The new edition of Newsweek reports:

“In China there has been widespread education reform to extinguish the drill-and-kill teaching style. Instead, Chinese schools are also adopting a problem-based learning approach.

[Indiana University professor Jonathan] Plucker recently toured a number of such schools in Shanghai and Beijing. He was amazed by a boy who, for a class science project, rigged a tracking device for his moped with parts from a cell phone. When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’”

(Full story)

19 Responses to “Quote of the day: The real reason China is laughing at the US”

  1. I was at your January book signing in New York when a young woman, a filmmaker I believe, mentioned to you that China and Singapore were two examples of Asian countries working toward education systems that had less rote, testing, etc. She asked your opinion. You told her to contact you to discuss this further. Hope she did. Hope you did. We in the U.S., alas, continue to “Race to the Top”, a Pyrric victory if ever there was one.

  2. Nithin says:

    Well, there was a myth created over the years that western education system is the standard one. I feel, by aping it many countries created lot of graduates, but not good enough to be employed in industries,cos all of them just mugs up to score percentiles and grades than understanding the application.

  3. John D'Auria says:

    Dr. Yong Zhao who teaches at Michigan State and is from China wholeheartedly concurs with this perspective ( See, “Will China Eat Our Lunch In Zhao’s presentations, he uses an interesting map of the world that shows the size of countries as a function of patents developed. In the past, the USA has been a powerhouse of creative ideas and patents. The current state of education is emphasizing ineffective and short term goals that could produce long term limitations. When the US was concerned decades ago about Sputnik and the advances of USSR Science, we did not respond with drills and tests. The government promoted science education and a variety of incentives to spur on enriched content and better teaching. Now, the prime role of government and business is to use carrots and sticks…and for the most part, more sticks than carrots. A number of us in the field are very concerned about this trend. Our voices, however, often go unheard and framed as an unwillingness to accept rigor and accountability.
    Rather than stressing test scores, we need to focus much more of our attention and resources on insuring that students are involved in meaningful and challenging work on a daily basis. That kind of accountability would be welcomed!

  4. Renita says:

    This echoes what math teacher Dan Meyer said in his TED talk about how math education in US is (d)evolving: students expect problems to be formulated for them and, thanks to watching TV sitcoms where problems are neatly wrapped up in 30 minutes, have an “impatience with irresolution”.

    I agree w/him when he says he doesn’t want to retire in a world that his students are running!

    (Hope it’s okay to include link, Dan.)

  5. Harlan Howe says:

    Wow. That really contradicts the stereotype of education across the Pacific that I’ve been seeing for so many years. It is good (and challenging ) to see such a contradiction. It sounds like they read AWNM!

  6. Christine says:

    I think everyone in education is stressed by the current focus on standardized testing and rote memorization. Creative kids have a hard time staying interested and motivated in a system that only places value on test scores and it is harder for teachers to inspire and encourage their students when they barely have enough classroom time to “teach to the test.”

    I’m glad that other people are starting to notice some of the limitations of this approach and hopefully some change will follow. Thanks for posting this – very interesting.

  7. Shirley Munk says:

    All young children start out creative and the education system works day by day on breaking it down, more focused on compliance and gold stars than on nurturing each child and their “wildness”.

    My mother, an early childhood educator, and huge child advocate used to say, “Society spends the first two years of our childrens’ lives encouraging them to walk and talk, and the next 16 years telling them to sit down and shut up”

    I see little pockets of change in different places, but am discouraged by so little movement in the decision makers who still think EVERYONE should go to college and all children should be in school all day and doing homework all night.
    And even this article partially blames video screens for the children’s problem of lack of creativity. Children wouldn’t zone out with video games if they had better options.
    Great article and thanks to people like Dan Pink for spear heading different thinking in this world.

