“Cleverlands” – Lucy Crehan

Lots of commentary about schools in the UK is about comparisons with other countries’ educations systems. All-too-often, we’re told how poorly we are doing versus the “best” and that we should change X or Y to emulate their success. But what do the “top performing” countries actually do with their schools, and what lessons can we really take away from them?

“Cleverlands” is an attempt to answer these questions and more, and grew out of a ‘geeky gap year’ that its author Lucy Crehan spent visiting schools in a number of countries. The result is an extremely readable book, covering five countries of interest: Canada, Finland, Singapore, Japan, and China (Shanghai). By bringing together her experiences with research on policy, psychology, history, and culture, fascinating insights are gained into what we can learn from these places.

On her travels she spent time living with and talking to teachers, to get beyond the official spin on things and understand how things really worked for pupils and teachers.

For instance, the standard line about Canada’s system is that schools have lots of autonomy but face high-stakes inspections – like England. In reality, most of the checks are informal ‘learning conversations’ – a very different situation indeed.

We’re often told that Finnish teachers have loads of autonomy, and are trusted to tailor their lessons as they see fit. Lucy found that in reality much teaching was very traditional, supported by high-quality textbooks and whole-class reading – to the extent that teachers were almost an interchangeable part of the setup.

An engaging and fun read, this is a great book if you want a deeper understanding of what actually goes on in other high performing systems, and consider what, if anything, we can learn for our own schools.

One final note – the book came out in 2016 and a lot of things have changed since then, both in England, the UK, and the countries explored. It would be interesting to see whether the observations seen on Lucy’s travels are still as true now. For instance, Finland has since embraced “phenomenon-based learning” – topic- or theme-driven curricula, the kind of thing that makes an education traditionalist shudder. Perhaps now might be a good time for Cleverlands 2?!