Why Portugal is performing so well in PISA Scores

Portugal is on the rise in PISA scores and it will pass the Netherlands in the coming few years. The Dutch are losing points, while The Portuguese are gaining them fast. Only one measurement stand out in which the Dutch score dramatically better, and that is the stress students perceive. The schoolwork-related anxiety is nearly on the maximum in Portugal and almost on the minimum for the Dutch. (click on the diagram and scroll all the way down for details).

We have been investigating this during our visit to Portugal and some preliminary conclusions can be drawn.

  1. Portugal measures PISA at 15 years of age (this is the PISA scoring age) and at that age student just finished their primary school period. This means that the maximum amount of teaching time possible is devoted to the teaching of the type of content that PISA is measuring.
  2. The material in the curriculum of the students is on a exceptional high level, and it is the same for all schools in Portugal. This gives schools a very clear opportunity to compare themselves to other schools, which seems to drive up performance. Becoming one of the top schools ensures extra funding, for instance.
  3. The educational system is in place for about two decades now, so the early implementation problems have been ironed out, all the teachers are experienced in using it and students (and their parents) now know what to expect from it. This means the educational system in Portugal, if it would be of high quality, will by now show the benefits of its intended purpose. Hence, the evidence suggests that the system is of high quality and that it is working.
  4. The high stress measured in Portugal may very well be the flip-side of the 15 years of age benefit (conclusion 1): the PISA score is taken in the year that all students are up for the exam that will decide where they will study next. In particular, which type of subject they will be advised to study (science, humanities, etc). So, PISA is measuring the students at a time in which they are very anxious anyway.

All in all, the Portuguese educational system now seems to work as designed. It has drawbacks, just like any system will have, but it works particularly well for the way PISA is measuring school performance.

Why the Dutch are in decline was not under investigation now. That is something to conduct further research on. Which would mean a trip to the Netherlands 😉

Answers to the Questions

I voiced seven questions in preparation to this study trip.

In the course of two days I spoke with colleague teachers and professors of the school for teachers. Below a summary of the answers, as concise as I  could be. For more details, contact me.

  1. How does Portugal get children ready for formal education? (—> children are prepared)
    The aim of the Portugese education system is to start teaching cognitive capabilities at an early age. This implies that very early on, important content is offered and the children are expected to absorb that. The younger the child is, the more hours it will spend at school.
  2. How does Portugal design curricula concepts for mastery (and context for motivation)? (—> children learn)
    The curriculum is nation wide the same. It is stacked with content of a seriously high level. Mastery of all this content is achieved at school, but many student take extra lessons – at their own expense – in the afternoon, after school. The motivation to learn is two fold: you need to pass a state exam to be allowed to follow secondary school and beyond. And on top of that, the school atmosphere and teacher guidance is to firmly work on tasks. Students follow these two drivers dilligently.
  3. How does Portugal support children to take on challenges (rather than making concessions)? (—> all children learn)
    All the children follow the same curriculum up until the age of 15. After that, they choose a secondary school with a theme. Partially based on their desire, mostly based on the advice they got derived from their exam results. There is little room for concessions, as all children need to achieve the primary curriculum.
  4. How does Portugal treat teachers as professionals? (—> teachers are highly skilled)
    Teachers are employed through the ministry of Education. This means they work at a school, not for a school. Teachers can be reassigned per school year on another school, even in another city. Because the curriculum is nation wide the same, little time is needed to be able to work effectively in their new assignment.
    The workload generated by the curriculum fills up all the available time for teaching, there is little to no room to experiment or add material. However, teachers have full freedom in how they present and teach the curriculum. In experimental school other methods of learning are tried and tested, for instance project based teaching.
  5. How does Portugal combine school accountability with school support (rather than sanctions)? (—> schools are effective)
    Achieving a high PISA turnout is important. In addition, there is a surplus of teacher employed through the ministry of Education. This means there is extensive support for students that lag behind or have trouble understanding the curriculum. Moreover, children with special needs, for instance with autism or even down syndrom, are part of the ordinary school. They may be offered special sessions, but are truly part of a class. Which proves to work: the other students accept the students with special needs as their class mates.
  6. How does Portugal use humor during lessons and how does that influence stress reduction?
    Sparingly. The humor that I witnessed during classes is content oriented, not aimed at the student or teacher. During sessions the use of humor is valued, but the initiative is mostly left to the guests.
  7. How does Portugal manage the complex dynamic systems that a class and students are?
    They understand a class and every student is a complex dynamic system. They know about autonomy and they appreciate the effects of diversity. But, there is no process or approach to address the CDSs they work in. In fact, teachers of the teacher university are struggling with this complexity and dynamics. They understand there is a need to work on CDSs in a academic manor, but do not know how yet. We have had interesting discussions on this, and are very interested to jointly improve our understanding and approach for talent development in CDS-environments.


Lucy Crehan (2016), Cleverlands – The Secrets Behind the Success of the World’s Education Superpowers. Cornerstone  (isbn 9781783522736)

Dom João III and Dom Peter I

Quite a bit of history is available about Portugal. We saw the statue of John the 3rd (João III, 1502), and heard the story of Peter the 1st (Pedro I, 1320). The statue of John III is on a beautiful spot in Coimbra, fairly high up so you can see the city from above.

King Peter I is a different story. Students Jack and Pedro told us about it during a visit to their school.

The people used two nicknames for this king: The Just and The Cruel. He lived in the 1320s and in his youth, while he was still just a prince, he was madly in love with his Inês. However, his father had arranged for a Spanish princess for him to marry. His love for Inês remained, but his wife she would never become. After his wife Constanza died after childbirth, Peter wanted to marry his Inês. No way his father would allow that and after years of turmoilthe father – at that time the king of Portugal – decided that Inês was best executed. He had three men do that, which enraged Peter. He fought his father in battle, lost that, but after the battles his father died. Peter became King Peter I. Searched and found two of the three that killed his Inês.

