An email I sent to a coworker when he wanted to know why American schools are better at fostering creativity than Singaporean schools:
Since our conversation was sadly cut short yesterday I've been ruminating on your query, and have decided to make the best go I can of explaining the U.S. system and why it has seen success in fostering creativity.
The task is a fairly monumental one, for as you and I know, education does not exist within a vacuum. My apologies if in this account I tend to focus on what may seem trivial or irrelevant: it is perhaps telling of the interconnectedness of the system that I find these points important for inclusion.
Nor will I offer and moral judgments or prescriptions. Rather I will do my best to offer merely an explanation and some light commentary on observed differences.
Finally, before I begin, please excuse me if I rehash points with which you are already familiar. Not knowing your background in this area I opted for the cautious route, so as to avoid confusion through explicitness. If I have failed to do so please let me know, and I will clarify to the best of my abilities.
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Students begin their schooling with kindergarten around five or six. As studies have shown having gone to preschool beforehand will generally correlate to improved education. Currently there is still a heavy emphasis on notions of infant determinism, although this is changing as increasing stacks of data and studies show that the first few years of life and education, while amazingly important, are not vitally deterministic.
These early years are spent nurturing a care-free atmosphere. Childhood is seen as such a special and fleeting time that, when push comes to shove, most parents would rather see their children enjoying themselves above all. Kindergartens, for example, are more focused on soft learning tactics, with a vast amount of creative and unstructured time. (So, too, are the breaks from school plentiful and lengthy from this age through college). While there may be little educational merit to tracing one's hand and decorating it to look like a Thanksgiving turkey (besides hand-eye coordination) this ritual has been repeated for generations to the degree that parents would be upset if their children didn't bring one home at the school break.
Millions of these adorn US refrigerators for no good reason.
By around six students will, most likely, be in public school. A minority goes to private institutions which are coveted perhaps for a few different reasons, being: religious uniformity, gender separation, or academic rigor. As studies have shown males and females learn at different paces, and so splitting boys and girls at this age may be beneficial, since the boys will all be hooligans for a lengthier period, all have a harder time sitting still, all struggle with the same developmental difficulties, and so forth, likewise, with girls. Yet this is not usually the case for most students in America.
In the first years of primary, from say ages 5/6 to 10/11 the classes are fairly open. That is, while you may have a few periods in a day, the only real core subjects will be 'language arts' 'math' and 'science'. Art and music are generally also core courses throughout, along with PE. Time for a digression.
The idols of American culture are not American Idol winners. Generally there are two camps: the genius specialist and the polymath. Perhaps since many founders (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson most notably) were polymaths and the constitution, and founding of the country, is so grounded in the European Enlightenment, Americans tend to have a great deal of respect for those who have multiple passions and abilities. Americans, statistically, should expect an average of 5-7 career changes in their working lives. We appreciate our Mozarts, or Einsteins, but I think there is an even greater appreciation for our Michelangelos and Da Vincis.
Psychologically/Philosophically the main ideas behind US education are held by Jean Piaget: children are naturally curious little beasts who explore and are interested by everything. Stamping out that 'world wonder' would be seen as tragic, and unnatural, so children are not expected to conform to specific areas of interest for a long time. So too, in the early years of the 20th century, America's main pragmatist and educational theorist John Dewey noted that experience and creativity, rather than rote, is more effective for learning, the basis of which became the progressive education movement.
This focus, culturally, on 'well-roundedness' (inherited from the Renaissance, and further back from the ancient Greek gymnasiums) positively maligns specialization unless incredible talent makes itself known early. Unless you're the next Yo Yo Ma, active parents will endeavor to expose their children to a variety of sports, activities, and extra-curriculars. The school system itself will ensure that they study a variety of courses without too much specialization. The aim is to foster generalists, rather than specialists. To use a biological analogy, omnivores over nectarivores.
"Yeah, he's good and all. But can he paint?"
By the age of ten, or so, that is around fifth grade, they enter, sometimes officially, 'middle school' for grades five through eight. These preteen years mark the important carving up of the subjects into distinct fields, although this process may have begun in the preceding years. Oftentimes students only now start receiving marks that we would recognize. A quick note on marking: in the American system the marking is entirely different, and the grades accordingly. Rather than getting marks for correct notions, working your way up from a 0, American marks break down as follows:
59 and below - F
60 - 70 - D
70 - 80 - C
80 - 90 - B
90 - 100 - A
The concept is that students begin with a 100, and are marked down for errors or omissions. While grade inflation is currently an issue you can generally assume that a F is insufficient, a D poor, C average, B good, and A excellent. Most parents would be pleased and proud of As, but might not expect them. Bs are, after all, 'Good' and there's nothing wrong with your child getting some Cs.
