‘Cleverlands’ in a nutshell

In this blogpost, I’m going to try to summarise the main observations of Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands. I read the book in quite a ruthless way, seeking only to spy on what is going on in other countries right now without really needing the personal comment. Obviously, in attempting to distill the picture, the subtlety will be lost, so of course I recommend you read the book if you are keen to learn more. My ultimate aim though is to augment my own vision of how primary schools need to be, especially when it comes to the teaching of maths.

Here’s that stripped back summary of my notes:


  • About 1 in 5 children in the UK finish up primary school pretty much innumerate and illiterate
  • The author had some time, freedom and money on her hands, so went travelling to 5 countries to observe the way they educate their children to see if what we Westerners could learn


  • Children start official primary school later than in UK, at 6/7 years old
  • They all go to preschool (state subsidised) and kindergarden
  • Plentiful speaking and listening curriculum in preschool means lots of fairytales, stories, poems and rhymes leads to a good vocabulary base for school starters
  • Finnish people are book lovers
  • A large vocabulary and understanding when starting school correlates to success later on (Mathew effect)
  • Just 4 months teaching = able to read
  • Finnish language = write it how you say it (phonics easier)
  • Children are screened for learning difficulties at start of school
  • Extra teachers give extra lessons right from the start for children who need it
  • 3 tier SEN systems of teacher help in class, then specialist teacher help, then being placed in a different class to meet needs
  • Plethora of specialists attached to each school including a dentist!
  • Comprehensive (also no private schools) all the way to age 15/16 then selection into gymnasium or a type of trade school
  • Setting was abolished in 1983, and the only different classes you will see are for EAL or SEN cohorts
  • No classes for G&T children
  • Quite common for academically advanced children to be expected to help other children who are struggling
  • No observations or inspections for teachers
  • No national exams until 15/16
  • Teachers held in high esteem and have high professional status
  • ‘Crazy training’ of 5 years leading to a Masters in Ed for primary teachers
  • All teachers immersed in principles of educational research
  • Teachers tend to study in spare time
  • Mentoring
  • Collaboration
  • 15 minute breaks between lessons are normal
  • No performance related pay
  • Researchers observed, despite teacher autonomy, quite uniform teaching methods: whole class following textbook, rows of children doing the same thing
  • Traditional approach to teaching maths
  • Textbook use widespread and high quality because of research influence and competition between publishers


  • Rules-based society
  • Elementary – Junior High – High School
  • gaman = Zen Buddhist teaching of ‘Enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity’
  • ‘Moral education’ is taught and included in curriculum; children taught to be strict on themselves (studious and resilient), kind to others, aim to make a contribution to a peaceful society and even ‘keep oneself [looking] neat’
  • They aim to develop personalities, but not like in the West (where it’s all about confidence and happiness)
  • There is pretty poor behaviour in primary schools with big classes that make it even more difficult for the teacher
  • Primary age children are expected to learn for themselves how to behave, and placed in a ‘han‘ which is a small group that go around together and have collective responsibility for each others actions and successes/failures = use of peer pressure to coax conformity
  • In junior high, classes stay together and compete against each other, with discipline along ‘rentai sekinin‘ principle. Eg group nominated leader punished for transgressions of someone else in the class. Whole class bullying can result.
  • Actions of children influenced by concept of ‘meiwaku‘ which is a sense of not wanting to bother others
  • Cultural belief that hard work improves intelligence and is key to making a difference in life success and academic achievement
  • Middle class mothers have enormous effect on children’s success
  • Schools send home list of responsibilities to parents including when to send their children to bed and that they must supervise homework!
  • In junior high, lessons place emphasis on committing key facts to memory in order to free up working memory, teaching reasoning  and then, when ready, doing problem solving
  • Lesson study is used for observing children’s reaction to teaching/planning (that involves consideration of misconceptions), not observing teachers
  • Teachers have more time to plan and fewer lessons to teach
  • There is no differentiation in class
  • The 10-15 minute break in between classes is used to catch children up
  • Pretty much all children go to juku (extra truition after school) which is seen as an opportunity to gain new friends
  • Recent move to downgrade influence of project based learning (integrated studies) in schools as this was seen as correlated with downward trend in PISA scores


  • Getting into a good primary school involves parents volunteering there for a year and ideally being alumni themselves
  • Children used to be sorted by ability at around year 3, but now they only set in individual subjects for the last 2 years of primary school
  • The PSLE, sat at the end of primary school, is the BIGGEST DEAL ever; it determines pretty much your entire future
  • 5 different academic tracks available based on PSLE outcome ranging from straight vocational/technical education to purely high level academic
  • System based on disproven idea that intelligence is fixed
  • Private tutoring is the norm
  • The opposite of grade inflation is happening because so many do extra study, continuously raising academic bar to being placed on that high level academic track
  • What is taught in schools is now no longer sufficient for a student to pass PSLE with enough points to go into top level academic track
  • However, vocational education is very good
  • System is biased against those who cannot afford extra tutoring
  • The pressure on children is not intentional and the classrooms are actually very happy places
  • Teacher CPD is very good, 100 hours a year, with different development tracks available and opportunities for sabbaticals. Teachers aim to be a ‘master teacher’ and higher pay is linked to gains in status
  • Good textbooks and teacher handbooks to augment plans are the norm
  • Teachers teach for fewer hours than in the UK

