Britain looks East for better schools

Longer school days and shorter holidays would help British students catch up with  Asian students, Education Secretary Michael Gove said at an education conference in London.

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Gove should “know how boring and soul-sapping rote-learning can be,” responds Clarissa Tam, a graduate of Singapore schools.

Does he know how the emphasis on science, maths and IT can turn students into little robots, affecting particularly those of a more creative bent?

. . . The intense pressure to excel means students often study not for the joy of succeeding, but from the fear of failing. In Singapore they have a term for it — kiasu, which means ‘scared to lose’.

And yet, the drive for excellence can be empowering, Tam writes. When she faces challenges, she recalls that “my parents, my teachers, even my schoolmates have always expected more of me than I have of myself.”

I have even, somewhat to my own disgust, come to appreciate the emphasis on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top, free as you please. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

Gove’s “Look East” policy comes at a time when many Asian countries are looking West in search of “inventiveness, originality and lateral thinking,” she writes. Singapore has created arts and drama schools and is “introducing more project- and team-based work as well as teaching formats such as show-and-tell.”

Test-crazy China seeks innovators

China’s education system turns out students who are great at memorizing but not at thinking, writes Helen Gao, who moved from China to the U.S. for her senior year of high school.

In 2010, an international standardized test found that junior high school students in Shanghai had outperformed their peers in rest of the world in math, science, and reading, beating the U.S. averages by a wide margin. . . . (The) nine-year compulsory education system, installed in 1986, has boosted the country’s literacy rate to around 92 percent (it was 67 percent as of 1980) and prepared millions of eligible young people for the rapidly expanding workforce. Now, however, as the economy shows signs of cooling, Chinese leaders are trying to engender more domestic innovation.

They hope to see an educated workforce, rather than toiling on factory floors or sitting in the cubicles of Western companies’ Chinese branches, found their own businesses or brands that will sell to domestic as well as international buyers. They want domestic moviegoers to stop purchasing bootleg DVDs of Western blockbusters, and for foreign viewers to start raving about Chinese films. But the nation’s education system, instead of channeling the youthful energy of China’s next generation, seems to be blocking it.

The gao kao, the college admissions test, determines students’ futures. It’s all multiple choice, Gao writes.
Chinese students spend years cramming for the big test, reports the New York Times.

. . .  new research by the workplace manager Regus shows that Chinese employers are now favoring graduates with internship experience, winning personalities and foreign language skills. Just 9 percent of employers, especially at large companies, now put educational background as the top priority in hiring.

That probably means acing the gao kao, getting into a prestigious university and offering experience, personality and language skills.

Drill, student, drill

Despite the education world’s rejection of “drill and kill, rote learning has its uses, writes Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine.

By e-mail, E. D. Hirsch Jr., the distinguished literary critic and education reformer, told me that far from rejecting drilling, he considers “distributed practice,” the official term for drilling, essential. A distributed practice system, Hirsch explained, “is helpful in making the procedures second nature, which allows you to focus on the structural elements of the problem.”

For knowledge that must be automatic, like multiplication tables, “you need something like drilling,” adds Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

“Colorful, happy apps” can make drilling less boring, Heffernan writes.

Apps devoted to specific subjects always have the right answers in reserve. They unfailingly know stuff that might elude more fallible human drillers, like atomic weights, the order of cranial nerves and African geography. And they can make almost any exercise feel like a video game.

. . . even as they profess reluctance about drilling schoolchildren, adults who themselves are looking to learn something new — from foreign languages to bar-exam material — increasingly turn to apps that animate some version of a multiple-choice or flashcard narrative.

I tutored a girl in algebra who hadn’t memorized the multiplication tables. She had to slog through the arithmetic on every problem, which made it hard to “focus on the structural elements.”

Ten years ago, I tutored a sixth grader who was an excellent phonetic reader with poor comprehension because of her limited English vocabulary. She asked me for the definition of every word she didn’t know and memorized the definitions. I just found her high school-era web page, which lists her favorite books, including The Scarlet Letter.

China, Singapore are 'ugly models'

Americans should stop envying the education system in Singapore and China, argues Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosophy and law professor, in The New Republic. For any nation that aspires to remain a democracy, Singapore and China are ugly models, she argues.

Rote learning and teaching to the test are so common in Singapore and China that both nations are worried their graduates lack the “analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation,” Nussbaum writes.

In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”

The reforms haven’t been implemented: Teacher pay is  linked to test scores and teachers find it easier to “follow a formula.”

In both nations, there is no freedom to criticize the government or the political system.  Singapore’s citizenship education consists of analyzing why the government’s policy is correct, she writes.

Singapore and China aren’t producing the innovators their economies will need, Nussbaum argues. They suppress “imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.”

Nussbaum recommends South Korea and India for those looking for an Asian education model. I thought both put a lot of emphasis on tests.