“Little Soldiers”: American Schools and Chinese Schools

Much has been written about the growing disparity between the test scores of Chinese and American students – especially in science and math. Yesterday’s San Jose Mercury News carried a preview of a new book titled Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, so I naturally checked Amazon for the book. I was pleased to find that the book became available that very day. Based on the impressive newspaper review of the book and the author’s obvious writing ability, I ordered a copy and look forward to reading it, soon.

Why am I so interested in the general subject of students and their education? For two reasons: First, I was fortunate to be the first in my entire family tree to attend and graduate from college – many years ago (B.S. Electrical Engineering, Stanford University, 1963). Second, my wife and two grown daughters all taught/teach school. Accordingly, I have a great appreciation of the benefits from a good education as well as the difficulties teachers, today, encounter in school classrooms.

What are those difficulties in American schools? The core of the problems centers on poor student attitudes toward school and learning and too much leeway given to students, their parents, and school administrators – at the expense of teachers, classroom discipline, and effective education. I offer a concrete example.

My oldest daughter teaches in grades 1-3 in the public schools. In each of her classes for the last three years, she has been saddled with a different and singularly difficult student, one who sapped much of her time and energy each day in class and after class. Each of these youngsters would, in past years, have been cited as special education students – students with significant learning/attention/ behavior disabilities. Today’s educational philosophies embrace the policies of “mainstreaming,” or “inclusion” whereby such challenged students are placed in regular classes as opposed to special education classes where small classes of special needs students are capably handled by trained special-ed teachers. The thinking behind this recent policy of inclusion? Immersion in a regular class will benefit the disadvantaged student by minimizing stigma while conditioning the other students’ understanding and empathy toward those with problems.

The reality? A regular classroom which accommodates a special needs student with significant learning/attention/behavior problems is often a nightmare for the teacher and a detriment to the learning environment for the other students. One such student my daughter has encountered continually disrupted the class with unprovoked behaviors such as screaming, throwing objects at the other students (and the teacher), kicking other students and sometimes bolting from the classroom. Heeding directives from the teacher seemed void of priority.

The moral of that story: One child who should not be in a “regular” classroom, is accommodated by today’s educational system in America at the expense of all the other capable students in the classroom who suffer from continual distractions and lost teaching time during the school day. Even a full-time aide who can whisk the child from the classroom when that student “loses it” cannot prevent repeated and significant learning distractions for the rest of the class. The best hope for the teacher: After many weeks have passed and a bureaucratic battery of tests on the student indicates obvious severe learning/behavioral problems, the child might be removed from the classroom. In China, the teacher with such a behavior problem would have full discretion to immediately and permanently remove that student from class – no testing, no bureaucracy, no parental approval required. The teacher in China knows what is best for the class as a whole, and that is what counts in China. This is the “Chinese way” of education philosophy. It brings to mind an old Japanese proverb which states that “the nail that protrudes, gets hammered down.” Needless to say, that approach is a 180 degree departure from the current American way which would admonish that “the protruding nail be protected at all costs.”

The author of Little Soldiers, Lenora Chu is the American mother of two young boys whose family is residing in Shanghai, China; she experienced, first hand, the highly reported, high-achieving school system in Shanghai when one of her sons attended school, there. One experience she relates in the book supports the contentions I raise in this post concerning the authority vested in China’s schoolteachers. Ms. Chu’s son was struggling with winter asthma attacks which necessitated a rescue inhaler to deal with his attacks. When teacher Chen was approached by Ms. Chu who asked where her son could keep his inhaler in the classroom, the teacher responded that the inhaler and its use in class would create unwelcome distractions for the class and thus was not allowed. When Ms. Chu asked what she and her son’s options were, the teacher informed her that she could leave the school if not satisfied. Imagine that in America! Ms. Chu realized that “going to the principal” would not change matters given the authority the system grants to classroom teachers in China. Fortunately, the boy’s asthma problem was resolved thanks to a home-administered preventative steroid inhaler.

Here are my conclusions regarding the discussion so far:

-American schools have suffered greatly from the growing lack of teacher authority in the classroom. Most of us retired folks recall our parents going into requested teacher/parent conferences ready and willing to relegate top priority to the teacher’s remarks and to their side of the story. Today, too many parents enter into discussions prepared to defend their student’s version of events despite what the teacher has to say: The “Johnny can do no wrong” syndrome is alive and well in America, but certainly not in China.

-American schools must reverse the trend and put the interests of the majority of students ahead of those individual students who require special help. I am all for funding special education classes and teachers who can help those students with severe problems, but does it make any sense to try to “include” them in regular classrooms when, by definition, they will not be able to keep pace there and will detract from the learning experience of students ready, able, and willing to learn? In that respect, the Chinese have their priorities straight.

