At this time of year, the test scores of high school students from around the world are released. U.S. student performance on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) math, reading and science tests are compared to their peers from 55 countries. And every year we hear how our kids scored at the “average” level, seemingly falling further behind a half-dozen or more countries.
But are these results really indicative of our future success, and are we really doomed to losing our “competitive edge” as some critics would argue?
Maybe not, according to Peter Sims, in his book Little Bets. Sims argues that educational systems are built upon teaching facts and then testing us in order to measure how much we have retained. Students who are taught to solve math problems, for example, focus on learning established methods of logical inference or deduction, both highly procedural. Improving test performance is a matter of becoming more proficient at retaining and applying established practices.
The risk, according to Sims, is that students are graded primarily on getting the answers right, and not encouraged to creatively problem-solve using their own methods. The consequence is that our right-brain capacities to create and discover are suffocated.
This overemphasis on left-brain analytical skill development is a concern for many educator reformers. As author Sir Ken Robinson describes in his Ted Talks video, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, we are educating people out of their creativity.
Robinson argues that the modern education system was crafted after the industrial revolution to support operational management practices that emphasize efficiencies and productivity objectives. However, the emphasis on sequential processes, regimented systems and detailed planning results in the stifling of innovative capacities.
In doing research for his new book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students, Yong Zhao compared the results of the PISA math scores and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) annual assessment. The GEM assesses the entrepreneurial activities, aspirations and attitudes of individuals in over 50 countries, 23 of which participate in the PISA test.
Zhao found an interesting and surprising result. There was an inverse correlation between test scores and perceived entrepreneurship capabilities. The top PISA-performing countries of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan scored the lowest on perceived capabilities or confidence in their ability to start a new business.
This discovery also highlights another important and often overlooked result from the PISA findings about the importance of the mindset of the students taking the test. As the article in the Washington Post noted, “Despite their tepid math scores, U.S. teenagers were more confident about their math skills than their international counterparts …”
Research from Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of social psychology at Stanford University and a leading expert on why people are willing (and able) to learn from setbacks, found that people tend to lean toward one of two general ways of thinking about learning and failure: fixed mindset and growth mindset.
Fixed-mindset students believe in their abilities and innate set of talents, which creates an urgency to repeatedly prove those abilities, and they perceive failure as threatening to their sense of self-worth or identity. They are likely to be overly concerned seeking validation, such as grades, test scores and titles.
Students identified to be growth-minded believe that intelligence and abilities can be grown through effort, and they tend to view failure as an opportunity for growth. They also have a desire to be continuously challenged.
In her research with elementary school students, Dweck found that mindset is strongly influenced by what a student thinks is more important: ability or effort. She found that students praised for their effort (for example, “You worked really hard”) versus ability (for example, “You must be smart”) were more likely to choose the more difficult task and creatively problem-solve. Most important, when these students failed, they did not think their performance reflected their intelligence.
This insight would help to explain why students who are seen as “failures” in the traditional sense (for example, Steve Jobs) are able to succeed and thrive in the face of adversity. It also helps to explain why in the U.S., students such as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who both dropped out of college and which would be considered shameful or unheard of in other countries, are able to go on to build billion-dollar companies and change the world.
As the parent of two high school children, I’m not saying that testing student abilities doesn’t have its merits. What I am suggesting is that it isn’t the only measure of predicting a student’s, or a country’s, future success.
The U.S. has had a long tradition (and culture) of producing rule-breakers, game-changers and out-of-the-box thinkers — not easily measured in the form of test scores, but better captured in optimism, perseverance and innovation. Perhaps being “average” is the right result to ensure that we are not, as Robinson would say, “educating people out of their creativity.”
Scott Gillum is the president of gyro Washington, D.C., and head of the agency’s channel marketing practice.
Follow Scott @sgillum