October 24, 2016

The learning and education of our youth through college has long been the main goal of government and parents alike. Parents just want kids to learn and love to learn while the government wants metrics of success that they can tout as proof of quality education.

Overall the prevailing wisdom is that the US fails as compared to other industrialized countries in three major categories math, reading and science. We ranked 26th, 17th and 21st on the PISA test respectively in 2012. However, when you compare our size and demographics to other like countries we rank 2nd only to Canada. And furthermore, when you look at our peak achievers, they are always in the top 1-3.

So what does it all mean. We still have the best education system in the world for the bright and hard working if you take it all the way through college. Where we struggle is with the early years and especially for underserved populations.

The November edition of Scientific American Mind has a perspective written by Jo Boaler and Pablo Zoldo regarding math in the US. They discuss the analysis of the PISA scores in regards to math and how kids learn. The PISA study found that the children learn in three sub patterns: 1) memorization, 2) relational learning to previously learned topics, 3) self monitoring approach where they focus attention on topics that are yet unlearned.

The memorizers turn out to be the worst at maintaining and keeping math skills. Guess which country is among the highest in total number of memorizers? Yes, the US. The so called teach to the test method! American teachers are so stressed with test heavy regulations that the children do not explore topics in depth where instead they memorize and use rote procedural knowledge.

Aside: I dare say that this very akin to my medical school training. Memorize, memorize and memorize some more. It was only after residency that I learned to think as an inspector of individual human disease and not the dogma of previous memorized knowledge. The old knowledge is present only as a framework to build upon as the evolution of humanity occurs before our eyes. For example, my memorized dogma was that colic is a brain gut nervous imbalance. Reality is that this never made sense and now we know that this is clearly an immune reaction to casein dairy proteins. Thinking through a problem is so much better than trusting an answer that clearly was inadequate.

How do we take this information and apply it to our greatest asset, children? The remainder of the article does a nice job of laying out a framework for changing the learning paradigm. They note that the American desire to time tests appears to be losing ground as a good way to analyze performance. Studies have shown that timing tests impairs working memory and increases anxiety levels in students due to stress.

"But if American classrooms begin to present the subjects one of open, visual, creative inquiry, accompanied by growth-mindset messages, more students will engage with math's real beauty."

It gets to the root of the issue. Is it really necessary to memorize stuff with google at your finger tips. As a physician, that is clearly unnecessary and I spend inordinate amounts of time teaching my medical students that they need to think not memorize. What is the process to learning? We attack patient cases as the TV show House MD. I could care less whether they know inane statistics about a % of disease, but care greatly that they can think through the process of elucidating the disease root cause.

It is clear to me that if your child struggles on a test at school, have them repeat it at home with no timetable. The end goal is getting the answers right over time. Praise the effort and the end result with a growth-mindset. Help them to love the process. I remember my physics class in college where we proved a theorem on the blackboard. Speed and memorization were non existent. It was long and amazing and at the end we saw that "E" actually did equal mc2.

It is all relative,

Dr. M