EAPRIL 2018, In English

Excellence in Teaching and Learning and how this it is manifested in three countries

Author: Sharon Lierse.


Excellence in education is a topic of global interest. Universities are in competition for the highest quality of research and top students. They are also ranked against each other in global university rankings. Moreover, universities have an increasingly important role in preparing students for the next generation workforce and lifelong learning; a responsibility that is undergoing significant transformation. Another indicator of excellence in education is the Programme for International Student Assessment better known as the PISA tests. The purpose of the research is to compare, and contrast Australian, South Korean and Finnish tertiary educational institutions in what is are characteristics of excellent teaching. Factors such as teaching philosophies, cultural influences and the role of the arts will be investigated. Through investigating these educational philosophies and practices will gain a greater understanding of what drives different countries to achieve excellence in learning and teaching.


Excellence in higher education and how this is identified and measured is of global interest. Countries promote their universities and are in competition for the best students (Yedkevich, Altbach & Rumbley, 2016). There are also external organizations such as the Times Higher Education which rank universities against each other (Baker, 2017; Times, 2017). These global rankings have a great impact on how teaching and learning is conducted at universities and what is considered important for educating the future generation. Countries which have excellent universities are known for what these institutions do, but not how excellence is taught, achieved, and what is valued by students and lecturers in the process.

Another indicator of excellence in education is the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as the PISA tests (OECD, 2017). This international test is given to a cross-section of students in The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries when they are aged fifteen. The PISA tests have highlighted how educational systems impact learning and teaching and how this may flow onto the quality of education in the tertiary sector. The PISA tests have shown that two countries which have consistently ranked highly are South Korea and Finland. They are vastly different in their geographic location, language, cultural practices and attitudes to education. In contrast, Australia is a Western country situated in Asia, which has ranked quite well in the tertiary global rankings and PISA. The aim of the research is to compare and contrast perceptions of excellence between these three select countries, and what can be learnt from them. In an increasingly globalised community, understanding what is valued between countries and how excellence is achieved may increase one’s understanding of society, and how to address current themes and issues within the education system. The key questions asked in the study are the following:

  1. What is excellence and success?
  2. How is competition regarded in the learning process?
  3. Is there a connection between excellence and altruism, empathy and equity in learning and teaching?
  4. Are there specific subjects or disciplines connected to excellence?

Data will be collected through surveys and interviews as well as investigating philosophies, culture and curricula. Themes of excellence, success and competition will be the focus as well as what is valued in society. Grounded theory will also be employed as an inductive theoretical approach after analysing the various forms of data.


What is Excellence?

To achieve excellence, one first has to know what the term ‘excellence’ means. The difficulty with the term is that humans can identify excellence but when describing of verbalising what components are excellent or why, it becomes challenging. For a term widely used, finding a definition is difficult. The Collins English Dictionary (1979) defines ‘excellence’ as both a noun and a verb: “the state or quality of excelling or being exceptionally good; extreme merit; superiority” and “an action, characteristic, etc., in which a person excels” (p. 531). The Latin translation for excellence is ‘uirtus’ which look very similar to the word ‘virtue’. This is based on Plato’s philosophy that ‘excellence is virtue’. Hence, to be good at a task may have also been virtuous in its moral quality. For the purpose of the paper, excellence is defined as “exceptionally good and of superior quality”.

What is Success?

The term ‘success’ is often interchanged with ‘excellence’. The word ‘success’ stems from the Latin root ‘successus’, which means an outcome. The Collins English Dictionary (1979) defines ‘success’ as, “The favourable outcome of something attempted” (p. 1521). It was also described when a task has been completed and it becomes “obsolete”. ‘Excellence’ and ‘success’ are often interchanged but to be successful at a task does not necessarily imply that the quality is good, or of virtue. There is not necessarily a causal relationship between being excellence and success. Success here is when the task has been achieved and does not require further work.

What is Competition?

Competition occurs in many fields including sport, music and education. The premise of competition is that there will be a winner and loser with the individuals or groups pitted against each other. It has been defined as “rivalry”, or “the struggle between individuals of the same or different species” (Collins, 1979, p. 322).

