Australian primary and high school students spend nearly 74 per cent more time in the classroom as Finnish students and have the most hours of instruction in the OECD, but are receiving far lower scores in international tests than students in similar countries.
An Australian student receives a total of 11,000 hours of instruction throughout primary and high school, compared to the average of 7540 hours for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations, curriculum comparisons released by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority have revealed.
Finnish students, who perform among the top in the Program for International Student Assessment, have at least 200 fewer teaching hours every year in comparison to Australian students, and about 100 hours less each year than the OECD average.
Finnish children also start school later, entering the first year of primary school at age seven, and pre-primary education for children aged six has been compulsory in Finland since mid-2015.
The curriculum comparisons have also identified major differences in the amount of autonomy given to teachers in other education systems, higher levels of depth in their STEM curriculums and a radically different approach to assessments than that still prevalent in Australia.
The Australian maths curriculum "uses verbs to identify what a student should be able to do after their learning", while British Columbia's curriculum "uses statements to describe what is to be taught. The depth and rigour of [British Columbia's curriculum] tends to be more obviously reliant on teacher practice," ACARA finds.
"The curricular competencies include estimating by comparing to something familiar, which does not include an explicit reference to a mathematical concept; rather, it allows for teachers to develop concepts in ways best suited to their students."
Similarly, Finland's curriculum includes "explicit directives for teachers to consider students' interests in their selection of content".
Dean of education at Newcastle University John Fischetti said that other countries were embedding more teacher autonomy into their curriculum, which was making them "learning centres rather than assessment centres".
"If you look at the countries Australia is being compared to, we're still being held back by assessment strategies that drive teaching and learning," Professor Fischetti said.
"[Other countries' curriculums] are still mapped to a syllabus and are still teaching things to kids, but in a way that meets their needs rather than ensuring they are getting the right answers in tests.
"Singapore and Finland have moved in a different direction around assessment. Most of the time spent in the classroom allows students to become more imaginative and creative.
"That's what needs to change, we need a different assessment scheme that frees teachers up to drive dynamic learning."
Students in other countries are also being introduced to higher-level maths and science concepts at earlier stages of their schooling, which may be encouraging students to choose advanced STEM subjects, in contrast to the decline in enrolments in these courses in NSW.
"While the [Australian maths curriculum] is comprehensive in breadth and challenging both in depth and rigour ... [Singapore's curriculum] is more comprehensive in breadth and more challenging both in depth and rigour due to the inclusion of a greater range of intellectually demanding content," the ACARA report states.
"Singaporean students ... are likely to have a more sophisticated knowledge and facility with mathematical processes enabling them to continue their mathematical education at a higher level."
A spokesman for ACARA, which is responsible for developing the Australian Curriculum and administering national tests including NAPLAN, said: "The comparative studies will contribute to the long-term consideration of international developments in curriculum design and may inform future refinements and improvements to the Australian Curriculum.
"The observations from the studies will help inform ACARA’s advice to education ministers in 2019-20 on the next phase and development of the Australian Curriculum."
Continue the conversation at our SMH Student Facebook group.