23 Mar 2017
  • Research Result

High achievement not always based on high student initiative

What is the key to high student achievement in the sciences?

 For years, researchers have poured over data to develop theories on how to maximize a given student’s potential. One way to understand the landscape of education internationally is to analyze standardized tests, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

 PISA is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, to evaluate the academic performance of 15-year-olds across the globe in the areas of science, math, and literacy. The test is unique in that it assesses creativity, by requiring the students to apply their knowledge in a practical context.

 However, few studies of PISA scores and data among various countries have successfully answered questions regarding regional differences, in particular higher scores from East Asia compared to the West.

 Writing in Comparative Education Review, Jeremy Rappleye of Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Education explains that this discrepancy originates from different core concepts of learning: while in the West the focus is on learning as ‘self-fulfillment’, in the East the emphasis is on ‘self-overcoming’.

 “Learning based on self-fulfillment allows students to be independent experimenters, taking the initiative in their pursuit of knowledge and education,” explains Rappleye. “Today this is considered the dominant concept of learning, and many East Asian countries are redesigning their education systems in this direction. But our PISA analysis shows something different.”

 With his colleague Hikaru Komatsu, Rappleye compared PISA-Science test scores with the degree of student initiative in science classes. They looked at conditions such as how often students are allowed to design their own experiments, or given a chance to choose the direction of their investigations.

 “Previous education studies commonly focused on economic factors such as per capita GDP, or education spending. Our analysis uniquely focuses on the science classes themselves,” Komatsu states.

 “Interestingly, we discovered that countries allowing more student initiative in science classes tended to have lower science PISA scores.”

 The team developed their findings by expanding on the common ‘self-overcoming’ learning paradigm, which assumes that until students complete their learning, they risk being confined to their own incomplete understanding of the topic, and that guidance and enforcement are essential in order to expand each student’s understanding.

 “Our findings challenge the currently dominant idea of education and learning, putting into question the direction of education reform happening in many countries today,” concludes Rappleye. “We think it is vital to rethink these ideas, before we begin to degrade today’s academic achievements.”


Researchers analyzed PISA scores from different regions and learning styles to find that 'self-fulfillment' type learning, and 'self-overcoming' learning holds different outcomes for students

Paper Information


Hikaru Komatsu and Jeremy Rappleye (2018). A PISA Paradox? An Alternative Theory of Learning as a Possible Solution for Variations in PISA Scores. Comparative Education Review, 61(2), 269-297.