“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

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.

Do We Need Yet Another Book on Education? I Believe We Do!

Today, I uploaded the manuscript files for my new book to the publisher. The gestation process of some two years has been long and hard – as anyone who has published a book can attest, but the pleasure of “putting thoughts to paper” keeps one going during the process. The book’s title reads: Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning.

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Is there room for another book?

Is it, as the title suggests, a book on the education of our children with an emphasis on science and math? Yes, but its central theme has more to do with the tremendous influence of parent/mentors on the education and the “learning attitudes” of their young students and less to do with the mechanics of education which are so often discussed and debated in the media.

I believe that the well-documented, poor and declining performance of America’s students in science and mathematics is not the result of “educational deficiencies” in our schools. “Better” schools, “better” teaching, longer classroom hours, and more money are not the real solutions. We are looking for answers in all the wrong places!

The number-one problem in our schools:  Students who are sent to school unprepared and unwilling to take advantage of their opportunity – students who are not ready and willing to learn. And what is the key to preparing students for wholehearted engagement in that process called learning? Nurturing curiosity about the real world around them and instilling a mature student attitude which grounds them in the realities of life – these are the keys.

A mature student attitude? Sophisticates at age six? Not really. A “mature” student attitude, in this context, embodies an early appreciation that, as young students, they are privileged to be able to attend school and learn things that will not only fashion a career path, someday, but will ultimately impart the “joy” of living that knowledge and an informed mind can bestow.

Students should understand at an early age that the “duty” aspect of going to school has far less to do with “having to learn this stuff” and much more to do with their personal responsibility to themselves not to waste the wonderful opportunity which is afforded them.

As the book points out, parent/mentors have a clear responsibility to regularly transport their young beyond the limited horizon of day-to-day growing-up in this distracted world of social-connectedness. My book illustrates how to reveal, to youngsters, the fascinating world which exists beyond our sometimes mind-numbing, daily existence. It is all about the awareness of young minds to the possibilities which exist for them and their need to embrace life and study habits which will turn those possibilities into realities.

Curiosity is such a key characteristic, such an important factor – curiosity about the mysteries of being human, about the world around us, about the universe and beyond. Albert Einstein implied the importance of curiosity in not only science, but life and living as well, with his insistence that, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Curiosity is the incubator of the self-motivation that makes learning satisfying and rewarding – as opposed to a chore.

And I believe that my youngest granddaughter was truly curious one Sunday morning as her family was preparing to leave for church. True to her ebullient, one-of-a-kind personality, she, out of the blue, blurted out, “How does a fart go through your clothes?” Her parents had no time before church to offer a simple scientific explanation – would that they could! When my daughter told me about this little episode, I enjoyed a good laugh, but subsequently realized that my granddaughter’s question was a legitimate scientific inquiry – something to be encouraged!

And just how do parent/mentors…and teachers, go about nurturing curiosity and success in science, math, and learning? Providing a common-sense guide and plan for parent/mentors, and teachers was my mission in writing this book. Drawing upon the experience of raising two daughters along with the picture-window view on the world of classroom teaching afforded by the three schoolteachers in my life, I offer my best perspective to parent/mentors …and teachers on how to proceed. Ultimately, a “learning attitude” begins at home. Teachers have a full plate with the task of effectively presenting the material to students; they certainly do not have the time or the opportunity to motivate an entire classroom of students to take full advantage of what the schools offer.

I hope and sincerely believe that frustrated parent/mentors (teachers, too) whose children are under-performing in school will benefit from at least one more book on education and nurturing student success.

It should be available by the end of September.

 

What’s Gone Wrong at Our Schools? It’s Not What You Might Think!

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So much has been written in recent years about “problems in education” – especially in California given its very low ranking among the fifty states. Statistics cite student achievement in the United States at the national level as inferior to that of many other countries, particularly in science and math. The trends behind the statistics are relatively recent, spanning perhaps only three or four decades.

