By Albert Tsao
Perhaps one major difference between education in America and in many other countries is a source of personal motivation. In the U.S., so much is so commonly available -- decent jobs, good housing, a wealth of entertainment at your fingertips via the Internet -- that many students feel there's really little need to better one's condition. So it's easy to find school boring and slack off.
But the responsibility for the relatively poor showing of U.S. students in international comparisons, such as the Trends in International Mathematics & Science Study (TIMSS), hardly falls only on students' shoulders. How the school system is organized and what it delivers, especially in terms of expectations, also contribute to American mediocrity in international studies.
Despite the richness of its resources, the U.S. education system has not matched the progress overseas. In U.S. classrooms, little has changed over the last 10 or 20 years -- except for one thing: standardized testing. With standardized tests serving as the "scientific" measure of school performance, the curriculum has been modified and, as was predictable, is now aimed largely at getting students to do well on these tests.
This has changed the classroom from a learning environment to a training environment, and it begins as early as elementary school. As a result, many students lose interest in their studies very early. Once they stop asking why, that innate spark of creativity in all children soon winks out.
This trend can be traced up through the grade levels. In Montgomery County, Md., where I currently attend school, the fate of philosophy classes is one yardstick. Twelve years ago, my sister was in high school in the same county, and her school offered a philosophy class. But those classes have since been almost completely wiped out. Students have become so enured to trying to achieve the highest standard-test score that they don't even notice the lack of classes that would nurture their creativity.
This dearth of stimulii for creativity is why school is often boring, and bored students can't be expected to perform well in international studies that require more than regurgitation of standard-test fare.
But beyond sapping creativity, this sort of education is especially detrimental to the development of future mathematicians and scientists, as both professions need great amounts of lively thinking. Many great scientific discoveries have been the result of some original and daring idea that would never have blossomed if the scientist had stopped asking why and wondering about the world early in life.
By bringing back classes that require creativity and independent thinking, America's education system would turn out students who could do much better on international assessments. Even more important, many more students would be interested in science and math -- and carry this knowledge forward into adulthood. With a more scientifically literate citizenry working alongside professional scientists and mathematicians, America would be much better equipped to solve the world's problems.
Tsao was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search