“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!

IMG_1872

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.

96497_Kubitz_cvr.indd    96497_Kubitz_cvr.indd

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/

 

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.

IMG_0732  IMG_0747

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.

 

Two Teachers: People Who Touch Our Lives in Ways Big and Small

Last month I was scanning the obituary pages of the San Jose Mercury News, our local paper. This is a new habit for me, albeit only an occasional one. My wife has long made it a point to regularly check the obit pages; I never did…until the last few years. I have come to understand the rationale: There are so many abbreviated life-stories on display. I always check the birthdate of the deceased, but only after looking at the picture first, when present. When the birthdate is in the 1920’s or the early 1930’s, I feel a sense of reassurance (I was born in 1940) that I still have some living left – at least statistically. But I focus more on the faces in the pictures; it is often easy to identify those who presumably led happy, productive lives by studying the images, especially when the deceased is portrayed both in the bloom of youth and the later years when life has left its imprint. The written obit, of course, fills-in the blanks, typically revealing lives well-lived, but not exceptional stories. Once in a while there are major surprises like the kindly old face looking out from the page who, as a strapping young man, flew 20 B-17 bombing missions over Nazi Germany in World War Two. The obituary pages provided me with one of those surprises of which I speak just last month.

Two People – Both Teachers – Whose Recent Passing
 Re-kindled Good Memories for Me

Two former teachers of mine passed away recently. The second of the two touched my life, but briefly. I was casually scanning the obituaries last month when I encountered a rather poorly reproduced black and white picture of an attractive middle-aged woman. (The color version and the younger picture used here are from the website obituary). The write-up which followed related that this woman was, for twenty-seven years, a dance instructor at San Jose State College, located just south of here. I looked intently at the picture and thought, “No, it can’t be,” but it was.

Carol Smith - SJS_2

At that time, she was Mrs. Smith, my social dance class instructor at the college in my freshman or sophomore year – way back in 1958 /59. As an engineering major at San Jose State, I fortunately enrolled in Mrs. Smith’s class to 1: Learn to dance well (came in handy), and 2: To meet some coeds. It all worked according to plan! I had a chance to meet young women (noticeably absent in engineering and math classes in those days!) and to dance with them. It was such a great class experience that I made it a point to enroll in social dance class every term after transferring to Stanford University for my junior year. In one of those classes, I met a girl who I dated on a regular basis during my last year at Stanford. It sounds funny to speak of “dating” in this day and age; it was a whole other world back then!

I recall Mrs. Smith (her married name at the time) as a vibrant, personable, and attractive young woman with the grace, figure, and long-legs of a dancer – which she truly was. She had red hair and a freckled complexion…and she had style.

 The obituary noted that she died in a Utah nursing facility at the age of 80.

I was enrolled in her dance class for only one or two terms, but stumbling upon her obituary in the paper by chance really set me back on my heels. She was a fine dance instructor whose teaching and personality made that class period one of my many happy experiences at San Jose State.

I tried to visualize her at eighty years of age and in a nursing home; it was difficult when viewed in the light of my memory of her as a young woman. The situation crystallized the reality we all ultimately face; I am no stranger to the thought of our mortality, but the particular chance experience of recalling Mrs. Smith after so many years and in such a contrasting light did shake me a bit, causing me to stop and seriously reflect.

Carol Smith - SJS_1

I went to my den shelves and pulled out one of the many notebooks from my considerable stash of college materials I have saved for lo, these many years. It was a social dance class spiral notebook which I compiled during the course. I tried to apply some humor in the form of brief quips to the “footstep pattern sequences” which I had diagrammed for the various dances such as the foxtrot, tango, waltz, etc. At the front of the book, I made references to the then-famous dance instructor, Arthur Murray, by writing with tongue-in-cheek, “My deepest thanks to Arthur Murray without whose assistance, I could never have written this book.” Just above that on the front page, Mrs. Smith assigned me a course grade of A- and, in red ink, wrote,

“My deepest thanks to Al Kubitz without whom (& people of similar ilk) teaching could become quite ordinary.” That meant a lot to me at the time.

Dance Notebook_1Dance Notebook_2

A few years back, I tried to cull-out some of the many memorabilia I had saved from my college years. I paused as I held that little notebook over the trash can…and decided to hold on to it. I am so glad that I did.

Carl “Berny” Wagner: San Mateo High School and Track
A Person and Coach Who Changed Young Lives

San Mateo High School’s senior class of 1958 sat through countless lessons during the four years spent inside that venerable, old brick building which dated from 1924. We learned history, we learned to diagram sentences, we learned some Spanish, French, and German, and we learned about angles and triangles in geometry. As important as those classroom lessons were to our futures, the most valuable lessons I took away were those that I learned on the athletic fields. I wrote at length about those athletic experiences in my blog post of February 2, 2014, Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports. What I have to say about our track and field coach, Berny Wagner, in this post will have much more clarity if you have read that piece on sports (available in the blog archives).