Literature Review

There has been research into excellence in teaching at the tertiary level from a range of perspectives. To clarify, there has been a range of terms and definitions depending on philosophical understandings, geographic location and culture. Terms such as ‘outstanding’, ‘excellent’ and ‘successful’ are interchanged as well as ‘tertiary’, ‘university’ and ‘college’. ‘Lecturing’ and ‘teaching’ have also been interchanged (Andrews, Garriso & Magnusson, 1996; Cosh, 1999; Gibbs, 2006; Sherman et al., 1987; Yair, 2008). For the purpose of this study, ‘excellence’, ‘tertiary’ and ‘teaching’ will be used.

Historically, the topic of excellence has been research for over century in which one of the first publications was published in 1917 in The Journal of Educational Research (Breed, 1927). The characteristics identified were personal qualities, organization of the subject matter, knowledge, skill, university co-operation and professional development. Similar characteristics were found in studies by Brookfield (1990), Finkel (2000), Metcalfe and Game (2006), Weimar (1997); and Yair (2008). There was a discussion of whether excellence was a quality which was innate (Gosling & Hannan, 2007; Polanyi, 1966; Weimar, 1997; Yair, 2008) or whether it were techniques and skills which can be taught (Kane, Sandretto & Heath, 2004). The personality of the teacher was rated highly in some studies which traits such as approachability, passion and enthusiasm were at times considered more important than skills (Bain, 2004; Bain, 2012; Bentley-Davies, 2010; Boonshaft, 2010; Feldman, 1988; Gladwell, 2009; Lawler, Chen & Venso, 2007; Moore & Kuol, 2007; Saroyan & Amundsen, 2001). However, as students progressed though the higher levels of academia, skill and expertise were increasingly considered important (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1986; Chi, Glaser & Farr, 1998).

There are also excellent teachers who were focused on inspiring and transforming lives despite the bureaucracy and structure of the system. They may not necessarily be good administrators and therefore may miss out on recognition they duly deserve through not filling out the paperwork for promotions (Dunkin & Precians, 1992; Jones, 2010; Palmer & Collins, 2006; Skelton, 2005; Yair, 2008). They would work around policies and procedures in order to evoke the changes they considered necessary (Robinson, 2009). Some have also questioned the status quo and consequently become disruptors to the system.

A quality of excellent teachers was their ability to reflect (Brookfield, 1995; Cosh, 1999; Cowan, 2006; McAlphine & Westin, 2000; Schön, 1983). Reflection could come in many forms such critically reflecting their own practice to further improve their own teaching. Another form was to show understanding through empathy. This empathetic response would help students with their most pressing needs and in improving their learning. Other qualities are equity in which the concept of student bias or favouritism is negated to achieve the desired results.

At a systemic and national level, key cities throughout history have been known for excellence and advancing society. They have shown common traits of nurturing talent including those considered outsiders and having an altruistic attitude towards achievement (Weiner, 2016). Here, the strive for excellence was not competitive for individual gain, but rather collaborative for the greater good of humanity. The importance of altruism and empathy, and a more holistic approach to learning has been investigated (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2003; Sahlberg, 2015; Stephan & Finlay, 1999). Ironically, it is the countries that are known for excelling in global rankings which also have a strong philosophical educational foundation, value empathy and equality in education.


The two methodologies used for the study were thematic analysis and grounded theory (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Charmaz, 2000; Charmaz, 2002; Glaser, 1998; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). These were selected as they were the most suitable for categorising cross-cultural information and for positing a new understanding of why excellence has developed in select countries. Data was collected through surveys, interviews, monographs and journal articles. Surveys have been used at select universities in South Korea and Australia to ascertain what are the characteristics of excellence. Themes such as lecturing styles, learning preferences and cultural influences were investigated. Following this was a series of interviews with academics and post-graduate researchers. Information on Finland was acquired through publications monographs, journals and papers at educational conferences. This was due to the focus on the country after being number one in the world in the PISA results. The data collected has been compared and contrasted to identify trends and themes.


Australia is situated in the Asia-Pacific and is the smallest continent on earth. Although an island, it is the sixth largest country and is known for its large cities found on its perimeter. There are approximately 25 million people living in a country comprising six States and two Territories. It is a young country, colonised by the British in the eighteenth century and based on Western cultural traditions. English is the spoken language, but there are over a hundred foreign languages spoken by migrants as well as Indigenous languages from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Australia, in its Western cultural development has relied on Britain, and more recently to the United States of America. Politically, Australia has strong ties with Britain, the United States of America, and more recently China due its geographic proximity, trade, and number of migrants Australia. Australia is a multi-cultural society with a highly regarded university system. An increasingly expanding and significant component of the higher education market are international students.

