In a recent article titled Five Myths About U.S. Kids Outclassed by the Rest of the World, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post cites a conversation between Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek and Singapore education minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
In it, Shanmugaratnam was asked why his country consistently ranks higher than the United States on international math and science exams, yet fails to produce top-ranked scientists, business leaders and inventors.
Shanmugaratnam answered that America, "is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America."
As a classroom teacher who emphasizes creative thinking and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, my students engage in frequent collaborative seminars and competitive debates. They learn to think differently and to reflect carefully on both sides of critical issues by creating and maintaining a classroom blog and podcast on current events. They also create new knowledge on our wiki and engage in long and thoughtful conversations on our digital discussion boards.
But they score lower than their peers on our statewide standardized tests—and that’s got me feeling the heat. Seminars, digital dialogue, wiki work and discussion boards are, I believe, valuable 21st century skills that students should tackle. They are, however, untested skills–leaving me to wonder whether the time that I invest in these kinds of motivating and meaningful activities is worth it.
So I guess what I’m asking is has America become an exam meritocracy? Have we as a nation pushed our creativity and our willingness to innovate aside in order to secure a higher ranking in international math and science exams?
What do we lose when rigid structures and standardized testing replace intellectual curiosity in our classrooms?