by: Dr. Rob R. Moore
We have heard it before: The average Japanese student is doing as well in mathematics as the best US students. In test after test, the top 5% of US math students are matched by the top 50% of their Japanese counterparts.
Why should that be so? Surely US students compare well with Japanese learners in terms of intelligence, and potential.
Well, we know that schools stay open longer in Japan, an average two hours per day longer, than in the US. It has also been pointed out that in order to promote proper attention to classroom lessons each Japanese classroom period is followed by a recess aimed at allowing excess youthful energy to be discharged. Sadly, this is at a time when many US schools are being forced to abolish recesses altogether because of the threat of violence recesses pose.
Until recently, the one area in which US students continued to outperform their Japanese counterparts was that of creativity. That is, in tests measuring the ability of students to innovate, US learners seemed to be able to consistently rank higher than Japanese learners in their ability to formulate a number of solutions to any given problem.
However, beginning roughly in 2004, Japanese schools introduced a system of creativity training that seems to be opening doors for Japanese students. Today, Japanese students' performance on creativity evaluation instruments is at least as good as that of American students.
Surprisingly, the creativity training system being referred to here was developed by an American University (MIT), and is available to every American school and family. However, the system has not been utilized as in the US as hoped. The name of this magic system is Lego Mindstorms.
Dr. M. Csikszemtmihalyi, in his work entitled Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, emphasized the importance of providing a sense of freedom, a sense of educational flow to students if we wish them to be creative in mind and spirit.
Mindstorms provides unlimited opportunities for all students to practice free flow thinking as they create mechanical systems of various kinds. However, it is only the Japanese who have fully internalized this message.
Creative flow is, unfortunately, the one environmental element that formal accredited US school programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, find difficult to promote. This is no one individual's fault really. It is rather a logical result of an emphasis on strict adherence to administratively approved programs geared to satisfy state mandates, and the effect these programs have on creative flow, especially when accompanied by the bells and buzzers that John Dewey introduced into American education after his exposure to successful Prussian military training camps at the turn of the last century. See: http://www.sntp.net/education/school_state_3.htm
Lego Mindstorms creativity programs have, of course, been attempted in American schools, and occasionally one such program can still be found. Unfortunately though, Lego creativity programs have run into obstacles on American campuses as students, in the competitive atmosphere created by the reigning system, aggressively compete for Lego resources, sometimes resulting in violence. When this occurs, the subsequent threat of litigation posed by parents quickly forces school authorities to retreat from free flow programs toward fully restrictive, "in your seat" offerings. This situation then exacerbates the lack of "flow" necessary for promoting creativity among learners.
However, all is not lost.
Many parent groups are attempting to encourage public school districts throughout the United States to look closely at their delivery systems.
In addition, motivational scholarships are being offered by entities such as ToysPeriod in the form of Mindstorms scholarships to encourage free flow creativity in the schools.
Further, there are school models that continue to serve as models for how free flow can work in the US.
For example, Waldorf Schools present materials to students as they, the learners, are ready for them. The Waldorf system looks to each student and responds to each student's academic and physical need as it occurs. In other words, Waldorf never imposes subject matter on segmented age groups as if students were all the same. Waldorf's student-first philosophy then goes a long way toward motivating a student body to enjoy learning, and therefore to fully benefit from Lego Mindstorms offerings. In the online school community, Linda Christas Academy has promoted a similar philosophy.
A warning blast, however, has shaken California Waldorf Schools recently. As Waldorf begins to accept state money, the State educational bureaucracy is looking with some disfavor on the individualized educational concept for which Waldorf stands. Only time will tell if Waldorf is able to maintain its integrity in the face of such state challenges.
From the Lego Mindstorms perspective, beginning with the individual student and his or her learning needs is not rocket science, although with Mindstorms rockets are a definite option.
About The Author
Dr. Rob - Toy Tech writes for "Ask Toy Tech" - the ToysPeriod blog. ToysPeriod is a premier online vendor of classic Lego set toys and model trains. Dr. Rob also writes for ivi.tv.
Dr. Moore is the holder of two PhD's, one in mathematics, the other in physics.