The education philosophy is similar to Britain’s due to its religious, historical and cultural foundations, however, it is difficult to identify. It is based on Plato‘s notion of an ideal curriculum where subjects are required to be studied to be a good citizen. Education is curriculum focused and regulated.

There is inbuilt competition in the education system in Australia. During school, the national tests such as the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy, better known as NAPLAN, tests students in year three, five, seven and nine. The score that students receive is whether they have met the required standards and where they are in relation to other students in their year level (https://www.nap.edu.au/results-and-reports/how-to-interpret). In their final year of schooling, they are given a mark for each subject, which is then standardised to be ranked against other students in their State or Territory. An issue with the peer ranking system is the amount of stress and anxiety it creates.

A study was conducted at an Australian university in 2014 to investigate the characteristics of outstanding university lecturers (Lierse, 2016). There was an anonymous survey sent to 70 students enrolled in the Graduate Certificate of University Learning and Teaching where they identified characteristics. From this, fourteen participated in semi-structured interviews, and five lecturers who were identified as outstanding were interviewed, as well. The five characteristics discovered from the study were; expertise, holistic approach to learning, engaging the student, open door policy and ambitious altruists. It was the last characteristic ‘ambitious altruists’ which was of surprise and interest. The study found that outstanding lecturers were ambitious and had purpose in their work. Ambition was from an altruistic foundation in which their students came first, rather than for their own ego. Their practices were often unconventional and they would often be criticised to the point of being isolated from their peers. As a result, many of these lecturers sacrificed their own career paths for the academy (Lierse, 2016, p. 9).

Their ambition was beyond ego and was for the good of humanity rather than for personal gain (Butler-Bowden, 2007). These lecturers would sometime sacrifice their own career paths or even jobs for their altruistic pursuits (Palmer, 1998).

South Korea

South Korea or the Republic of Korea is a country situated in East Asia with a population of approximately 51 million people. The country has had a turbulent political history with its neighbours, North Korea, China and Japan. It is known for its manufacturing as well as its education system. The language spoken is Korean.

South Korea’s education system came under the international spotlight after the students received high results in the PISA tests (OECD, 2017). Consequently, many educational researchers have visited South Korea to gain an understanding of the teaching system. What they discovered was the high value placed on rigorous learning and educational achievement (Ripley, 2013). One aspect of their system was the after-hours tutoring culture known as Hagwon.

A survey and a series of interview questions were designed to discover why South Korea had one of the best educational systems and how they perceived excellence. The research proposal went through ethics at the university and was approved. The survey was sent to lecturers and post-graduate students at a university in South Korea.

The second part of the research were interview questions for South Korean lecturers and post-graduate students who had a degree of English fluency. The questions were designed to trigger conversation and were semi-structured. The topics range from their own background, teaching styles and what is considered excellent. There were interview questions for university lecturers. The data was coded and interviews analysed to determine what the trends are in South Korea in relation to what is considered excellent.

The results revealed how much emphasis is placed on education and to do well. The pressure to succeed was from the family as well as society and it was not unusual for students to spend long hours studying. There was a clear progression from doing well at school to then go to a good university to then gain a good job. This was the key to success which would then make one happy. One respondent discussed how, “Many parents believe that it is the short cut to success.” Another respondent stated, “To have a successful life it is money, best university, good job, people to envy you is successful.” Lecturers were highly regarded and respected and any form of teaching was still seen as a good career choice.

Competition is a feature of the South Korean education system. Students are tested often and are ranked in class. From an early age, students know that they have to work hard and the end goal is to be accepted into a top university. “I think the education atmosphere is so competitive in South Korea…Students study very hard. Their motivation is very high, but sometimes their motivation is performance oriented. And they [are] influenced by other students because they compare each other.” Competition is a key factor in student achievement in South Korean education system. There is also a respect for the teachers and education.


Finland is a sovereign state in Northern Europe situated between Western countries and Russia. It has a relatively small population of five-and-a-half million people and is known for its cold winters. The language spoken is Finnish.

