08 December 2010


SCHOOL FAILURE. If anyone doubts that U.S. public and private schools are producing functional illiterates, you have only to refer to the latest (2009) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. As reported in most national news media, "Performance of U.S. 15-year olds in reading, mathematics, and science literacy in an international context shows the U.S. now ranks 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading out of the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. While OECD countries such as Finland, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and New Zealand continue to outpace the U.S. in reading, science, and math, all eyes are on China, in its first year to be included in the study as a non-OECD education system, Shanghai ranked first in all three categories. Hong Kong came in second in reading and science and third in math."

What accounts for this abyssmal mediocrity among U.S. students? Our children are as intelligent as those in any other country. Economic advantage plays only a marginal role, since many of the highest performers come from poorer countries. The key difference is each country's educational system itself, and the high (or low) regard which each country's people place on education. In China, children are already adept at academic skills (including speaking fluent English) by the time they reach first grade. On average, Chinese students attend 41 more days of school every year than U.S. students. With some in school on weekends, it amounts to 30% more hours of instruction every year.

In Finland, every elementary and secondary school teacher must have a master's degree. In the U.S., barely half do. In Finland, students have studied three foreign languages, as well as physics and chemistry, by 7th grade. In the U.S., very few in that age group can even speak adequate English. The humiliating comparisons go on and on.

The key, according to one analyst, is to galvanize public support for education, much as President John F. Kennedy did in the early 1960s. "The U.S. should focus on recruiting and supporting talented teachers in order to catch up to the rest of the world. In the United States, our system far too often fails to provide meaningful evaluation and incentives for the most effective teachers to teach the most challenged students .... What the PISA tells us is that if you don't make smart investments in teachers, respect them or involve them in decision-making, as the top-performing countries do, students pay the price." I've been saying this for years.

And if students pay the price, so does the entire nation. Until we turn our entire education system around, we will continue to fall farther and farther behind economically. Every nation needs children and adults who are literate in language, math and the sciences. This is not an elective option. This is a requirement, an obligation we owe to both our own children, and to the rest of the world.

Louis Pasteur famously remarked, "Fortune favors the prepared mind." The alternative? "Would you like fries with that?"

CREATIVE THINKING. Puzzles. Riddles. Problem-solving is as ancient as education, and the study of how and why we perform at our best has long occupied those who study the workings of the brain. Nearly everyone has poked and prodded at an intractable challenge. With luck, we discover a solution through careful analysis, or through sudden insight, or more likely both. As it turns out, the process is lubricated enormously by being in a good mood. Benedict Carey reports that "In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine .... Humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain's threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections to solve puzzles .... The very idea of doing a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle typically shifts the brain into an open, playful state that is itself a pleasing escape .... And that escape is all the more tantalizing for being incomplete."

As both a former student and a former teacher, I can only add, "Ya think?" While teaching, I always found it both useful and stimulating to jack up the mood with humor, or a goofy drawing on the board, or a playful challenge to solve a riddle. Get the kids motivated, and the rest is in the bag. Nice to see my anecdotal personal observations confirmed by systematic research. Now, what do you get when you cross Lassie with a cantaloupe?

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