By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007
Students in a Loudoun County laboratory studied tiny, genetically altered plants one recent afternoon, drawing leaves and jotting data in logbooks. Meanwhile, visiting scientists studied the students.
In spiral notebooks, the visitors recorded how long the teacher waited for students to answer questions, how often the teenagers spoke up and how strongly they held to their views.
The scientists had come thousands of miles from the island nation of Singapore to the Academy of Science in Sterling in search of ways to improve their teaching. This could be considered surprising, given that Singapore's eighth-graders rank No. 1 in science and math globally and those in the United States rank ninth in science and 15th in math, according to the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
But rankings aren't everything -- how America teaches is admired.
In a 21st-century economy that rewards quick thinking and problem solving, many educators in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia worry they are creating a generation of scientists who can memorize facts but can't keep up. These educators want to go beyond teaching facts and concepts that appear on tests and start teaching skills that are harder to gauge.
"How do you measure excitement? How do you measure creativity?" asked George Wolfe, director of the two-year-old public magnet school in Loudoun. "There's so much publicity about Americans not scoring well on tests, but few people ask the question: Then why are we producing so much innovation from our scientists?"
Hungry for new scientific and technological breakthroughs, Singapore's government has been asking this question. And it is rethinking lesson plans in a public school system for a country of about 4.3 million. In an initiative known as "Teach Less, Learn More," Singapore has trimmed its curriculum in recent years to focus on quality of instruction rather than quantity and to give students more time to think. And its educators are circling the globe to hunt for new methods.
Loudoun's Academy of Science weaves together math and science concepts and stresses hands-on learning through real-world applications. Teachers use the "inquiry approach" to education, giving students tools and guidance rather than step-by-step instructions. The goal is to have more " 'Gee whiz!' and 'Holy mackerel!' " moments and "to inject a love of science in addition to the facts," Wolfe said.
In a room filled with molecular models and playful posters of Albert Einstein and the periodic table, Har Hui Peng watched as the Loudoun students debated why some plants grew faster than others.
"Just by watching, you can see students are more engaged, instead of being spoon-fed all day," said Har, research coordinator at the Hwa Chong Institution, a secondary school that draws from the top 3 percent of Singapore's students.
There, she said, the laboratories are fully stocked but stark, and the students are bright but reluctant to volunteer answers. But that's changing. To encourage spontaneity, she said, Hwa Chong now bases 10 percent of each student's grade on oral participation.
Changes to spur creativity are unfolding across Asia. Top high schools in Beijing and Shanghai are emphasizing independent research, science competitions and entrepreneur clubs, said Vivien Stewart, vice president for education at the New York-based Asia Society, who arranges cross-cultural tours for educators. China's goal, she said, is to foster a higher-wage economy built on science and innovation.
Japan is retooling schools to engage students and ease pressure. Officials cut the national curriculum by 30 percent in 2002, eliminated mandatory Saturday classes and created a period for general studies meant to build on the interests of individual teachers or students. But the Japanese shift to yutori kyoiku, or relaxed education, has fueled a back-to-basics backlash from parents who worry that their children are not learning enough and that test scores are slipping.
Experts say the obstacles to change are high in Asian countries with historically large class sizes, a teacher-dominated classroom culture and rigorous high school and university entrance exams.
The middling performance of U.S. students on international exams has led to controversy about math and science instruction. Some argue for a more traditional approach oriented toward drills and memorization; others say children learn best when they discover concepts for themselves. Arguments also have escalated over whether U.S. officials are reading too much into the test results and whether the political mandate for high-stakes testing under the No Child Left Behind law is stamping out the very creativity other countries covet.
But the success of Singapore and other Asian countries has inspired much interest in their teaching methods. Singapore's math books have been tried in classrooms from Rockville to Chicago. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published a curriculum guide last year that drew on the in-depth approach to math found in Asia.
In 2005, a report commissioned by the U.S. Education Department compared math teaching in the United States and Singapore. It found that U.S. texts place less emphasis on understanding math concepts in depth and that U.S. teachers are less likely to clearly understand the subject. William Schmidt, a Michigan State University education professor, said the United States could learn a lot from Singapore. He said the success of scientists here owes more to a business and cultural environment that rewards risk-taking than to the U.S. education system.
Yet such schools as the Academy of Science are forcing students to think on their feet.
Ishan Bardhan, 15, a sophomore at the academy, analyzed plants that afternoon with his classmates. He said his math and science classes are highly challenging. "They don't tell us what to do," he said. "We have to figure it out for ourselves. It's not straight out of the textbook. I like this better."