Finland has been featured in the media due to their PISA test results in which they have been ranked number one in the world. Even though this was a test in secondary schools, it reflected how excellence in teaching was practised in the university system to produce such impressive outcomes. A reason for this is that Finland has undergone a transformation in their society which has focussed on education. Sahlberg (2015) discussed how: “Diplomacy, cooperation, problem solving, and seeking consensus have thus become hallmarks of contemporary Finnish culture” (p. 17). Their system is based on the Aristotelian philosophy where ones’ purpose is to have a good and noble life. There is a focus on social skills, empathy and leadership (p. 199). There is surprisingly very little testing in schools. Finland only selects the best applicants to be a school teacher in which the minimum requirement to work in schools is a Master’s Degree. Due to their success of their education system, many teachers from different countries have visited Finland and observed teaching in schools to better understand the secret to their success. Sahlberg (2015) commented “Many teachers and administrators who have visited Finnish schools…are often stuck in the middle of excellence versus equity quandaries due to external demands and regulations in their own countries” (p. 66). The Finnish example of educational excellence has worked in Finland. This would be due to the congruence of support by the government, educational system and their society. However, this would be difficult to be replicated in other countries due to the complexity of cultural systems and understandings.


The three countries are different in their geographically, linguistically and politically and their education systems are based on a philosophical foundation.

How excellence, success, perfection and failure are defined varies between countries which in turn impacts the teaching and learning in schools and universities. The role of competition in education is a driving factor in South Korea, and to an increasing extent in Australia, but is viewed negatively in Finland in favour of cooperation. The overriding philosophy in Finland is based on Aristotle’s of living to have a good and virtuous life. South Korean’s educational philosophy is based on Confucius in which there is an “I” with “self”, “others” and the universe and learning is a life-long process. Australia’s philosophy has been adopted from the United Kingdom and is based on Plato in which excellence is a virtue and a range of subjects are required in order to achieve this.

The results revealed that the philosophy and its beliefs of a country have a strong impact on education. The countries which excel in education during the formal academic schooling and for life-long learning have strong philosophical foundations, especially in the role of arts but also how education is practised varied widely. The other dimension of excellence, which has been explored, are the roles of empathy, equity and altruism. How a society can be sustained for life-long learning without their members working to their own potential, helping others and for the greater good of the community.

South Korea and Finland have excelled in PISA tests to the surprise of many countries. They are not known for their population size or being a dominant force in large global companies although they are global leaders in many niche industries. Politically, they have both been under constant threat from neighbouring countries and have a long history of warfare and being invaded. Finland has the global superpower Russia to the East and Sweden to the West, and they only received independence in 1917. South Korea is under constant threat from North Korea, has been invaded by Japan, and has the superpower China as a neighbour. Both countries do not have enough man power in their military to fight against neighbouring countries so have to exert their power in other ways. They cannot rely on primary resources such as farming and mining due to the land so they rely on themselves. Both of these countries have invested heavily in human capital in education to ensure that they will have a prosperous future.

To show their independence and autonomy, they have maintained their language and culture, which has been manifested through the arts. It is also the arts where they can learn their language and history through music, dance, art and drama. These also reinforce their patriotism, worthiness and sense of belonging. To remain relevant on a global level, it is these activities that bind these groups together, strengthen their loyalty to one another, and help to create empathy between each other. The arts form the fabric of their society and what it means to be part of the society.

Both South Korea and Finland show a great respect for the arts, especially Western art music. Their standard of performers is world class and there are opportunities for students at the school level to learn and music. This honour, respect and practice of the arts results in a high level of sophistication, development of emotions and empathy. These results were unexpected and the connection of excellence with empathy with the arts and through the arts is an area for future research.


The paper discusses how countries which are known for academic excellence have very strong philosophical foundations. However, it is the way excellence is practiced which differs widely and is often contradictory in its approaches. The research has shown that the role of the arts play an important role in the connection to excellence in education which is an area for future research. It is these new combinations of factors which may hold the key for sustained educational excellence throughout the life-span.


The author would like to thank the Australia-Korea Foundation through the Australia-Korea Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for support in the “Teaching Excellence in South Korea and Australia: A Comparison” project.


Dr Sharon Lierse, Lecturer in Education, Charles Darwin University, Melbourne, Australia

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