It’s even worse than Parisian Minnie Mouse ears made in China!

by Sara Firisen

IMG_0261My daughter is a true fashionista; every day brings a new, interesting outfit. The other day she was wearing her Minnie Mouse ears as a hair accessory. As we drove home from school, she took them off, read the words stenciled inside the band, and said, “I got my Minnie mouse ears in Paris, but they say made in China and it's written in English. Why is everything made in China?” And all I could think was, “she has no idea how true that is.”

I have written before about the fact China and India, and of course other places, are increasingly no longer merely dominating areas like customer service helplines and IT outsourcing, but that they are stepping up their game and starting to take our innovation mat from under our feet as well. Recently, Thomas Friedman wrote about his interview with the chief executive of Intel Paul Otellini. Otellini explained, “Smart, skilled labor is everywhere now. Intel can thrive today — not just survive, but thrive — and never hire another American.” He quoted a 2009 by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which “ranked the U.S. sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in innovative competitiveness”. If you don’t think that is so bad, the study measured “‘the rate of change in innovation capacity’ over the last decade — in effect, how much countries were doing to make themselves more innovative for the future”, on this scale the US was rated last out of 40 nations. Last! If we really think that the state of education in the US isn’t a large part of this then we’re fooling ourselves.

Of all the criticisms that have been leveled at me since I started writing about innovation and education, one that really depressed me, was when I was accused of being an elitist. The actual criticism was “There is something very elitist about this whole article. We can't even motivate a large percentage of children to finish high school, and now we are supposed to prepare the (obviously elite) students to work toward better life goals.” This galled me because it so totally missed the point I was making: I’m very lucky, I can afford to send my children to a wonderful independent school where they are privileged enough to get the kind of progressive education that I believe will make them better prepared for the challenges of the truly global workplace that will confront them in 10 to 15 years. My question is, why doesn’t every child in the US get the same educational opportunities that I am lucky enough to be able to give my children?

I truly believe that most of the children being educated in the US today will be at a serious disadvantage in the years ahead and that, for some reason, while there are sporadic discussions of this in the media, there seem to be no real alarm bells going off. Indeed, while the government has just released a proposal to set new US national education standards and there has certainly been some recent government talk about the need for “improved schools so U.S. students can make up for academic ground lost against youngsters in other countries”, as far as I can see, it is really just more of the same. Maybe that is unfair; there does seem to be an attempt to create a broader, deeper, more integrated curriculum. Nevertheless, at least so far, there doesn't seem to be any serious thought given to the actual methods used to teach and evaluate children. This view is backed up by a New York Time editorial this weekend discussing these new standards, which says, “But it will take more than new standards to rebuild the schools. The same states and organizations that cooperated on the standards need to cooperate on a new and innovative curriculum.” It goes on to say, “And sophisticated tests must be created so that we can measure results.” There's the rub; part of the issue is what is taught, and part of it is how it's evaluated. For as long as the US can't find more creative ways to test children than by multiple-choice and other unsophisticated tests, the level of education in this country will never match up to international standards.

I sat through a talk by the middle school teachers at my children's school the other day. The math teacher was particularly inspiring; she talked about the importance she places on learning multiplication tables, certain algebra formulas, etc. She said, there are some things you just need to memorize. However, then she went on to say that what she really cares about though are the children's problem solving skills. In one section of work, she gives them complex, written problems to try to solve. She says to them, “I care less about you getting the right answer than I do about how you to try to solve the problem”. This teacher's mantra is “You will never know if you are right if you are afraid to be wrong.”

This approach was such a departure from the way I was taught math as a child where every answer was either right or wrong. Instead, of focusing exclusively on the answer, this teacher is focusing on the process, giving the children the tools they need to become problem solvers, logical thinkers. This is what we need more of if we want to educate the next generation of innovators. As I've said before, innovation is about accepting the possibility of failure. Focusing solely on getting the correct answer is the antithesis of innovation.

Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, and yes it's true, he was Einstein, so maybe it was easy for him to say. However, in these days of iPhones, Wikipedia and Google, maybe knowledge matters less now than it ever has. I remember when I was a child, my mother and grandmother would call each other asking whether the other remembered the name of an actor, or the title of a movie. Now, when I have such questions, I Google a movie, or a snippet of information I have, and in a minute or so, I usually have the answer, and more. We don't always have the Internet at our finger tips, but we increasingly do. As I'm writing this piece, my word processing program is correcting my spelling and making suggestions about my grammar. So, does it really matter that I'm not a great speller? When I was in school, we had to use books to look up logarithmic tables, who even considers doing that anymore?

Of course, there is a fine balance here; my husband, who is a computer programmer with an MS in Computer Science has a real problem with Computer Science degrees today. When he was in college and graduate school, he had to learn about memory allocation, pointers and other very basic, underlying aspects of how computer languages work. Nowadays, since languages like Java and C# perform automatic garbage collection (the cleaning up of used memory), a lot of CS students don’t learn about memory allocation. My husband feels that these students are missing out by not learning about these fundamental processes. Clearly, the pendulum can swing too much in the other direction and students end up with no understanding of foundational concepts and processes.

So, I'm not saying that no attention should be given to spelling, or mathematical formulas, so don't send me comments insinuating that I am. Just like the math teacher I listened to the other day, I realize that there are certain building blocks that children have to have. But, do spelling tests and other rote memorization need to be such a focus of education? Are these the most important tools that our children, all of our children, really need to survive in the future global economy? Or, is it more important that they go out to compete for jobs against an increasingly innovative, inventive Chinese and Indian workforce armed with the capacity for creative problem solving and original thinking?