Comparing ‘Asian Giants’: Exploring Factors that Account for Singapore and Hong Kong Students’ Academic Achievement

DSCN2180 – event page

Asian students’ success in international assessments is now so well acknowledged, yet understanding the reasons behind that success, especially in comparative perspective, has received less attention. Singapore and Hong Kong are ideal cases for comparison because in some ways they exhibit similarities (histories, cultures, economic development) but in other ways they are different (political structures, diversity and regional integration).

On 28 September 2017, Professor Kerry Kennedy, Advisor (Academic Development) and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Governance, The Education University of Hong Kong, examined the factors that have influenced the academic achievements of Singapore and Hong Kong. He also highlighted how the PISA 2015 results point to a broader research agenda that is needed to understand complex issues related to learning and achievement in Asian contexts.

To justify comparing them, Prof Kennedy began by pointing out the similarities and differences between Singapore and Hong Kong, comparing measures such as their GDP, education expenditure, and Gini coefficient. He then provided an overview of the PISA 2015 results in reading and mathematics, comparing Singapore and Hong Kong for factors such as students’ sense of belonging, gender and motivation.

To help make sense of the results, he explained the two-level conceptual model for student achievement, which distinguishes between factors at the student level (the unique characteristics each student brings to the schools) and those at the school level (how the school affects student learning). Using this model, he compared Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s achievements in reading and mathematics at both the student level and the school level. This revealed that for Hong Kong, personal motivation is the key student-level factor that influenced student achievement positively, while for Singapore, the most significant performance-enhancing factor is a cooperative learning environment..

Prof Kennedy then talked about the three school-level variables influencing student learning, namely the Principals’ perception of students’ behaviour, school autonomy, and instructional leadership (in which Hong Kong and Singapore show opposite results for both reading and maths). However, he pointed out that 50% of the variance is still not accounted for. He thus recommended averaging of the socio-economic status (SES) on a school level to improve the figures as it accounts for a significant amount of the interschool variation in science achievement in both Singapore and Hong Kong. This also suggests that students’ learning depends on the kind of school they go to.

However, Prof Kennedy argues that while the lessons learnt from the PISA results are important, they are not enough. He suggests three additional drivers to consider, namely: culture, family influences and individual effort. This is to further factor in the importance of context when considering student achievement.

The talk ended with Prof Kennedy addressing the audience’s questions, including the significance of Confucianism, the use of English in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the samples used in analysing the PISA results.