*This post was written by Mohan, one of Edulastic’s summer high school interns.
The United States has been trailing behind other nations in the world in terms of education. It’s not for lack of trying; the United States’ spending on education per capita trails only a few EU nations. We have mandatory (and free public) education until adulthood in most states, and a strong system of postsecondary education that includes some of the world’s most coveted universities (*cough* Ivy League). And yet, we can’t crack the top 20 nations in the world in science or math on the PISA examination, an assessment that evaluates the skills and knowledge of 15 year-olds around the world. Our rankings are 23rd and 30th in those subjects, respectively. The nation’s best rank is in reading, at 20th in the world. If we have the infrastructure and the resources, what’s the problem?
I would argue it’s the level of thinking our standards require. I remember my Honors Algebra 2 teacher (who was born and brought up in Romania) would assign us these not so fun “Fun Sheets” with problems she pulled from a Romanian math book. Our class struggled with these problems, which were meant for students a year or two younger than us. They called for out-of-the-box thinking, requiring us to combine concepts in novel and complex ways. The questions were typical for the average Romanian student at our level, but the majority of us couldn’t even crack the first problem. It wasn’t because our class wasn’t smart—it was because we never had to use multi-dimensional thinking strategies to find solutions. We were used to being told how to solve particular kinds of problems, and were accustomed to those kinds of problems on homework assignments and tests. Her problem sets consistently tested the fluidity of our thinking. And no, the answers were not Google-able.
Each level of the problem took us to a new depth of mathematical purgatory; it was such a relief when she would finally demonstrate each step. Almost imperceptibly, as we did more and more of the problems, they seemed to get easier. They weren’t actually easier, we just got better at pulling knowledge from different concepts we’d been taught to solve the problems. As a consequence, we paid more attention to each lesson so we didn’t miss a small detail that we might have to use to solve a later problem on her *delightful* fun sheets. By the end of the year, we came to expect multi-layered problems, and actually enjoyed solving them.
Her teaching style was unlike anything we’d seen before. She derived concepts from the root up so we’d learn the make-up of the formulas and concepts we used. With deeper understanding came the ability to solve higher-level problems. We stopped memorizing formulas—we knew the concepts so well we could derive them. We started thinking more methodically about each step of the problem, and thus were thinking smarter.
Her teaching style is reminiscent of what Common Core hopes to do. Common Core standards call for high-level thinking to solve real-world problems, rather than through memorization and repetition. It leads to smarter thinking. It assesses how well students actually understand and apply concepts they are learning throughout the year—rather than focusing on one end-of-the-year assessment. Theoretically this should lead to better education, so the United States can improve its educational status. What does this look like in reality? Every American student will be able to solve Romanian equations with ease!