, she said.
“The value that’s placed on academic achievement that is seen in east Asian families is certainly a factor when you’re looking at the demographics of selective schools [in NSW] for example.”
The countries studied in the work ethic research were Australia, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Britain and the US, using surveys of at least 500 respondents per country.