  8. Kristin says:

    I second the readers who nominated Dan Meyer’s TED talk and the work of Yong Zhao. Zhao has a new book out that is worth reading if this topic is of interest:

  9. Hey Dan –

    Every day we’re reminded of the importance of education reform. Newsweek’s article was only a drop in the bucket. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Looking forward,

    Jonathan Flaks

  10. Hi Dan,

    Enjoyed your thoughts and we are huge fans! I do think our natural instincts to huddle together and solve problems has not been the norm in our undergraduate, US, school system. And yet, the need to be social, to be loved, to be respected, and to develop ourselves into being all that we can be is innate in all of us …provided our physiological needs are somewhat satisfied. Under the right conditions, the right leadership, the right environments, we all have the potential to be creative. I’m not sure if creativity is something we’ve drummed out of our kids and ourselves, or if the “goal” has changed. If we gave our kids projects, goals, reachable objectives, but didn’t tell them “how” to achieve the goal…but, what was important was the result…I bet we’d have more original thought, more input, more collaboration, more cooperation. I know we’ve got amazing schools and educators out there now…doing it.I think what may be our greatest obstacle is how we define creativity. Do we put too much emphasis on the definition, instead of nurturing the “why”, the need to understand, the need to know, to seek, to discover? Yes, it is a left brain, right brain process…we need to use our whole brains for creativity and innovation to take shape. It is said that ” heterogeneous teams” are so much more effective at creativity, because they are able, with training, to use the whole brain effectively. We all have preferences
    (What’s my Type), on how we like to operate in the world, take in information, and make decisions on the information we’ve gathered. I think we need to start reinforcing, expecting, nurturing each others differences, each others unique abilities, and start to look at our goals, our purpose, our talents, our skills.It’s time we start “observing” our kids, what they aspire to do, to be, and set the conditions for them to excel.Let them set goals that will drive “motivated” behavior….behavior that produces creative, innovative results.

  11. Darin Schmidt says:

    I read Yong Zhao’s book, and it should be required reading for school boards, administrators, Duncan, Rhee, Gates, and Klein. Please GO VIRAL on spreading this – the forces of “reform” are racing to the exit!

  12. Thanks for sharing this insightful article Dan.

    I’m currently teaching English in Beijing, China and I have taught in America and I can tell first hand experience of this drill-and-kill teaching style students are still enduring over here (sharpening those creative skills is still quite non-existent). My young students are constantly taking test after test after test with having CEO weekly schedules. The common answer I receive when I ask my young learners what they do for fun (or doing something creative) they reply, “ No time. Must do homework and study for test.”

    Check out this fascinating article from the Harvard School of Education about China’s education system, some startling statistics and what the future holds for them in their place in the world.

  13. C. A. Hurst says:

    This is a great post, Dan. Thank you!

    Shirley, I loved this statement about your mom: “My mother, an early childhood educator, and huge child advocate used to say, “Society spends the first two years of our childrens’ lives encouraging them to walk and talk, and the next 16 years telling them to sit down and shut up.” “

    I couldn’t agree more. I also have personal experience in knowing that this element in education has been around for at least 50 years or so. (I started kindergarten in 1957.) Fortunately my parents and many of their friends were very engaged parents and were determined that their children would receive what they called “a well-rounded education” and fought tooth and nail for it to be delivered up through the public school system in the small town where I grew up in Eastern Washington. It helped that many of these parents had survived at least part of the Great Depression and were also veterans of World War II. Eastern Washington at that time was a whole lot of dirt, sand, sagebrush and rocks. It took a strong sense of community and massive amounts of creativity to transform the region into a major agricultural area. It was those same qualities of community and creativity that ensured that funding was available not only for sports and science, but also for the full range of visual and performing arts as well as vocational training.

    Due to my age, I was also subjected to early IQ testing. Even though I was quite young at the time I remember thinking, as I put the shaped blocks into the correct holes, “What on earth does this have to do with anything?” Here’s a quote from Seth Godin’s “Linchpin” – “The easier it is to quantify, the less it’s worth.” There are aspects of the human experience that cannot be quantified. For instance, the impact of an exquisite painting, or the stirring of the heart at hearing a master musician playing (or for that matter, listening to your child as she scrapes out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on her violin for the first time), or experiencing an amazing work of architecture.

    I shudder to think about the ramifications of “testing” children for creativity. I do however really like the idea of nurturing both the curiosity and the creativity of all children. Here’s another quote from Seth Godin, this time from “Tribes” – “Once recognized, the quiet yet persistent voice of curiosity doesn’t go away. Ever.” Rather than telling our children to “sit down and shut up” we should be encouraging them to stand up, speak up, ask questions, color outside the lines, make up their own games, experiment with music and other forms of art, go run, play, and make noise (Take it outside!), and generally be healthy, intelligent, energetic boys and girls (and teen agers).

