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To Build a Better Mousetrap

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Knowledge can be acquired or applied or discarded. Discarded knowledge occurs with too much frequency, acquired knowledge occurs occasionally, and applied knowledge occurs sporadically but with great impact. It may be argued that the application of knowledge cannot occur without acquisition, but what is information without purpose? The reason schools propagate knowledge is to appropriate such knowledge for the common good. The American experience of education has always been a model more successful with the application of knowledge than its mere acquisition. We are a nation of tinkerers and builders.

I am standing inside Tokyo's Narita airport ruminating about the function of knowledge in the lives of American school children. Such esoteric thoughts burden the minds of teachers because knowledge and pedagogy are the tools of our trade. Plus I needed something to think about while I was detained by Japanese immigration officials.

I successfully navigated baggage and customs but was delayed by a tailored immigration agent who asked me the purpose of my visit. The answer was limited to two choices: business or pleasure. Before I left for Japan I was instructed by "people in the know" to answer 'pleasure' lest I be asked a series of questions. I told the staid official that I was visiting Japan for pleasure, feeling confident that this single word would expedite my entry. I was wrong.

"What type of pleasure?" he asked.

I suddenly felt, well...dirty. I'm not sure if it was the tone of his voice or my guarded nature, but I was, after all, a middle-aged man traveling to Japan during the non-tourist season. The customs official assumed I was another American businessman and I essentially replied that I flew over 9,000 miles to East Asia for pleasure. We stared at each other for a moment. Could I retract my answer?

"I'm visiting Japan to meet some people and visit some shrines," I answered.
My response was not a lie but it did not sound legitimate. I was visiting Japan to meet with education officials and did have one day set aside on my calendar to visit Shinto temples and Buddhist shrines in Kyoto.

"You will visit shrines for one week?" the customs official intoned. He found my response incredulous, and I can't say that I blamed him. How could I tell him, as the song says, that I "get my kicks above the waistline"?

I was instructed to stay put while he consulted with another customs official. She wore a different colored uniform, signifying a higher rank, and wore a surgical mask around her face-one of many Japanese people wearing such masks to prevent influenza. Another official, also wearing a mask, completed a trio deciding my fate. Each looked at my passport and exchanged words. In a perfectly executed blend of choreography and synchronization, they all looked at me with serious expressions. I offered a polite wave and smiled.

Crazy thoughts entered my mind. What if some baggage handler at JFK airport packed my suitcase full of heroin? What if the stranger sitting next to me in the plane slipped contraband inside my laptop bag? The immigration declaration form specifically prohibits entering Japan with fruit, vegetables, narcotics, pornography, seeds, or snails. The outside pocket of my laptop bag might be occupied by a pair of breeding snails ready to wreck havoc on the Japanese ecosystem.

The customs officials continued their dialogue and occasionally glanced at me. I anticipated sitting in a small, locked room while they booked me on the next flight back to the USA.

After consulting with a fourth official, the immigration agent who first greeted me returned my passport. I was free to enter Japan.

I am surrounded by the wonders of technology. Planes are arriving and departing, taxi drivers are sitting in cars waiting for passengers, people are talking on cell phones, airline agents are tapping computer keyboards, and electricity ignites an explosion of neon signs. Friends and family hug loved ones and just about everyone is taking pictures. I see the stamp of American ingenuity all around me and wonder about all the fuss concerning international math and science scores.

American education is criticized by many voices but the choir gets loudest every time the TIMSS scores are released. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science provides data on the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. 4th-and 8th-grade students compared to that of students in other countries. Critics use this data to argue that American education is falling behind other countries, particularly Asian countries, with respect to both math and science scores. The syllogism is constructed as follows: TIMSS scores are the barometer of a nation's math and science knowledge; math and science scores are the best means to objectively evaluate such knowledge; American students are performing poorly on the TIMSS tests and therefore will not be able to contribute to a technology-driven world. If American students cannot compete on the TIMSS test, critics maintain, our nation is at risk and the "race to the top" will not be won. Fair enough, but this reasoning places too much emphasis on the assumption that test scores and creativity are conjugal partners.

Let's take a closer look inside and outside Tokyo's airport. The planes, cars, computers, cellular phones, cameras, and electricity are all technologies invented by Americans who loved to tinker and to build. The strength of our system of education has always been the ability of teachers to foster critical thinking skills and release the creative impulses of our children.

The TIMSS scores are a piece of data that reflects mostly content knowledge. Not a useless test, but not a very prescient exam either. Knowledge, as I noted earlier, requires application and purpose to advance a society. Knowing the periodic table of the elements is good; knowing how to create new compounds with the elements is better. Americans enjoy creating and other countries, such as Japan, take pride in improvement. In fact, the Japanese apply the word ''kaizen,'' meaning ''improvement'' to ensure quality control of products such as cars and televisions. It is a concept GM and Zenith should have emulated years ago.

The true value of the TIMSS test is not discerned easily because the comprehension and application of knowledge, paradoxically, are not always mutually inclusive. American students may not be willing to spend the time necessary to do as well as they should on standardized tests, but they do seem to accomplish much in the world of science and math. Could it be that American teachers know how to both grow a seed and cultivate a plant?

The critics are right that American students lag behind other countries when viewed through the myopic lens of the TIMSS tests, but what about actual science and math results? How do our students compare to that of other nations regarding the application of math and science knowledge?

