Why learning should be less fun

In his speech addressing the nation today, President Obama mentioned, once again, the well-known fact that that the math and science scores of U.S. students lag behind the students of many other industrialized countries, including China, Finland, and Singapore.  The weak scores have long been the worry for American educators.  They are partly what the Race to the Top funding is supposed to address.

So far, many prominent voices in education have assumed that the reason for the lag is some essential problem with American schools. Some, such as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, point to the lack of “good math and science teachers” and calls for higher teacher salaries to attract more and better teachers in those areas.  Others, like Paul Peterson at Education Next , believe that technological innovation “is our best and final hope for saving high-quality math and science education.”  Peterson hopes that online education could compete with traditional models of teaching and educate better students.

But few people seem to be asking a rather obvious question: if U.S. students are lagging behind other countries, how do these other countries teach their children?  Do China, Finland, Estonia, Sinagpore, Japan, etc. have more talented teachers?  Do they have more effective teaching methods arrived at via a more decentralized teaching market?

In future posts, I would like to explore the school systems of these other countries. But this post will be a more personal one.  Having experienced one of these other education systems first-hand, I can tell you that neither of those propositions was true.

I went to an elementary school on the outskirts of Beijing that was considered very mediocre.  Some of my teachers were compassionate and interesting.  Most failed to make an impression on me.  A couple were downright horrible.  Corporal punishment was normal behavior.  So was verbal denigration of students.

School was not fun.  Hours were long — in elementary school we arrived in class around 8:30 am and usually stayed until 6 or 7 pm (with a 1.5 hour break for lunch in between).  High school hours were even longer. We went to school 6 days a week, and usually had a couple of hours of homework each day, which mostly consisted of math and verbal drills and problem sets. I did not like school very much.

And yet… I learned.  Lots and lots of math and science.  By 7th grade my classmates and I were solving complex quadratic equations with multiple variables.  By 7th grade, we were learning biology, chemistry, and physics, all in the same year.  All 3 science courses were mandatory courses to be taken concurrently for the six years of middle and high school.

So imagine my surprise when I came to the States and discovered that children in 7th grade were still reviewing how to add and subtract fractions.  Imagine my surprise to learn that students only enrolled in one science class each grade, alternating among biology, physics, and chemistry, that school let out at 2:30, that homework was nearly nonexistent.

Needless to say, for the next three or four year or so, I sailed through my math and science classes with excellent grades.  My Chinese education, as much as I disliked it at the time, gave someone like me, by no means a math or science genius, a huge boost.  This is something that many immigrant children I know experienced.

Why did the Chinese school teach me so much more?  Did I learn because I loved school, because my teachers were fascinating, because I had tools unavailable to my American peers?  No, no, and no.  I learned because of the excruciatingly long hours, the constant drills, the obviously high expectations, the pressures from the teachers and from my own parents.

School in China was not expected to be fun, and no one pretended that it was.  Learning certain subjects, especially math and science, was work.  Work that was sometimes grueling.  Work that required discipline, just like learning a musical instrument or becoming good at a sport.

Some children find such discipline easy.  Those children are often high achievers from a very young age.  But for most, including me, discipline was difficult and required external motivation.  It sometimes required fear, including fear of being punished.  As a whole, my Chinese school, for all its shortcomings, was very effective at instilling this discipline.

Even for someone as young as me, it was clear that the emphasis of my American public schools was not on discipline.  It was on something like “creativity,” or “individuality.”  Much of it was focused on “fun.”  This was reflected in the short hours of school, in the light volume of homework, on the long summers, on the gentle and easy-going way in which teacher treated us, on such filler classes such as “study hall.”

No doubt, certain students thrive in the more fluid and flexible American system, which allows for those at the top to develop their talent more spectacularly than the stratified Chinese system could ever allow.  Time spent outside of school could be used to accomplish some amazing things, just take a look at the spectacular entries each year for the Westinghouse competition.  But as a society, our concerns are not merely with the success of the top students, but also the average students whose lagging scores trouble us so much.

Do I believe that American schools should adopt all of the tactics of my Chinese school?  Not at all.  Even the Chinese schools themselves have reformed and eliminated many of the harsh authoritarian measures.  But I do believe that to improve the math and science scores, American schools do not necessarily need better teachers or more innovative methods.  It needs more of a culture of discipline.  It needs, for instance, longer school days, and more teacher authority.

Most of all, it needs the realization, from students, parents, teachers, and administrators, that mastering basic academic skills, just like athletic drills or music practice, is often not fun.  Perhaps we put too much emphasis on looking for ways to make it so.  Perhaps we should instead look for ways to effectively teach our students the discipline they need to learn.

Related post: Longer and more school days

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