It seems that no matter what we do, the U.S. educational system is failing. We keep spending more money but are still ranked 14th overall in the world. One of the major problems is that the metrics by which we judge ourselves are not representative of true education. The U.S. needs to reject computational standards and have a holistic approach to education.
When we track international cognitive skills, the U.S. is 11th and Singapore is first. Having worked in Singapore for 4 years, I can safely say that these numbers show a problem in the metrics that we've chosen.
When I got to Singapore in 2013, I took over as head of operations for my company. It didn't take long to realize that while most Singaporeans are great at executing commands, those who were able to think critically and generate new ideas are rare.
My big frustration over that time was two-fold. One was the fact that people lacked foresight. We were left to clean up messes that should've been predicted and prevented. The other was that people could not see the true value in things. Instead, people evaluated based on the immediate impact, forgetting the long-term negatives. These overlooked negatives often outweigh that immediate gain.
Singapore crushes us on test scores, but that's because tests measure the wrong things. It's not measuring the ability to identify problems and find unique solutions. These are completely missed by standardized testing. When we use this testing we forget the most important facets: critical thinking and creativity.
I can get a calculator to do 64 x 64 quickly, but cannot get it to find a problem with my approach. This is an essential piece of business success. I use Excel to deal with massive spreadsheets on a daily basis. It does all the calculations per my specifications, but I have to specify. The tool is powerless without my input. Proper input comes a broader perspective. It comes from seeing the bigger picture. It comes from critical thinking and creative problem-solving.
If you're going to succeed in business, you have to see a problem and pivot. You have to identify and fix. If we keep teaching our kids to think inside the box, we are setting them up for failure. We need to teach them to think outside the box.
Dr. Niall Ferguson, in his book "Civilization," tracks how well society can compete on a global scale. In his comparative study between Istanbul and Jerusalem, he notes that one of the major edges that the West had in the past was innovation. He tracked the innovation of a culture by patents granted. A country's ability to continually innovate is one of the signs of its health. If standardized testing is truly representative of the type of learning that will help American students excel, Singapore should boast patent numbers that represent it.
While the U.S. doesn't look great in standardized testing, it looks fantastic when we consider critical thinking. In 2015, we had 140,969 American patents granted according to the World International Property Organization. When our 319 million citizens are factored in, that is roughly 1 patent granted for every 2,300 people in the United States.
If the Singaporeans were really that much more well-educated than Americans, we would expect to see a correlation between education rank and patents. What we find, though, is much different. According to WIPO, citizens were granted 446 patents in 2015. When we factor in the 5.39 million citizens of Singapore, we find that roughly 1 in every 12,000 Singaporeans was granted a patent.
Singapore's education system is based on a model that is highly rigorous and standardized. It doesn't foster creativity, it stifles it. It doesn't encourage free thought, but slavish devotion to rules.
The U.S. should not try to improve its educational system by chasing after the example of Singapore. If we want American students to succeed in the world, we need to change the metric we use to approach education.
Singapore can crank out kids who can masterfully play the works of Beethoven, but that doesn't make them Beethoven. Just playing the notes isn't enough to succeed in the world — they must own it, innovate it, and make the world in their own image.
Kelly Cole is a business executive who previously lived in Singapore.
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