There's a very popular comedy radio show in the US which tells the story of 'Lake Woebegone' where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." The notion that every child would be getting As is problematic to US sensibilities, since they should be reserved for the top five to ten percent. If everyone is getting As, the thinking goes, then the course isn't rigorous enough. So a course is seen as working if most students are being challenged and struggling a bit. Sometimes you do get an exceptional crop of students, but that is luck of the draw.
A quick digression on tracking. Since the 1980s tracking has been largely illegal in the US. Tracking refers to taking students and separating them out by abilities. Why is this? Intuitively wouldn't the better students excel if surrounded by other top students? Of course. But the flip side of the coin is disastrous: Poor students, only surrounded by other weak students, do much, much worse. Without leaders and role models in the class demonstrating their capabilities weak students have a very hard time turning into better students. And, as a raft of data has accumulated, despite intuition, strong students aren't 'brought down' by working with these weaker students. Rather, as self-motivated strong leaders, they often (confirmed by my personal experience) relish the opportunity to show their class leadership and are honored by the trust and competence placed in them by their teachers. They then actively help the weaker students, as it is seen as a sign of responsibility and maturity.
Note, too, that due to the size of America and the fact that education is partially federal- and partially state-controlled, there cannot be very efficient oversight into the educational system. The government can't keep too close an eye on what happens in these schools: the bureaucracy would be far too unwieldy. As such syllabi are seen as guidelines rather than mandates: so developmentally states and students can differ widely.
Primary school comes to an end, and the eighth graders graduate. Not coincidentally they are now full-on adolescents, with hormones a-raging. Since the post-war 1950s adolescents have in the States been seen as a unique stage of life. Pre-WWII they did not enjoy this luxury, so the model for adolescent behavior requires a little background so as to understand behavior and expectations.
"Why are you rebelling?" "I...don't know."
Since the post-war years the US enjoyed such incredible affluence that buying and spending attitudes changed. Couple this with relatively new mandatory secondary education and you have a bunch of teenagers now without jobs, but with money. Not adults, but not kids. Adult responsibilities, but not privileges. "Like, totally unfair, man." The guiding theorist for how adolescence was supposed to 'normally' be experienced was George Hall, who coined the notion of 'storm and stress' (based on German 'sturm und drang'): that is, that adolescence is naturally a stressful and stormy period. Besides James Dean, 'West Side Story' provides a nice cultural touchstone for this concept.
Since the baby boomers, post-WWII, went through this cultural construct, they raised their children, Generation X and Y, to think this was normal, who now in turn are raising Gen Z that way (the generation currently entering Uni). So adolescence in the states has been seen for sixty years as a time to rebel, act out, and be different. All of this is considered normal.
Kiasu simply doesn't exist in the states. Even our myths and stories run counter. Consider the standby of Thomas Edison who, story goes, discovered "1,000 ways NOT to make a light bulb" before hitting upon the cotton filament. There is no shame in falling of the horse if you get back on. With the notion that 'anyone can be president' and 'anyone can make it if you try', 'never give up' and 'never say die' the majority of youth in America are very confident, despite failures. Statistically they are the most confident, some would say over-confident, students in the world. Failure isn't viewed nearly as negatively: so you failed this time, so what? Next time you'll do better. This leniency for failure has profound impacts, and, when coupled with incredible self-determinism (due in large part to an immigrant culture), you end up with a certain swagger.
Secondary (usually referred to as 'high school') is as much about the social aspects, then, as the academic. There are first kisses and dances and peer pressure to deal with, on top of classes. You are still expected to be well rounded, and so a typical high school curriculum might look like this:
English (a combination of literature and language) - 4 years
Math - 3/4 years
History - 3/4 years
Science - 3/4 years
Languages (French or Spanish) - Min. 2 years
Along with PE and Art. As you get older there is greater freedom and autonomy in courses, preparing you for college. For example, below is what I had for high school (although I was fortunate enough to go to private school, nevertheless, what follows would not be too atypical for a public school, except my doubling-up in history electives junior year):
Freshman: Algebra 1, Freshman English, Freshman Art, Biology, World Geography, Spanish 1.
