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What Can American Science Teachers Learn from "Smarter" Countries?

Posted by Sara Goodman on May 5, 2014

What Can American Science Teachers Learn from "Smarter" Countries?The news around America's place in the global classroom can feel daunting. Each year's data suggests that American students are sliding behind their global peers, especially in math and science, which puts our country in a precarious position as we face a future with increased demand for big thinkers in the STEM fields. So what can teachers in this country learn from classrooms overseas? What is so different about those countries with, as writer and educator Amanda Ripley puts it, the "smartest kids in the world"?

Serious is as Serious Does

Ripley, who investigated this exact question, found that for the most part, the difference between American classrooms and the classrooms of the highest achieving students comes down to a culture focused on academic seriousness. Ripley found that in South Korea, for example, all students studied diligently, creating an intense environment in which excellence was the norm. This high-intensity pressure does seem to yield remarkable results on standardized assessments, but replicating this obsession with data hasn't seemed to work yet in America. While the No Child Left Behind initiative placed a new focus on assessments, the pressure seems to sit more squarely on the shoulders of teachers, not students.

Of course, no one wants to replicate a culture of high stress and burnout, especially among our children, but we can certainly work to normalize success and build a culture of achievement in our classrooms. Part of that work may come in demonstrating some of the rewards of academic success to our students to foster the idea that science achievement is "cool." Providing students with role models of high-achieving young people who are making real contributions to science may be a good place to start. Take Bobak Ferdowsi, the young NASA systems engineer known on the Internet as the "Mohawk Guy." Normalizing science success can help create a culture of studiousness in our classrooms, without the same slavish devotion to textbooks that drives some of our more high achieving global peers to burnout.

The American Advantage

Despite our lackluster results when compared to other countries, a recent article in The New York Times made it clear that Chinese educators are looking at American classrooms in order to figure out how to better foster critical thinking, a skill not always measured on standardized tests. The hands-on approach in American schools seems to allow for a greater sense of engagement on a deeper level, though clearly this does not always translate to high scores. It seems that perhaps teachers on both sides of the globe might be able to learn from one another's best practices, and together, create a stronger class of kids across the globe who value both academic success and independent, creative thinking.

Photo Credit: Ludovico Cera

Topics: education

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