-My family’s combined educational experiences, here, in California’s tech-savvy “Silicon Valley,” have shown that Asian and Indian students tend to display greater focus and discipline in their approach to school and education than do other students. I believe this is the by-product of cultural influences which emphasize a respect for learning and knowledge. It is an attitude formed primarily by parental and peer example and it influences students positively, especially at an early age.

-My two granddaughters are currently students in high school and junior high. They are excellent students who work hard and spend many long hours on homework assignments each week. I know that for a fact. They attend good schools which have excellent achievement records. They DO experience self-imposed and peer-imposed pressure to do well in their studies, but even their experiences likely pale in comparison to those students in Shanghai, China who face extreme pressure from home and from society to excel in school.

-I favor taking the best of both worlds which define American and Chinese education. I believe teachers in America should have much more authority in their classrooms and more respect from students, parents, and administrators. Accordingly, better pay and greater prestige for teachers should serve to attract the best and brightest to the profession. Students should come to class with a “learning attitude” which can best be nurtured at home; often in America, this is not the case.

-The Chinese system is too demanding and disciplined, overall. The fallout rate (failure rate for life, essentially) of students is unacceptable. Regrettably, the extreme discipline and enforced learning of the Chinese system can easily strangle student curiosity and creative thought, and the presence of those two key factors is the real key to an optimal educational experience for students.

I have only begun to touch upon the issues important in any discussion of students, schools, and education. So much of successful learning by students emanates not from the schools and teachers, but from parents/guardians and the home environment. Unbridled curiosity is the key catalyst for success in school. My book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning explores that concept in detail. As Albert Einstein once insisted, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And he was.
My book is not only for parents whose students are underperforming in school, but also for new and prospective parents who wish to instill a “learning attitude” in their children. And, yes, for you parents who are wondering, I write at length about the student distractions of today – namely cell phones and social media!

Click on the link below to find my book on Amazon:

Alan’s book at Amazon

Now Available: My New Book, “Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning”

Today has been a special day! After many months of the gestation process, copies of my new book finally arrived. “Gestation” is an appropriate term for use by any author when referring to the birth of a new book and its long-awaited delivery – not by the stork, but by UPS!

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From initial concept to a tangible book-in-the-hand is a long, hard journey – ask any author – but the satisfaction of finally holding and perusing the end result is worth it all.

After publishing my first book on motion physics for the layperson four years ago, I was in no way ready to consider beginning yet another book. However, for both authors and imaginative inventors, a good idea is hard to resist, and the theme of America’s students struggling in science and math relative to students in other countries proved too important and interesting to pass up. More important than national test scores and rankings are the frustrations felt by many parents, guardians, and teachers when their students are underperforming in school.

 Why Do So Many Students Struggle with
Learning – Especially in Science and Math?

NCS Bookmark Front Layout_FinalStudent standardized test scores in science and math are mediocre at best and falling for America’s students relative to many other countries – a rather shocking development. Once I began to seriously reflect upon why so many students are underperforming in school, the reasons quickly became clear to me.

Diagnosing the problem was the easier half of the drill; finding cures for the ailing performance of so many of our students proved more challenging, yet I am confident in my ultimate RX prescription for healing our students’ academic woes. The integrated guide and plan I offer as a remedy for parents, guardians, mentors…and teachers, too, is based on common-sense parenting/mentoring and learning principles – many of which have been lost to recent generations. Today’s ubiquitous technology, while often very helpful and even necessary, is also identified as a significant cause of our problems – but by no means the only one.

As I wrote the book and solicited comments, one that surfaced more than once went like this: “The parents and guardians who, together with their students, most need the guide and plan you offer in the book, are the least likely to buy it.” I sadly agree, to an extent, but remain confident that many struggling parents and guardians will take advantage of my ideas and suggestions.

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I envision a very viable market for the book with prospective parents and the parents of preschoolers who wish to be proactive in maximizing school success by providing an early, nurturing environment for their youngsters. Not everyone is initially equipped by nature with the insight required for effective parenting/mentoring. Good parenting is like so many other ventures in life: The best way to proceed is by working hard and by working smart. Highlighting that latter part will prove to be how my book offers the greatest value to parent/mentors.

For a closer look at the book and how to order it, click on “My New Book on Science / Math Education” on the blog header or click on the following link:

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/about-my-new-book/

To go directly to the book’s dedicated website for still more information and to order, click on the following link:

http://reasonandreflection.com/book2/

For an excerpt from the book, also see my previous post: “Teaching Children Math…By Example,” in the archives for Sept. 27, 2014. Click the following link:

https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/teaching-children-math-by-example/

 

Teaching Children Math…By Example!