Two prestigious awards that recognize outstanding achievement in science and math-the Nobel Prize and the Einstein Awards- consistently recognize the creativity of American students. The Nobel Prize in science and math (economics) has been awarded to Americans almost 300 times since its inception in 1901. No other country comes close to this record number of math and science Nobel laureates. Critics infected with the contagion of pessimism retort "that was then, this is now." Americans have been awarded this distinguished honor 67 times in the last decade; again, no other country comes close to this number. The Albert Einstein World Award of Science was created in 1984 as a means of recognition, and as an incentive to scientific and technological research and development. It takes into special consideration "those researches, which have brought true benefit and well being to mankind." Although only in existence twenty-five years, Americans have been awarded this prize eleven times. Japan, China, and Finland-the countries that excel on the TIMSS tests- have not earned a single award.

What does this all mean? Simply stated, the labor of America's teachers appears to bear plenty of fruit. The many seminal ideas and inventions that better our world are set in motion in classrooms throughout our country, and teachers should be proud of their work. America's teachers understand the relationship between content knowledge and how to apply such knowledge. That is the strength of our flawed but rich system of education.

A block of wood, a piece of metal, and a small spring stand alone until a child sees some useful purpose.

Let us all hope and pray that American children will continue to build a better mousetrap.


11 Comments

Tony,
Thank you for realizing and writing about the importance of nurturing American students to be reflective, inquiring, and thoughtful participants... rather than just rote learners. Yes, it is true that our students score below other countries on the TIMSS. However, I strongly believe American teachers and our system of education excels at fostering learning environments that are rich in collaboration, application, and creativity. As you so eloquently put it," Simply stated, the labor of America's teachers appears to bear plenty of fruit." I couldn't agree more.

Each week, I look forward to reading your thoughtful and intriguing blog entry. Thank you for touching the hearts and minds of your readers, and for not being afraid to talk about issues we (educators) face and witness daily in education. BRAVO!!!

Excellent thoughts... and better yet, written down in a very thoughtful, and easy to read manner. Like Gloria, your writing is always looked forward to. Please continue your good work!

Dear Gloria and gml4,

Thank you for the kind remarks and for being part of America's great teaching profession.

Tony

Tony,
Thanks for saying it again so eloquently! I will be quoting the words in your blog for many years to come. As teachers we try to maintain the balance between the "test" and knowing what our students need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers in this complex world.
Thank you & miss you my friend,
Barbara

Hi, Barbara!

Thank you for the kind comment and for being a master teacher who understands what knowledge really means to all of us.

Tony

Hi Tony,

I wanted to say that I am reading about this Japan trip and once again, you have me there - sweating in your shoes as officials decide what the heck to do with you!

I'm also thinking a whole lot these about creativity and just what it means to be in a new world with the knowledge of new science informing that. Chaos theory, networks everywhere, leaders emerging and a new model of education beg us to look at achievement in a more vibrant way. We have to look at creativity as core. We have to look at what kind of magic happens in a classroom with teachers who engage students creatively by connecting to their passions and individual interests. How can we come together to create assessments which are non-linear and still have such data mean anything at all. The movement of national assessments is here and it stems from a desire to look at progress. OK, but can we figure out some way to link creativity to all of this, to measure student engagement in literature, art, history and world languages as well as math and science? How can we still allow there to be silence and laughter in the room so students can process information so that later, that seed you talk about can sprout? We know that seed will sprout and sometimes it's not in time for the test and sometimes the test doesn't ask that student for the thing they know.

The other day I had to cover a physics class because my colleague went to an unveiling of her mother's grave. I'm in the class and I see the kids messing with a crushed ping pong ball in a machine that would apply vacuum pressure to it. They were all gathered and looking at this smashed ball, while others were working in teams. They needed to play ping pong later that day and only had this miserable ball so they wanted to figure out if using this pressure would pop it out into a better shape. Well, it did!

Mousetraps, rounder ping pong balls and the first telephone come from people who knew that ideas have to be connected across disciplines and that classes have to tap into the intuitive and give space and patience for students to learn.

Given the reality of national assessments and teacher tie in to them, how can we put our heads together to ensure that our students don't become test prep masters and lose their creative edge?

All the best and once again, an enjoyable entry!

Maryann Woods-Murphy
NJ Teacher of the Year
2009-2010

p.s. Last time I wrote I was Bergen County TOY and since then, I became the NJTOY. Jeanne Muzi and I have met and she speaks so well of you and the other state teachers of the year from your group!

"A teacher is someone who touches tomorrow."
Not only have you touched the "tomorrows" of your students and have made a profound difference in their lives, but you have also touched the "tomorrows" of all of us in the profession of education. Your insight, your staunch advocacy, your eloquent and thought-provoking speeches and articles, as well as your humble yet strong persona have brought dignity to our profession and pride to all of us who are among the blessed to call you "friend."
Hoping to see you soon,
Sheila Cohen
Vice President, Connecticut Education Association

I am not convinced that the other countries to whom we are compared on tests such as TIMMS administer these tests to ALL types of students, as they are here in the U.S. Students of every level, with learning disabilities, other special education designations and needs, and students with limited or no English take the tests in this country with a truly random selection of test takers. Convince me that this is the case in Japan, Singapore, Germany...

Maryann,

Congratulations! I look forward to seeing you during the upcoming year. My point about the seed and plant is one of the many strengths America's teachers bring to education. We are a great nation because of the history and progress of our educational system. A system sustained by dedicated and professional teachers.

Tony

Sheila,

Thank you for the beautiful comment and the wonderful work you do on behalf of Connecticut's teachers and children.

Tony

Jessica,

You are absolutely correct! Thank you for sharing this very important piece of information with our readers. In fact, a comparable group of Mass. students scored higher on these tests than any other country in the world. Remember what Mark Twain said about lies? "There are three types of lies. Lies, damn lies, and statistics." We, as teachers, need to see through the test scores and realize what the final product must be. In the case of America's students, they shine with invention.

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