Sophomore: Geometry, Western Civilization (a combined English and History course), Photography, Chemistry, Spanish 2.
Junior: Algebra 2, American History, American Literature, Geology, Western Philosophy (1/2 year) and Environmental History (1/2 year)
Senior: Functions and Statistics, Environmental Science, Eastern Philosophy (1/2 year) and Geopolitcs (1/2 year), Russian Literature (1/2 year) and Epic Literature (1/2 year), Ceramics.
Five history, four math, four English, four science, three art, two language.
As mentioned previously the States don't care as much about tests. Sure, we have them, but they are seen as very artificial. Increasingly project work replaces exams and research essays replace tests. Standardized tests are taken after secondary, though, namely the SAT. This test is increasingly criticized. It is private, but more or less universal, that is it is not required or government mandated, but most people take it anyway. Personally, when I took the SAT the first time I didn't like my score. So I took a class on the SAT. Did I learn more geometry, algebra, or word skills? No. I learned test-taking skills, and my second score, the one submitted to colleges, jumped a few hundred points. Everyone knows this is the case, and so it is increasingly discredited - besides, the test has no bearing on actual intelligence and correlates poorly with college performance.
Correlation does not imply causation.
Tests, generally, are remarkably artificial constructs. When in your adult life would you experience such a thing, where you would need to know something in a timed space and without reference? In the information age it is increasingly unlikely that you'd ever be stuck without a means of answering quickly and efficiently, by glancing at your phone. At this point, though, I am beginning to stray into my own conclusions.
So high school passes. From 14-18 you've weathered and survived the usually unpleasant experience. 87% of Americans have a high school degree. Some - too many - drop out. Then about 56% go on and get some college education, but may not graduate. A Bachelors degree puts you in a group of about 40% of Americans. A Masters is an exclusive club of only about 8%.
Most colleges, to pick applicants, will ask for a sort of CV along with some essays. These essays can help determine the difference between getting in and not, regardless of test cut-off scores. In my own experience my essays got me into my top-tier schools. The admission process will sometimes include a face-to-face interview, so as to help determine the 'fit' of the student.
As different as high school was, due to cultural trends and history, college is still more different from the Singaporean model. Consider the scope and size: there are 17.5 million students currently in college. "There are 4,352 colleges, universities, and junior colleges in the country." Hence there is a level of specialization and the aforementioned emphasis on making sure the right student ends up at the right college. Junior colleges, incidentally, are relatively unknown. Unlike SG, Junior College is seen as a two-year program in lieu of a four year college, and are seen as less prestigious than a four-year institute. Their enrollment is low.
I've been using 'college' as an umbrella term as it is often used to describe the experience regardless of going to college or university. To distinguish: Universities, by in large, are bigger, less personalized, and adopt the lecture/tutorial system. Every state will have universities, many with multiple campuses (University of California Berkley, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Cruz...). Besides the top tier Universities you'll also have state schools (San Francisco State, San Diego State, Fresno State...) which still are a four-year program, but less academically rigorous. Finally there are community colleges, which are even less rigorous, but also offered by the state government.
So much for the state-run programs. Besides these you have the private liberal arts colleges, much smaller than the state-run schools. These emphasize tutorials more, seminar courses, Socratic methodology, and small class/campus size. For example, Davidson and Pomona, both well-regarded top-tier liberal arts colleges, have undergraduate cohorts of 1,700 and 1,500, respectively. UC Berkley has 25,500 by comparison. Liberal arts colleges offer a smoother educational arc: they continue to require students to take a variety of courses across disciplines. Besides your major, or majors, (which you won't declare until your second year) you'll take as much as half of your courses in other fields. State schools, too, have this requirement, although requirements are fewer.
College lasts typically from 18-21, four years. At 18 you're legally an adult by any and all standards in any state, except for drinking, which is universally 21. A quick digression is needed on college campus life.
This isn't legal.
Much like high school college is as much social as it is academic. For some this is networking, but for many it is partying. Like secondary, college is seen as a special time before entering the 'adult world' when the rules of conduct haven't yet been thoroughly applied. For example, as noted, drinking is illegal for the majority of college students: yet a whopping 30% of college students, according to government stats, are alcohol abusers. Clearly the law is not being enforced. Drugs, illegal for anyone (except marijuana in some states for medicinal purposes) are reported to have about a similar usage rate, around 35% of college females and 45% of college males. This is seen as societally normal.