Ripped their hearts out. Feels just, sounds cruel.

We’ve made the Papers

That we are here in Portugal made the papers. And the radio as well!

For those who have trouble figuring out the Portugese: a group of professors of the Hanzehogeschool from the Netherlands visit the Teacher Academy in Coimbra. We are looking for information on why Portugal is so succesful in the PISA scores. The host Natália Pires explains what they do in Portugal.

Enjoy reading the rest…


Talent Development animated

What is important for me in this trip, is not so much that we bring bits and pieces from Portugal to the Netherlands. On the contrary, I now appreciate the Dutch education system more than I did before. Our system is not fault free, but it works.

The animation is on how I see talent development in people.

Education is more traditional in Portugal. More classical education, which we have lost or moved past from in the Netherlands. The resources used to teach  are mainly books, hardly anything more than that. This works, but it is not an approach that the Dutch can use. Still, the Portuguese students speak English on an exceptional high level. It really works.

The Dutch way of mixing groups generates an enourmous diversity. Which is a big task for the teacher, as differentiation is a requirement. You have to, as a teacher. This offers more to the students than having one single level for the whole class. So, the students can use our system to grow.

Again, it is not a complaint or disadvantage of the Portuguese way, it is just that I am appreciating our system more now.

If you walk into a school in Portugal, you sense and feel the atmosphere. My son of four made the choice for his school in this walk-in impression. I like that this is possible.

Extraordinary high level content

In two classes we visited, the high level of content offered stood out. In secondary school (pupils of 15 years and older), the geometry class was staggeringly new to me. It is called geometria descritiva here. Now, my experience with geometry is over 40 years old, so I understand things have changed. But in this class student are requested to draw a pyramid shaped form, from three perspectives on one sheet of paper. And it is not the pyramid of Giza they need to draw, it is oblique and upside down. This is not just geometry, it is a preparation for architecture and technical drawings.

The students heftily confer during their assignment, much to the teacher’s John (João) discomfort. This class is too loud. But very busy with their task, so the noise is not disturbance per se, it is learning in progress.

That this content is difficult is well known by teachers. Most students follow extra classes in the afternoon, after school. Their parents stimulate or make them do that.

Extra classes on geometry are offered everywhere

During a biology class, to 11 year olds, the subject was heart, lung and vascular system. Again, high level content for young students. Quite different from what we teach in the Netherlands.

Computers in School

Visiting Escolar Básico Martim de Freitas in Coimbra.

The teacher I speak with is Pedro and he explains what they currently do with computers and tablets in school. He runs a classroom with over 30 PCs on which a wide variety of programs is offered to students. Today, he is working with his IT guy on the 3D-printer, which was acting up. Students design things using FreeCAD and after their design is checked, they are allowed to print it. A PacMan the size of one euro is an example. Takes 10 minutes to print. Nicely designed, about 7 mm in height, oddly white instead of yellow (their 3D-printer only prints white).Getting the tablet class working was a challenge. The school’s WiFi and internet was not designed to service a full class of tablets which demand high bandwidth. Took them a year to fix it and now the tablet class has it’s own access point which only allows the tablets on it, plus sufficient Quality of Service for the internet itself. Very similar technical issues as we have in the Netherlands. In fact, to scale up the use of ICT in the school, two things are needed (Pedro and I agree upon this):

  • Teachers who have the will and the skill to effectively use ICT;
  • An IT infrastructure and IT staff that can support the load and keep everything working.

Both are missing or under construction at the most.As soon as you have a stable and ubiquitous ICT environment, you will use that to teach. And, on top of that, use it to measure and monitor students. To assist the teacher in deciding how to explain things and who to offer extra guidance.

Let’s Get Ourselves into a Picture

Obviously, we are on a school trip. Serious business, as we are expected to discover, investigate, analyse, discuss and learn. But, we are on a school trip too, so some of the time we act up. The inner child in use never has left any of us and then things start to happen. Strange things, but fun.

Picture of the Coimbra Study Trip Group 2018 (with our hosts)

All in all, the trip is a tremendous success, even when it’s not over yet. We think our education system is broken and desperately needs repair. The Portugese concur, not about our education system, but about their own.

The odd thing is, none of us is able, maybe not even willing to put in the work, to change our education system.

It is a given.

From this point of not being able to change the system, you can search for parts that you can change and that will have an impact on the quality of your teaching…

It is you.

Changing you will do. It won’t be easy, it will takes years of curiously searching in yourself for avenues of changes, pathways towards improvement, tunnels to avoid the mountains of resistance that are within you. But then you will change the education you deliver to your students. Then you will improve your ability to spot talent that is present in each and every one of your students. You will even nurture, water and feed the seeds of talent not yet visible in those student, by embracing each student as the person he or she is. Offer help, assistance, attention and a piece of your love for a person.

If you do that, then you will change them by having them develop their talents.

Visiting Escola Martim de Freitas

Friday morning we visited Escola Martim de Freitas. We had to wait in a beautiful room.

After a warm welcome and explanation about the school system there was an English class who gave us a guided tour around the building complex and everywhere a student gave a short explanation.

There was a group of 6 children with special needs who attend some lessons (dance, music and drama) with other children. These children have their own work space with an organized structure. There are two teachers who guide these children. It was good to see how the children were integrated in the common group.

The lessons we attended gave an impression about the school culture. Also here the pupils payed lots of attention to the teacher. Overall we’ve seen motivated teachers and pupils who pay attention. Outside the classrooms the children are very vivid.

We are grateful to have this experience.