 The causes for such flagging performance are endlessly debated in print and on the internet, and the two most-often cited “reasons” are: Poor schools and poor teachers.

 I beg to differ. From my perspective, the central and most important issue at play is not the schools or the teachers; here is the real problem:

 The home-preparedness of many students and their eagerness to learn is sorely wanting; the necessary remedy is best summarized as “positive student attitude.” Too many children are sent to school ill-prepared to be “receptive” learners in a classroom environment. Short attention spans are both symptom and cause.

 Who is to blame for that?  Today, the answer is: “The parents or the guardians” of the children. The rarely-spoken truth is that student nurturing begins not at school, but at home – even before kindergarten – and support from home must continue throughout the student’s early education. To the many adults who find themselves guardians of someone else’s biological children, I say, “You are to be commended for assuming the responsibility of raising these children and taking on the added burden of nurturing their education.” Clearly, the sizeable increase of incomplete or broken homes with single parents or grandparents at the helm has had its impact on the schools, but the message applies equally to intact families which are not instilling a respect for learning and knowledge in the children at a very early age. This is so important to fostering a positive “student attitude” in the classroom, which, in turn, drives teaching effectiveness!

 I watched an excellent PBS news story last night on the Chicago school system where 50% of new teachers leave within three to five years – many burned-out and devastated by their experience. Chicago has some unique challenges, but similar situations exist elsewhere. The message, here, is not tailored to Chicago or any other specific locale. I believe the problem of ill-prepared students (from home) is, today, endemic to all areas of the country. There are many layers to the education-problem onion, but what is resoundingly clear is that teaching is no longer the attractive career it once was for recent college graduates. The growing scarcity of seasoned-veteran, effective teachers throughout the nation’s schools has not been the cause of our educational dilemma so much as it is a result of problems in today’s classroom which discourage the best and brightest from entering the field. There are, indeed, some faults in the educational establishment, but in continually rehashing these, we persist in ignoring the issue of “student attitude” and its importance in the success of our schools. Perhaps worst of all, we miss the explicit messages sent about the priorities and attitudes of today’s go-go society and their effect on our students.

How Do We Solve the Problem?

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-Instill genuine curiosity, a love of learning, and a respect for knowledge in children before they arrive at kindergarten – and continue the nurturing and support from home throughout their early school years.

 -Realize that the technology behind the internet and the pocket-electronic marvels we all carry represents a double-edged sword that cuts two ways: Use it judiciously, and it can further your noblest aims; use it frivolously, and it will waste precious time on purely temporary diversions. Regulate your children’s use of these devices! Accumulating easy-to-grab “factoids” from the internet is no substitute for genuine curiosity about our world and the in-depth critical thinking skills necessary to service that curiosity… and open yet new doors for investigation. 

-The best advice of all to parents: Bring back the dinner table, where the entire family assembles at a regular time and place, ready for food and stimulating verbal conversation, cell phones and television OFF. The family dinner table is the crucible for instilling curiosity and a positive “student attitude” in our children. 

Sunday’s 60 Minutes television program highlighted author/historian David McCullough – a wonderful look at a fine writer and a man of common-sense. In the interview, he bemoaned the historical illiteracy of today’s students, recalling one mid-western college student who came up to him after his talk stating that she never realized that the original thirteen colonies were all on the east coast!

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McCullough ultimately blamed “the parents” for such shortcomings on the part of today’s students. He, like me, views the family dinner table as the starting point and ultimate tool for the education of our children. Bring back “the dinner table,” he beseeched. Alas, such notions have disappeared entirely from so many households, in today’s go-go society.

 My Second Book, Forthcoming – On This Subject

 I am nearing completion of the manuscript for my next book which will be based on the subject matter contained in this post. In its pages, much more detail on the material will be forthcoming. It will further amplify the contention, briefly stated here, that the foundation for the successful education of our children is wise and active parenting/mentoring. Without it, the schools will never be as effective as we would like them to be.