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American innovation doesn't start in the classroom.
Photo by Dave Parker.
A few weeks ago, a couple of Japanese scholars dropped by
the Fordham Institute offices for a visit. This happens every so
often—delegations of foreigners make the Washington ed-policy circuit, seeking
a better understanding of America’s schools. As with most Asian visitors I
meet, these gentlemen were curious about how we manage to produce so many
innovative leaders. They want a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, or a Mark Zuckerberg
of their own.
To which I replied: “You’re looking in the wrong place. It
has nothing to do with our schools.”
This isn’t meant as a knock on our school system. But from
ages zero to eighteen, our young people spend about 9 percent of their lives in
class. Isn’t it likely that the other 91 percent contributes more to such
attributes as their creativity or willingness to question authority?
I asked my visitors what Japanese adolescents do when they
aren’t in school?
“They attend cram school,” was the answer. Uh huh.
American kids, on the other hand, are engaged in all manner
of extra-curricular activities: Sports, music, theater, student council,
cheerleading, volunteering, church activities, and on and on.* If you are
looking for sources of innovative thinking, leadership and teamwork skills,
competitiveness, and creativity, aren’t these better candidates than math
And then there’s the way we parent our kids. For better or
worse, if you believe Pamela Druckerman, the author of the much-hyped
Bringing up Bebe, U.S. moms and dads
are terrible at teaching our kiddos self-discipline and delayed gratification.
(Have you ever met an American parent that enforces a no-snacking-between meals
policy? The French have no problem saying “Non!”) This, she suggests, fosters
out-of-control toddlers and may lead to serious problems down the road, particularly
for kids growing up in neighborhoods where community bonds have frayed. On the
other hand, by allowing our young to negotiate endlessly with us and stand up
for what they want, we are also teaching them a form of self-assuredness.
Treating little kids as equals might wreak havoc in the short term, but it’s
possible that it creates non-hierarchical, confident, transformational leaders
in the long run.
The Japanese visitors want to know what’s happening inside our schools. (A few years ago,
national officials ordered Japanese schools to instruct kids to challenge
authority. Consider the irony.) And for sure, some of our schools teach in ways
that encourage such attributes like creative thinking.*** Getting students
engaged in their own learning, asking them to solve real problems, getting them
to read difficult texts and make sense of them, rather than regurgitate
facts—all of this can help at the margins.
But for their sake, I hope my new Japanese friends paid
attention to what American kids were doing after school and on the weekends,
because that is when our special sauce is made.
*Well, at least a lot of them are. Others are just hanging
out, smoking pot, getting in trouble, etc. Some of these young people end up
creating successful start-ups too!
*** That’s why this initiative to create an “innovation
index” in Massachusetts is so misguided. The impulse is right, but it’s
based on the assumption that creative thinking is something that can be taught
in school, rather than developed all day (and night) long.