Monday, December 13, 2010

Chinese do better on tests than Americans! Oh my God, what will we do?

Recently, we have been subjected to yet another round of fright about our education system because the Chinese have scored better than the U.S. on the PISA test. Arne Duncan tweeted “PISA results show that America needs to ... accelerate student learning to remain competitive." The New York Times ran its usual scare article. “The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.”

I even heard a man who should know better state that these tests were actually meaningful since they were problem solving tests. Nothing would convince me that the tests were meaningful in any way, but just for fun I took a look at some sample questions anyway. Here are four of them (chosen because they were shorter than the others.):

A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears,

tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.

Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.

The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with

the formula:

d=7.0× t−12

( ) for t ≥12

where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after

the ice has disappeared.

Question 27.1

Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen, 16 years after the ice disappeared.

Show your calculation.

Question 48.1

For a rock concert a rectangular field of size 100 m by 50 m was reserved for the audience. The concert

was completely sold out and the field was full with all the fans standing.

Which one of the following is likely to be the best estimate of the total number of people attending

the concert?

A.2 000

B. 5 000

C. 20 000

D. 50 000

E. 100 000

Question 7.1

The temperature in the Grand Canyon ranges from below 0 oC to over 40 oC. Although it is a desert

area, cracks in the rocks sometimes contain water. How do these temperature changes and the water in

rock cracks help to speed up the breakdown of rocks?

A. Freezing water dissolves warm rocks.

B. Water cements rocks together.

C. Ice smoothes the surface of rocks.

D. Freezing water expands in the rock cracks.

Question 7.2

There are many fossils of marine animals, such as clams, fish and corals, in the Limestone A layer of the

Grand Canyon. What happened millions of years ago that explains why such fossils are found there?

A In ancient times, people brought seafood to the area from the ocean.

B Oceans were once much rougher and sea life washed inland on giant waves.

C An ocean covered this area at that time and then receded later.

D Some sea animals once lived on land before migrating to the sea.

Whether or not you know the answers to these questions I think it is important to think about what it means to be good or bad at such questions. As someone who studied mathematics and who considers himself a scientist, I can tell you that these questions are both simple and irrelevant to the average human being. One can lead a prosperous and fulfilling life without knowing the answer to any of them. Why then are test makers, newspapers, and Secretaries of Education, hysterical that the Chinese are better at them than their U.S counterparts?

One answer is that every nation needs scientists and that knowing the answer to these questions is on the critical path to becoming a scientist. I can assure you that that is simply false.

Whether or not a nation needs scientists, it surely doesn’t need very many of them. In any case, while scientists I know would know the answers to these questions, that has nothing to with the reason they have been successful as scientists. More relevant would be a personality test that sought to find out how creative you were or how receptive you were to new ideas or how willing you were to entertain odd hypotheses. Having been a professor who supervised PhD students from many different countries, I can assure you that Chinese students are very good at learning what the teacher said and telling it back to him. Of course they do well on tests if they come from a culture where that is valued. In the U.S., questioning the teacher is valued and most U.S. scientists have stories about how they fought with their teachers on one occasion or another. If we need scientists why not find out what characteristics successful scientists actually have? Memorizing answers is probably not one of them. You don’t win Nobel Prizes, something the U.S. is still quite good at, by memorizing answers.

But, of course, the problem with the U.S. education system is not in any way our lack of ability to produce scientists. We are very good at it actually.

Our problem is that a large proportion of the population can’t reason all that well. We don’t teach them to reason after all. What we do is teach them mathematics and science they will never need and then pronounce them to be failures and encourage them, one way or another, to drop out of school. Brilliant. We also to paraphrase President John Adams, don’t “teach them how to live or how to make a living.”

As usual, neither Arne Duncan nor the new media has a clue about the real issue in education. To paraphrase President Clinton “ It’s the curriculum, stupid.”