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December 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 4

Perspectives / Happiness Vs. Achievement?

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      Countries that embrace self-esteem, joy, and real-world relevance in learning mathematics are lagging behind others that don't promote self-regard and relevance to the same degree, theWashington Post reports, describing findings of the Brookings Institution's recent comparative study of 8th graders in the TIMSS study (2006). Because U.S. students report higher self-confidence but lower math scores than do their counterparts in Japan, Korea, and Singapore, the researchers conclude that U.S. schools overestimate the importance of student happiness.
      The study itself is quick to disclaim a cause/effect relationship between unhappiness and high achievement. Rather it concludes that an “inverse correlation” of confidence, enjoyment, and relevance with achievement signals that “the American infatuation with the happiness factor in education may be misplaced” (Loveless, 2006, p. 18). The study also notes:The intuitive attractiveness of the idea that making students happier results in better education should be held in abeyance.... When it comes to education, for some reason, the limitations of happiness are forgotten. (p. 14)
      All this makes me wonder about the limitations of correlative research. In their haste to make competitiveness trump the pursuit of happiness, the researchers stoke another U.S.-centric debate between traditionalists and progressives. Wouldn't it be better if they would use their research to help educators figure out how to produce students who are both confident and competent, creative and knowledgeable?
      Although authors in this issue offer plenty of support for making science courses more rigorous, they also emphasize the importance of making learning science meaningful to students—not only to entice more of them to pursue careers in science but also to inform future world citizens. Here are their recommendations:
      Join the world science enterprise. Today one-third of the world's science and engineering graduates are employed in the United States, and the United States accounts for 40 percent of the world's research and development expenditure. This eminence may not last, Alan Leshner points out (p. 8). Scientists in the European Union now outpublish U.S. scientists, and China is increasing its science funding. As Leshner notes, however, the more countries that have first-rate scientific enterprises, the better. Today's world demands more expert scientists. It also demands that ordinary citizens get beyond basic understanding of science if they are to tackle important concerns: product research, medical treatments, climate change, and technology
      Shore up teacher knowledge. The need for science teachers who not only have a firm grasp of content but also know how to teach students is enormous. Simply requiring candidates to major in science or attracting former scientists to work in schools are partial answers at best, our authors tell us (pp. 16, 24). Generalist teachers who teach science now or who will be assigned to teach science in the near future need both professional development and support to apply their new learning in the classroom (pp. 24, 72, 80).
      Streamline the content. National science standards contain far too many concepts, writes Gerald F. Wheeler (p. 30). More science content is not necessarily better science content.
      Junlei Li (2006) explains the problem:Should 8th graders know some, or all, of the periodic table? Some, or all, of the planets in the solar system? Some, or all, of the kingdoms, phyla, classes, and orders of the classification system? The “mile-wide, inch-deep” curriculum in K–12 education has been decried for decades, yet every subset of scientists remains adamant that its topic be included in a nontrivial way in the curriculum, thereby creating “mile-wide and mile-deep” science expectation. (2006)
      Make assessment mean something. Researchers have found that feedback that focuses on the person and not on the task can actually cause decline in performance, Jacqueline Clymer and Dylan Wiliam tell us (p. 16). In addition, grades should account for cumulative achievement rather than aptitude, thereby informing students that “smart is not something you are—it's something you become.” Clymer and Wiliam describe standards-based assessment that supports the teacher to improve learning rather than just measure it.
      Share best practices. Kathleen Roth and Helen Garnier (p. 16) describe contrasting practices in five countries in the TIMSS study. Whereas teachers in the Czech Republic publicly quiz students on multiple concepts, Japanese teachers develop a few ideas in depth. Whereas the Japanese teachers lead students to discover evidence in experiments, the Dutch hold students responsible for learning from textbooks. U.S. teachers discuss real-life issues with their students, but, unlike the Australians, they often fail to connect such issues to curriculum concepts. The authors recommend building science lessons sequentially and linking hands-on inquiry to the development of science content understandings.
      Should one country discard its practices in favor of another's? Such a task might be impossible, given that “all teaching is a cultural activity.” But certainly we can learn from one another—and must, if we want more budding—and I hope, happy—scientists in our world.

      Li, J. (2006, April 26). Not ready for science tests. Education Week, p. 40.

      Loveless, T. (2006). How well are students learning? The 2006 Brown Center report on American education. The Brookings Institution. Available:www.brookings.edu/gs/brown/bc_report/2006/2006report.htm

      Mathews, J. (2006, Oct. 18). For math students, self esteem might not equal high scores. Washington Post, p. A02.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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