Coach Berny Wagner

Berny Wagner, just  as I remember him at San Mateo High – 1957

I sadly noted Berny’s obituary last year in The Stanford Magazine, Stanford University’s alumni magazine. Beside the many insights he provided me personally as I worked to become a proficient hurdler on his varsity track teams, the lasting lesson I learned from Berny was the importance of class and excellence in athletics and in life. Those of us young lads who were fortunate enough to come under Berny’s tutelage learned, first hand, how to be a “winner” in athletics. Yes, he taught us how to compete successfully – to win – but he also taught us how to compete fairly with grace, dignity, and class.

Coach Wagner was infallible when it came to highlighting those personal and athletic traits which distinguish winners from “losers.”

As a runner on Berny’s track team, you learned to NEVER slow down three or four yards from the finish line of a race no matter how exhausted you felt – even in a distance event and even though the victory  is clearly yours. You always ran through the tape at the finish line. In the short, quick sprints, you had better not be seen showboating, breasting the tape at the finish with hands held high overhead in a “victory salute.” Coach emphasized that only a fool would relinquish a victory in a close finish by not leaning hard into the tape and thereby gaining precious inches which could have been the winning margin.

I will never forget one of his pet peeves as a track coach and a specific illustration of his insistence on competing with class. One spring day early in the season, as the entire track team was assembled for a brief meeting on the infield grass, Coach Wagner made clear that he never wanted to see any of his athletes competing in track spikes wearing argyle street socks as opposed to athletic “sweat socks” (or no socks). Coach did not need to tell me that…but there are always a few who just don’t get it, so he made that quite clear to us all. I distinctly recall him saying, “If you don’t care enough about your sport and your event to show up at a meet properly equipped, you have no business being out there in the first place!” Amen. He and I were totally on the same page in all such things. Sure enough, I saw them out there during our track meets, kids from the other teams competing in spikes and gaily-colored street socks; those competitors rarely placed well in their events, and they looked ridiculous next to Berny’s boys.

Coaching track and cross-country, even at the high school level, was not a sideline duty for Berny; it was the major part of his role on the faculty. He was a dedicated and intelligent student of the sport of track and field and held B.A. and M.A. degrees in education from Stanford University. His coaching career began at the high school level and took him to a ten-year stint as head track and cross-country coach at Oregon State University; it was there that he developed the gold-medal winner in the high jump at the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury. Fosbury had perfected the then-unique-to-him high jumping style famously known as “the Fosbury Flop” and revolutionized the high jump event using it. It has long been the universally-used technique. Later in his career, Coach Wagner coached two Olympic squads and settled into executive positions within the governing bodies of track and field in the U.S.A.

Berny’s multiple talents were evident even to us young lads on his 1958 championship track and field varsity team at San Mateo High School. He had great goals and plans for his young athletes, and he executed them with precision and discipline. He ran a great program. Everyone knew the practice plan for each day’s workouts and each event. There was no uncertainty, no confusion. Observing some of the league’s other coaches in action, we sensed how fortunate we were at San Mateo. Time would amply validate our good fortune as Coach Wagner went on to bigger and better things. His greatest coaching thrills were yet to come.

Coach Wagner and my indebtedness to him had been on my mind for many, many years after graduation. I knew of his later successes, but had not seen him since high school. I was not even sure how to locate him in June of 2011 when I finally decided to make an all-out effort to thank him for all he did for us boys. It was not so easy locating him; I wrote letters and made phone calls. Finally, I learned that he had suffered a very severe stroke several years prior, was partially immobilized, and was in an assisted-living facility in Corvallis, Oregon. I sent him the following letter: 

Dear Coach Wagner,                                                    June 17, 2011

 Do you recall your championship San Mateo High School track team of 1958? This is your senior high hurdler (and lows, too) from that team, Al Kubitz. So many years have passed, yet I remember vividly those days at San Mateo High, particularly my experiences on the track team and the great good fortune I had to be coached by you. You were the most influential of all my teachers – I felt it then, and the years since have amply verified it.

 You were the perfect mentor for us young guys; you were respected for your coaching competence and organized approach and well-liked for your obvious dedication to us student athletes. The lessons I learned in the process of striving for and achieving my goals in track and through our association have guided me throughout my life. I wanted you to know that!

 I am enclosing some pictures that I hope will bring back pleasant memories. A few are from my scrapbook and 1958 yearbook. In addition, I am sending you an excerpt written some time back as part of my unfinished memoirs. It is an account of my experiences with track and why they meant so much to me. I thought you might find some of it interesting; at any rate, please be sure to read the last two pages.

 After San Mateo, I graduated from Stanford University in 1963 in electrical engineering; I retired from that great career in 2001. Linda and I have two daughters and four grandchildren. I am hoping that one of my two young grandsons will have long legs and a knack for hurdling – who knows?

 I learned … that you have been battling some medical challenges the past few years. I wish you all the best in that regard and want to thank you again for all you have done for so many of us who had the great good fortune to cross paths with you through sports.

I followed up that letter with a phone call so that I could thank him and wish him well “in-person.” I am so glad that I did that when I did. There exist many similar, personal testimonials to Coach Wagner: He truly left his mark while training boys to be men.