Here, in the United States, achievement test scores in math and science are second-rate and falling with respect to many other countries of the world. Why is this happening? To say that the reasons are several and complex would be a true statement – to a point. A thorough examination of the reasons for America’s declining performance reveals a common-thread: A lack of common-sense in the way we both educate… and raise our children to have a “learning attitude.” A learning attitude and the foundation for success in school comes from home.

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My upcoming book (available in October), Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning highlights many of the issues at play while offering concrete suggestions to parents, mentors, and even teachers on how to “right the listing ship” of learning at the national level.

My book is not primarily concerned with our national achievement rankings, however; its prime focus is on helping parents and mentors at home partner with the schools to improve their student’s school performance and future prospects. The book addresses all aspects of learning and student motivation while paying special attention to those typically troubling subjects, science and mathematics.

To illustrate one of the many approaches I advocate for parents, mentors, and educators, Chapter 5 in the book presents “The Lottery Prize Choice.”

Beginning of Book Excerpt:

The important point is this: Some facility with mathematics is crucial to an intellectually rich and materially prosperous life … for most of us. The more math you know, the greater the potential rewards in life, monetary and otherwise. It is our task as student mentors to first convince ourselves that this is true. Only then can we proceed to make a convincing case to our students. Perhaps you have tried simply telling your student that “math is important; you need to know it!”…and that got you nowhere!

 I advocate a subtler, common-sense approach, appealing to students’ curiosity and their inexperienced instincts by using real-life examples instead of merely preaching the virtues of mathematics for getting a good job someday, being successful, etc.

To illustrate my point, consider the following example which seems appropriate in this age of mega-million lotteries:

 The Power of Math: The Lottery Prize Choice

Congratulations! You just won the local lottery. You are given the choice of two prize options:

Option 1: $10,000 in cash – paid immediately!

Option 2: One penny in cash – paid immediately! But hold-on, there is the proverbial “fine print” attached to option 2: The town banker has consented to hold your penny in the bank and pay you an interest rate on that penny of 1% compounded and applied daily for a maximum of five years. At that time, or any time sooner upon your request, you will be paid the total accumulated amount in cash.

A Note on how the “compound interest” in option 2 works: The winner gets one penny at the awards ceremony and promptly deposits it in the town bank. The next day, the penny earns 1% interest (one one-hundredth of a penny) which is added to the original penny. Now the prize is worth 1.01 cents (1 plus 1 times 0.01). The next day, the 1.01 cents earns another 1% interest on itself which makes the total holding equal to 1.0201 cents (1.01 plus 1.01 times 0.01). This continues every day for five years.

The $64,000 question: Which option do you choose?

If you choose option 1, you will be sorry! Yes, you will have $10,000 in cash in your pocket – immediately. That can buy a lot of neat stuff like computers, stereos, smart-phones, a trip to Disneyland!

If, on the other hand, you had an understanding of the mathematics of finance – merely basic math in this case coupled with some mathematical reasoning ability, you certainly would choose option 2, wait five years and collect your $770,000 penny-accumulation!

Just imagine what that could buy? How about some Ferrari automobiles, the best college education, a beautiful new home, your future retirement, and/or ….?

Of course, it is unlikely the town banker would ever offer such a deal, but the example emphasizes to anyone, the power of mathematics – even the basic mathematics employed above. The calculation involved in this problem is simple, easily done on any student calculator. The solution to the problem – coming up with the right decision – requires a respect for the power of numbers which one obtains given a minimal dedication to the study of math.

Here, in this example, is a great illustration of the old adage, “knowledge is power,” and, despite the unrealistic premise of the generous banker presented in option 2, the lesson of this example is not far removed from the many problems recent home-buyers faced due to their poor understanding of mortgage finance and interest rates.

We have focused on mathematics in our discussion so far in this chapter and in the above example for no other reason than its importance to science and to a complete education. The lottery prize problem is but one example of a real-world, hands-on, approach which can be effective at generating student curiosity and interest in the possibilities of mathematics. This book will often emphasize the close relationship between science and mathematics while continuing to stress, as well, the importance of math alone in finance, statistics, and everyday life.

 End of Book Excerpt!

Appendix 1 in the book illustrates the simple math involved in the problem for the benefit of parents and mentors.

Two overriding messages are presented and developed within my book:

– We often look in all the wrong places for ultimate solutions to math, science, and learning problems: “Better” schools, “better” teachers, more class time, and more technology in the classroom are not the ultimate answers.

– A “learning attitude” begins at home: Nurturing a real curiosity and interest within students about the wonderful world which surrounds them demands some common-sense insights and practices from parents and mentors. Such an approach is the true key to success. As Albert Einstein once insisted, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” And he was.