    I’ll close with two quotes from Richard Florida’s latest book, “The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living And Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity”:

    “A simple, undeniable first principle is that every single human being is creative. Each and every effort and policy initiative we undertake can be measured by this simple yardstick: how do they increase the ability of people, organizations, places, and companies to mobilize human creative capabilities?”

    “The real key to economic growth lies in harnessing the full creative talents of every one of us.”

  14. zorro says:

    The article also points out that since 1990, American Student scores on a test to measure creativity has been dropping.
    Wouldn’t this be about the time when the idea of the over-sceduled child really took over? Maybe creativity has nothing to do with what can be taught in a school. Maybe its more about what happens when kids aren’t in school.

  15. Moira Toner says:

    As I write, the word “teacher” appears on this page twice. We all need to ponder that for a moment and take an honest look at what conclusions our perceptions net.

    Moving on…

    I’m not an expert or a teacher, and I don’t even attempt to play either on TV. IMHO, the trend of the last decade-ish of PreK-12 standardization and testing is a statistical approach toward fiscal excuses and blame-shifting onto teachers (deserved or not). Please keep in mind that I write from Florida, which may well be the poster-state for this practice.

    In China, what are the prevailing attitudes toward teachers? How are those attitudes reflected in respect and pay? Is the Chinese teacher that provokes creativity (e.g., the student’s conversion of a cell phone to bike tracking device) unique? Is presentation of results like the tracking device a routine occurrence? Or is it an annual event in the style of American school science fairs?

    Is education a leapfrog opportunity for creativity and competitive advantage? Yes. Do we have the resources to deliver? Yes. Do we have the honesty and integrity required to set real objectives and achieve leapfrog results?

  16. Shane says:

    I wonder if Bill Gates has a subscription to Newsweek?

    Being a teacher and looking at what Bill’s foundation is doing is concerning me. All of this science is saying that his efforts are going to hurt education but his money is speaking much louder.

  17. Adam Timothy says:

    When I attended Business School at Oxford roughly 1/3 of our cohort was Chinese. Our professors would tell us about how they would constantly face empty auditoriums in the U.K., but in China it would be standing room only.

    The demographics are of course influential, but a culture which places great demand on curiosity and learning whatever you need to innovate and stand out is the driving force.

    While many of the American foundation’s major reform efforts appear to be built upon business/capitalist fundamental they all ignore the what everyone else can see so clearly, optimizing the supply of education is of no avail if there is no demand for what is being taught.

    Our education system has given us a captive audience and without having to put in the effort, the marketing arm of that system has atrophied.

    We’ve stopped telling great stories, we’ve stopped inventing and investing in the imagination, working to convince, persuade and compete for a culture where learning is cherished as life’s grand adventure and a key to realizing our dreams.

    Based on the comments here though I’m hopeful we are rediscovering all of this.

  18. Ray Dewar says:

    I have arranged for some of the students at my high school to meet with some Chinese high school students who are at Wheaton College (Mass.) for three weeks. Part of the focus is getting to know each other and perhaps creating some cyber pen pals. But a big part of it is for them to be able to compare what goes on in China with what our students do here. Should be eye opening. As an administrator, the trend toward standardization is very disturbing. I make a point of telling my staff that they had better not be teaching to any test (MCAS, SAT, PSAT, AP). What they are doing in their classrooms should be infinitely more interesting and challenging than those things. Plus, those tests should seems easy to our students once they have gotten through our curriculum. Still a work in progress, but we are trying to give the world a run for its money.

  19. mattmc says:

    You have to realize that it is the familial/societal pressure on the students to succeed that drives the performance- even when the school or homework is boring. Some things do require rote memorization and all classes have tests. The truly stupid turn in US education was abandoning the basics in a futile attempt to make school less boring, as if that were the primary problem.

    Again and again we blame the schools and their techniques, but the facts on the ground make it clear that it is the attitude of the students, driven by familial and societal pressure that make all of the difference. There are multiple subcultures in the US that place a great importance on educational attainment and effort, with corresponding results. There are other subcultures where those values are weaker, also with corresponding results.It is a massive sub-cultural difference which we are all too happy to blame on schools.

    I hear litanies against “standardized tests” as if the “non-standardized” tests that students would otherwise be given would naturally better. We need tests to find out if kids can read, can multiply fractions, and if they don’t know how, we need to teach them again (and again) until they do. Otherwise, we are just going through the motions, leaving real learning on the sidelines.

Leave a Reply