The reason for this has much to do with college campus life. Unlike the small, condensed, SG society the US has space enough to spread its campuses, and many students go to schools relatively far from home. Whether you go to school in state or out of state makes a difference of going to school a few hours from home by plane or by car. As such, during these years students live at school, in dormitories, far from the prying eyes of their parents, former classmates, and law enforcement. Your conduct isn't being monitored by anyone. This new-found freedom and autonomy can be problematic, however. Besides drug and alcohol abuse freshman students often gain the 'freshman fifteen': because they now are in charge of their food, and no one's going to stop them from eating bacon three times a day.
So, too, sexual activity is very promiscuous in these dormitories, properly young people communes. No one is watching. When your parents are a phone call away, rather than a twenty minute drive, and the cultural expectation is that you will, at 18, no longer live with your family regardless of college or not, then your behavior changes to suit the climate. On a campus of, say, 40,000 undergrads you're not a name but a number, and no one cares what you do in your free time. Go nuts. In such an atmosphere people make many mistakes and poor decisions: but since this has happened for generations it has become the norm. Again, the pressure to shine is alleviated.
If this seems irrelevant please remember that education is hierarchical and so the decisions made in the younger years are, to some degree, keeping their eyes on college. Collegiate Americans don't enter the workforce until they're 21, and, as a reminder, are going to change careers a lot. So for fifteen years they are adapted for broad possibilities and a range of skills, as partially inherited historically from Europe. College is not seen as trade school, or job-preparedness. It's nice if you get that, but college exists for its own sake. The second most popular major in the US is psychology - but how many psychologists are there? English Lit checks in at 6th most popular - but these men and women aren't authors. You major in what interests you. You can learn how to do your job on the job. Odds are you'll only be there for a short while anyway.
Thus concludes our tour of the system, as most people will experience it. Time for final thoughts and cultural considerations.
Of critical importance is the following quote: "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." - Jefferson. This concept, that a well-educated citizenry is protection against tyranny and the basis of functioning democracy, is vital to understanding our educational goals. It is insufficient for students to know how to read, write and do arithmetic: they must be critical thinkers. More emphasis has to be placed on skills rather than content. Students need to be discerning, analytical and creative thinkers to solve the problems they'll face. They must be independent, seeking their own sources of information and achieving their own conclusions. Authority is not granted to title or badge, but to competence and after reasoned consideration. Deference is looked down upon comparative to mutual respect. Constructive criticism and challenging the status quo is rewarded so long as these new ideas prove their utility.
As such, in the US, creativity is seen as a positive boon, hearkening our memories to the great minds and creative geniuses of our past. Since there is no stigmatization but rather active encouragement to try and be bold, and since the success stories are of those who went against the grain, from Martin Luther King to Rachel Carson to the American Revolution, individuality and open-mindedness are most prized possessions. While this may lead to over-confidence, the structures in place encourage breadth of development requiring mental flexibility to navigate many disciplines. Parental culture is key in allowing students to have average grades and scores, assuming, sometimes falsely, that these don't reflect the students' real potential. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, John D. Rockefeller - all college dropouts, all billionaires.
Rockefeller didn't need a diploma when he had a hat like that.
Most US Presidents have been lawyers, but some were farmers, tailors, teachers, soldiers, publishers, engineers, and, to my knowledge, not a one has ever majored in politics. Only two have more than a BA: Woodrow Wilson (PhD) and George W. Bush (MA)! As recently as Harry Truman we've had some who didn't even get a college degree.
So education in the US can afford to be more creative and self-serving, since many think that it doesn't reflect success well. Of course a degree will usually put you in a higher pay bracket. But recall that psychology majors are getting paid higher because they have a degree, not because they majored in psychology, since for most that won't be their career field. Educating the citizenry mainly focuses our attention on their mental agility, not the 'stuff' which can be easily looked up. Ignorant citizens will make devastating choices for the country.
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I hope that my meager and flighty analysis of the many factors affecting the US' commitment to a different form of education have proven useful. I have attempted not to engage in proselytizing our system. Undoubtedly I have left much out, although I hope nothing so important so as to render my analysis confusing or difficult. If I have, or if you have other questions/concerns, please let me know. If I have actually succeeded in my aims feel free to show it to others, although, again, please let me know.
Have a good afternoon!