05 May 2008

Ingenuity and Rigor in the Classroom

While reading an interesting article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs, I found a reference to education in the US and where it stands out. The article, “The Future of American Power”, discusses how the US might best move forward as other powers rise throughout the world. (Quotes from page 5 of the article.)

The author, Fareed Zakaria, summarizes the argument against US preeminence in education by characterizing it as “[a] country that once adhered to a Puritan ethic of delayed gratification…has become one that revels in instant pleasures; Americans are losing interest in the basics -- math, manufacturing, hard work, savings -- and becoming a society that specializes in consumption and leisure.” It is an argument that many, myself included, would not find much issue with. Indeed, many of the attitude problems of today’s American students stem from a sense of entitlement and an aversion to hard work without immediate benefit.

Or perhaps I’m just overly critical of the younger generation.

Regardless, Mr. Zakaria goes on to make great points about American secondary education. One is that, given the right circumstances, US kids tend to score very competitively when compared to other students across the globe. The issue, Mr. Zakaria says, is a “problem of inequality”. That will have to be fixed – though I find the thought that government or schools can “fix” the root causes of low achievement trends in poor districts ridiculous. (It’s a dead horse I’ve beaten before here, here, and here.)

One other thing that secondary education tends to do well concerns creativity and ingenuity. Mr. Zarakia: “The U.S. system may be too lax when it comes to rigor and memorization, but it is very good at developing the critical faculties of the mind. It is surely this quality that goes some way in explaining why the United States produces so many entrepreneurs, inventors, and risk takers.” He goes on to say that “While the United States marvels at Asia's test-taking skills, Asian governments come to the United States to figure out how to get their children to think.”

I think there is a definite tie between American ingenuity and stressing creativity and critical thinking in education. There is also an undeniable trend toward more standardized testing and linking student progress to those test results. The temptation becomes, then, to "teach the test" in order to "prove" student progress. But this misses the mark.

The trick is to figure out how to balance ingenuity and creativity with the thoroughness necessary to master fundamentals. That’s not something that can be “universalized”, to use a tired and worn term. That balance must be achieved, or approximated, in each classroom and in each school by those in the trenches.

Post Script: Yesterday, Real Clear Politics featured an article in Newsweek by the same title and author on its website. However, it is not the same article from Foreign Affairs, but rather an “excerpt” and an “adaptation” of Zarakia’s FA article. The tone and syntax is a good bit different in the Newsweek article, so much so that I can understand how some reader comments on the Newsweek site blasted the article as “anti-American”. One must ask the question, why the “adaptation” for the Newsweek piece? Seeing as it is the cover story, one would think that Mr. Zarakia’s unaltered writing would be preferable.

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