Education Opinion

To Build a Better Mousetrap

By Anthony J. Mullen — November 30, 2009 7 min read
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Knowledge can be acquired or applied or discarded. Discarded knowledge occurs with too much frequency, acquired knowledge occurs occasionally, and applied knowledge occurs sporadically but with great impact. It may be argued that the application of knowledge cannot occur without acquisition, but what is information without purpose? The reason schools propagate knowledge is to appropriate such knowledge for the common good. The American experience of education has always been a model more successful with the application of knowledge than its mere acquisition. We are a nation of tinkerers and builders.

I am standing inside Tokyo’s Narita airport ruminating about the function of knowledge in the lives of American school children. Such esoteric thoughts burden the minds of teachers because knowledge and pedagogy are the tools of our trade. Plus I needed something to think about while I was detained by Japanese immigration officials.

I successfully navigated baggage and customs but was delayed by a tailored immigration agent who asked me the purpose of my visit. The answer was limited to two choices: business or pleasure. Before I left for Japan I was instructed by “people in the know” to answer ‘pleasure’ lest I be asked a series of questions. I told the staid official that I was visiting Japan for pleasure, feeling confident that this single word would expedite my entry. I was wrong.

“What type of pleasure?” he asked.

I suddenly felt, well...dirty. I’m not sure if it was the tone of his voice or my guarded nature, but I was, after all, a middle-aged man traveling to Japan during the non-tourist season. The customs official assumed I was another American businessman and I essentially replied that I flew over 9,000 miles to East Asia for pleasure. We stared at each other for a moment. Could I retract my answer?

“I’m visiting Japan to meet some people and visit some shrines,” I answered.
My response was not a lie but it did not sound legitimate. I was visiting Japan to meet with education officials and did have one day set aside on my calendar to visit Shinto temples and Buddhist shrines in Kyoto.

“You will visit shrines for one week?” the customs official intoned. He found my response incredulous, and I can’t say that I blamed him. How could I tell him, as the song says, that I “get my kicks above the waistline”?

I was instructed to stay put while he consulted with another customs official. She wore a different colored uniform, signifying a higher rank, and wore a surgical mask around her face-one of many Japanese people wearing such masks to prevent influenza. Another official, also wearing a mask, completed a trio deciding my fate. Each looked at my passport and exchanged words. In a perfectly executed blend of choreography and synchronization, they all looked at me with serious expressions. I offered a polite wave and smiled.

Crazy thoughts entered my mind. What if some baggage handler at JFK airport packed my suitcase full of heroin? What if the stranger sitting next to me in the plane slipped contraband inside my laptop bag? The immigration declaration form specifically prohibits entering Japan with fruit, vegetables, narcotics, pornography, seeds, or snails. The outside pocket of my laptop bag might be occupied by a pair of breeding snails ready to wreck havoc on the Japanese ecosystem.

The customs officials continued their dialogue and occasionally glanced at me. I anticipated sitting in a small, locked room while they booked me on the next flight back to the USA.

After consulting with a fourth official, the immigration agent who first greeted me returned my passport. I was free to enter Japan.

I am surrounded by the wonders of technology. Planes are arriving and departing, taxi drivers are sitting in cars waiting for passengers, people are talking on cell phones, airline agents are tapping computer keyboards, and electricity ignites an explosion of neon signs. Friends and family hug loved ones and just about everyone is taking pictures. I see the stamp of American ingenuity all around me and wonder about all the fuss concerning international math and science scores.

American education is criticized by many voices but the choir gets loudest every time the TIMSS scores are released. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science provides data on the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. 4th-and 8th-grade students compared to that of students in other countries. Critics use this data to argue that American education is falling behind other countries, particularly Asian countries, with respect to both math and science scores. The syllogism is constructed as follows: TIMSS scores are the barometer of a nation’s math and science knowledge; math and science scores are the best means to objectively evaluate such knowledge; American students are performing poorly on the TIMSS tests and therefore will not be able to contribute to a technology-driven world. If American students cannot compete on the TIMSS test, critics maintain, our nation is at risk and the “race to the top” will not be won. Fair enough, but this reasoning places too much emphasis on the assumption that test scores and creativity are conjugal partners.

Let’s take a closer look inside and outside Tokyo’s airport. The planes, cars, computers, cellular phones, cameras, and electricity are all technologies invented by Americans who loved to tinker and to build. The strength of our system of education has always been the ability of teachers to foster critical thinking skills and release the creative impulses of our children.

The TIMSS scores are a piece of data that reflects mostly content knowledge. Not a useless test, but not a very prescient exam either. Knowledge, as I noted earlier, requires application and purpose to advance a society. Knowing the periodic table of the elements is good; knowing how to create new compounds with the elements is better. Americans enjoy creating and other countries, such as Japan, take pride in improvement. In fact, the Japanese apply the word ''kaizen,’' meaning ''improvement’’ to ensure quality control of products such as cars and televisions. It is a concept GM and Zenith should have emulated years ago.

The true value of the TIMSS test is not discerned easily because the comprehension and application of knowledge, paradoxically, are not always mutually inclusive. American students may not be willing to spend the time necessary to do as well as they should on standardized tests, but they do seem to accomplish much in the world of science and math. Could it be that American teachers know how to both grow a seed and cultivate a plant?

The critics are right that American students lag behind other countries when viewed through the myopic lens of the TIMSS tests, but what about actual science and math results? How do our students compare to that of other nations regarding the application of math and science knowledge?

Two prestigious awards that recognize outstanding achievement in science and math-the Nobel Prize and the Einstein Awards- consistently recognize the creativity of American students. The Nobel Prize in science and math (economics) has been awarded to Americans almost 300 times since its inception in 1901. No other country comes close to this record number of math and science Nobel laureates. Critics infected with the contagion of pessimism retort “that was then, this is now.” Americans have been awarded this distinguished honor 67 times in the last decade; again, no other country comes close to this number. The Albert Einstein World Award of Science was created in 1984 as a means of recognition, and as an incentive to scientific and technological research and development. It takes into special consideration “those researches, which have brought true benefit and well being to mankind.” Although only in existence twenty-five years, Americans have been awarded this prize eleven times. Japan, China, and Finland-the countries that excel on the TIMSS tests- have not earned a single award.

What does this all mean? Simply stated, the labor of America’s teachers appears to bear plenty of fruit. The many seminal ideas and inventions that better our world are set in motion in classrooms throughout our country, and teachers should be proud of their work. America’s teachers understand the relationship between content knowledge and how to apply such knowledge. That is the strength of our flawed but rich system of education.

A block of wood, a piece of metal, and a small spring stand alone until a child sees some useful purpose.

Let us all hope and pray that American children will continue to build a better mousetrap.

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.