Shanghai, China:


  • Main theme: hard work!
  • Children start school at 6, but attend kindergarden and other classes (such as learning an instrument, or painting) before they start school
  • A 14 year old will be required to do 3-4 hours homework a night
  • Children look up to those with good grades and try to emulate them
  • Children are good at self-directed study
  • Children are spurred on by failure (the opposite is true in the West)
  • Culture views achievement as the product of effort
  • ‘A clumsy bird that flies first will get to the forest earlier’ proverb implies that even if you are disadvantaged, hard work can make you the best
  • Confucian beliefs underpin: the path to virtue includes self-improvement through knowledge, and that this leads to a becoming a better person (not just more intelligent). Self-discipline is key to this self-improvement
  • Chinese teachers think differentiation doesn’t help because it holds children back, instead they prefer to give extra help/tuition to keep everyone moving along together
  • Parents do not make a big fuss about achievements, which is the opposite of copious unearned praise given by parents in the West
  • Hard-working students get applauded in class
  • The gaokao exam determines what university (if any) you can go to and is very stressful, but at least it prevent corruption, as quanxi (networking via favours) is a real risk to this kind of meritocracy
  • Only the children of ‘qualified’ migrants can go to the public schools, which may explain high PISA ranking
  • The primary school, which starts at 8am, experience is happy with morning exercises in school tracksuit, followed by lessons with lots of singing in rows and regular ‘eye exercises’ between lessons
  • There might be up to 50 children in each class and failure to complete homework is met with punishment
  • Chinese teachers teach fewer classes than in the UK and are traditional in outlook and teaching methods
  • Maths teaching is traditional with textbooks used to bring order and interconnectedness of concepts together. The class is taught as a whole, with lots of back and forth questioning. Typically, demonstration and modelling will be followed by a good chunk of practice required for homework.
  • Chinese children are more intuitive about number because they do massive amounts of practice, homework, recitation, repetition, memorisation and drills to the point of automacity
  • A maths topic will last several weeks, and fewer topics will be covered each year (compared to Western teaching)
  • Chinese parents teach their children that ‘nothing is fun until you are good at it’ and research shows that Chinese children like school more than American children, despite American educators placing more emphasis on making learning fun.
  • The Chinese have recently begun, in response to concerns about problem solving ability, implementing more ‘exploration’ lessons for pupils


  • Very diverse country
  • Immigration policy means that migrants tend to be educated and relatively affluent
  • Each province runs its own education
  • Textbook use, strong unions, methods of assessment and teacher training are broadly similar for the provinces
  • The country has very high levels of welfare provision and most children attend kindergardens which are fun and child-led
  • Children start school at 6 and there are free catch up classes during summer for those children who are behind in key skills like reading
  • The people who work with children who are falling behind are highly qualified
  • Education is about following the child’s interests and lots of extra curricular activities designed to motivate and enthuse learners
  • Counsellors in every school seek to build relationships so that the children are more likely to want to do well in classes
  • Selection, streaming and setting forbidden until the age 14/15 at which point children can choose subjects and what level to study them at
  • Teachers seek and aim to adapt the environment, teaching and learning to the individual child, including catering for their ‘learning style’, which sometimes leads to lowered expectations
  • Assessment is descriptor based and leads to levels in all subjects. There are also provincial skills assessments in reading, writing and maths at grade 4 and 7
  • Educators try to cater for the higher as well as the lower achieving children, with higher achieving children encouraged to help others
  • Opportunity for higher achievers to take part in project work based on their own interests
  • In secondary school, there might be something akin to a ‘grammar stream’, but the rest will be mixed ability. For those that are struggling, there is extra support and, later on, opportunities to focus on fewer subjects
  • Canadians also teach and asses non-academic skills such as collaboration and leadership
  • Recently, curriculum design has been changed to encourage teaching of 21st Century skills, with project based learning and discovery being the key methods used to deliver curriculum content.

Crehan goes on in the last couple of chapter to describe which elements from the above we could use in the UK in order to improve outcomes for children. Despite picking out features such as the importance of routine and good questioning in class, I was not surprised to read that she would choose to send her own children, if given the choice, to a school in Canada because I already bet myself this outcome as I read, right at the beginning of the book, about her personal circumstances. For me, this shows the importance of having different kinds of people in education, including those who are mature entrants who approach teaching with a genuinely open and questioning mind rather than through the lens of progressive beliefs, including regarding the pursuit of happiness and personal fulfillment, instilled during university years at a very young (and vulnerable) age. Having said that, the book was an excellent read and very informative!

In the next blog post, I will describe how Lucy’s observations have influenced my own thoughts on teaching and learning in schools, particularly primary schools.

In the meantime, who’s with me?


3 thoughts on “‘Cleverlands’ in a nutshell

  1. Just got my copy a few days ago, and I’m finishing Jeanne Chall’s “The Academic Achievement Challenge,” so as soon as I’m finished with that, I’ll be with you.


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